Man’s quest for Steelers’ autographs ends

By Kevin Gorman

Pittsburgh-Tribune Review

PITTSBURGH — The signatures are special to Merrill Shaffer, for they belong to the Super Steelers of the 1970s that served as his heroes.

The names are signed in gold on a black replica Steelers helmet, and just looking at them together reminds Shaffer of cherished childhood memories.

Only one thing was missing.

Since Jack Ham first signed the helmet in 1994, Shaffer had filled it with autographs from coach Chuck Noll and every Steeler who was a member of the franchise’s first four Super Bowl championship teams — except for one player.

Loren Toews, a former linebacker who now lives in San Jose, Calif., was the lone exception. Without Toews, Shaffer wondered whether he’d ever finish what began as a personal project but soon evolved into a maniacal mission.

“I think a lot of people would think it would be the opposite, that it would be one of the superstars that would be inaccessible,” said Shaffer, 47, a Lancaster County probation officer who lives in Palmyra, near Hershey. “Actually, they are accessible. But Loren wanted to main his privacy.”

With the helmet nearly complete by 2000, Shaffer wrote a letter to Toews. Two years later, he received a response on official letterhead, with an apology and an autograph.

“He wrote that they don’t travel to the East Coast anymore but wished us the best of luck,” Shaffer said. “On a black piece of construction paper he had signed his name — with a gold ribbon, so if we never got his signature on the helmet that at least we had it.”

That became little consolation to Shaffer, who had spent almost as many years seeking out Steelers to autograph his helmet as they did chasing One for the Thumb.

This is the story of one man’s quixotic quest to collect the autographs of his heroes.

“I’m not sure why I wanted to limit it to the 22 players and Chuck Noll that won all four of those rings, but it was pretty special,” Shaffer said. “I’d be hard-pressed to think of dynasty teams that had that many players who stayed on one team for that long.”

At first, it was easy. After retiring, many Steelers signed at card shows to celebrate the 25th anniversaries of the Immaculate Reception and then Super Bowl IX.

That’s where Shaffer found Ham — whose name is the shortest but autograph the biggest on the helmet — and fellow Hall of Famers like Mel Blount, Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann and Mike Webster.

Getting Terry Bradshaw was another story. Shaffer’s mother, Rose Walter, was visiting Dallas and offered to take the helmet with her. She addressed a letter for Bradshaw in black ink but left the town name blank. Upon arrival, Walter went to the post office, confirmed the name of Bradshaw’s hometown but wrote it in blue ink.

That caught the eye of Bradshaw’s secretary, who read the letter and informed Walter he would be at his office that day if she wanted to stop by with the helmet. Bradshaw’s signature and No. 12 are prominent on the front.

When Franco Harris appeared at a farm show in Harrisburg, a broker friend surprised Shaffer by bringing Harris to their wholesale warehouse to sign the helmet.

Nothing, however, compared to Noll’s attempt to autograph it. Shaffer used the same gold-paint marker, but shook it too much before handing it to the late coach. As soon as Noll touched the marker to the helmet, it exploded and ink went everywhere.

“Thank God it wasn’t near any other signatures. It was terrible. The look on his face, I’ll never forget it. He looked so sorry,” Shaffer said. “The first thing he did was pick up a rag and tried to wipe the ink off. Instead, he smeared it. My wife, Karen, painstakingly flaked every ounce of paint off. You can’t even tell that it ever happened.”

What worried Shaffer was that a Steelers player would die before he got their signature. He was heartbroken in the late 1990s, when an associate mistakenly informed him Steve Furness died — only to run into the defensive tackle at a Steelers reunion a year before his death in February 2000. Since then, Webster, Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood and Noll have passed away.

Shaffer was fortunate to find guard Sam Davis, now 73 and in a wheelchair, at an autograph signing in Monroeville.

“When I saw him, I was like, ‘My god, that’s one I need,’ “ Shaffer said. “He was shaky. His signature is not the best, but it’s there.”

By 2000, Shaffer had signatures of 21 of the 22 Steelers who were on the first four Super Bowl teams.

Only Toews was missing.

So, you can only imagine Shaffer’s resignation when the Steelers honored the 40th anniversary of their first Super Bowl champions a few years ago, and he spotted No. 51 standing there at Heinz Field.

“I have checked nonstop for 17 years for anything Steelers-related that he could be at, and that was the only thing he appeared at,” Shaffer said. “My wife said, ‘If you can get someone from the Steelers to hold him there, I’ll drive there right now!’ “

At Easter, Shaffer mentioned his missing autograph to his cousin, Brian Walter, an engineer at General Electric in Erie. When Shaffer mentioned where Toews lived, Walter responded his family was going to San Francisco in June and he would be happy to take the helmet to have Toews sign it.

“I almost had tears in my eyes. I couldn’t believe this was coming to an end,” Shaffer said, “that we were going to complete this.”

Walter and his family were thrilled to become part of the helmet’s journey and met with Toews and his wife, Valerie, on June 20 at their family’s real-estate office. Toews took his time, practicing his autograph in the air, before signing it below Lambert’s name.

When Walter texted a photo, Shaffer was overjoyed. Most of all, he felt a sense of satisfaction.

In the collectibles world, Shaffer’s Steelers helmet is considered a rarity because fans tend to get the autographs of the Steel Curtain or Steelers in the Hall of Fame.

“If I put it out in my store, I’d probably put a price of $1,500 on it and take offers from there,” said Dan Means, owner of Sports World Specialties on Smithfield Street, Downtown.

Joel Parknavy of Steel City Collectibles in McKeesport estimates Shaffer’s helmet could fetch twice as much, perhaps more if it went to auction.

“That’s impressive. I don’t see how many people pull it off. It’s hard to do,” Parknavy said. “The guys from the ’70s now are up in age. It’s not likely they’re going to be out and about. Good for him for not giving up on that.”

For now, Shaffer has no intention of selling the helmet. He is open to the idea of loaning it to the Steelers, if they would be interested, to display at Heinz Field or the Heinz History Center.

“I can’t imagine wanting to part with it,” Shaffer said. “I guess everybody has their price at some point — I don’t know what that would be — but it’s more than monetary value to me. No. 1, the players that are on that helmet and coach that signed it, that means a lot to me. There’s a lot of happy memories, just looking at it. I like to be able to have something like that to remember them by. No. 2, I almost feel like I’d be betraying the people that helped me along the way.

“I don’t think it’s the most valuable piece of Steeler memorabilia, and I would never proclaim that to be the case. I don’t know if it’s one of a kind, but being that it’s that specific to those 22 players … it’s a unique piece of history.”

One that was completed with a signature moment for the Super Steelers.

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