By Andrew Malkasian
This afternoon President Biden became the first sitting president to formally recognize the Armenian genocide. The United States Senate and the House of Representative recognized the genocide in 2019, over a century after 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by the Ottoman Empire. Today’s recognition is unique, important, and personal.
For those who aren’t aware of the derivation of my last name, I am of Armenian descent. My great-grandfather immigrated to Rhode Island in 1913 to escape the increasing hostilities against Armenians throughout the Anatolian Peninsula. Two years later, in May of 1915, his entire family was slaughtered in the defense of their home city of Van, located in present day eastern Turkey. Since studying the genocide extensively in college I’ve attempted to do as much research as one can possibly do without knowing the language or traveling to unfriendly territory. Much of the information I do know was passed down by family members with indirect knowledge. Thankfully, the efforts to tell these stories, to gather more information, and to fight against false narratives is as persistent now as it has ever been.
As it was for my family, Rhode Island, as well as much of New England, became a safe haven for the larger Armenian diaspora in the aftermath of World War I. The population of Armenians in New England remains incredibly high and ranks second only behind Los Angeles as the highest concentration of Armenians outside of Armenia itself. As the genocide is formally recognized, I think it’s important to identify Armenians whose family history is marked with trauma but whose legacy far exceeds the nature of their familial history.
Steve Furness, whose maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Ottoman Empire, was a standout athlete in the State of Rhode Island as well as the University of Rhode Island where he captured the attention of Hall of Fame Steelers Scout Bill Nunn. Consequently, Furness was drafted in the 7th round of the 1972 draft – the same draft in which the Steelers selected Franco Harris. Although not a “polished player” as Dan Rooney remembered, “[but] he really worked hard and became a guy you could count on.”
While he may not be a name many Steelers fans remember, Furness was a stalwart backup on the Steel Curtain earning four time super bowl rings along the way. In his 9 seasons with the black and gold, Furness was known for his toughness and his ability to do whatever it took for the team. Chuck Noll praised his efforts saying, “He was very much into doing whatever you asked him to do, And he did it very well – hard. He was great for us.”
To that point, in Super Bowl X he replaced an injured Mean Joe Greene and recorded 5 solo tackles and 1 sack of Roger Staubach as the Steelers secured their second straight championship. Again, in Super Bowl XIII, Furness started in place of Greene and record 2 solo tackles and 1 sack in a second championship victory over the Cowboys. At the conclusion of his time with the Steelers, he had played in four Super Bowls and recorded 32 career sacks including 8.5 in 1977 alone. Despite sacks not becoming an official NFL statistic until 1982, two years after his retirement, his efforts unofficially place him 15th overall in franchise history for sacks just below Clark Haggans and just above Chad Brown. Not bad for a backup.
In the immediate years after his retirement he served a defensive coach for multiple teams including the Pittsburgh Steelers as part of Bill Cowher’s initial coaching staff. In 2000, at the age of 49, Furness died of a sudden heart attack. His death was the first among the 22 Steelers players who had won 4 champions together. his death signaled a certain passage of time, but so does President Biden’s announcement today. Armenians, like Mr. Furness, have played pivotal roles in American government, politics, science, and every other field of American life. It’s high time for our beloved country to recognize the massacres as genocide and for all of us to celebrate the legacy of Armenian’s beyond the tragedies of 1915.