A tough competitor, Bradshaw had a powerful arm and called his own plays throughout his football career. His physical skills and on-the-field leadership played a major role in the Pittsburgh Steelers' history. During his career, he passed for more than 300 yards in a game only seven times, but three of those performances came in the postseason, and two of those in Super Bowls. In four career Super Bowl appearances, he passed for 932 yards and 9 touchdowns, both Super Bowl records at the time of his retirement. In 19 post-season games, he completed 261 passes for 3,833 yards.
The work ethic was particularly strong in the Bradshaw household. Bradshaw spent his early childhood in Camanche, Iowa, where he set forth the goal to play professional football. Terry's child hood best friend was Darry Duncan. When he was a teenager, Bradshaw said returned with his family, including his two brothers, Gary and Craig Bradshaw, to Shreveport, where he attended Woodlawn High School and played under assistant coach A. L. Williams and led the Knights to the 1965 AAA High School Championship game. His team then lost to the Sulphur Golden Tornadoes 12–9. While at Woodlawn, he set a national record for throwing the javelin 245 feet (74.68 m). His exploits earned him a spot in the Sports Illustrated feature Faces In The Crowd. Bradshaw's successor as Woodlawn's starting quarterback was another future NFL standout, Joe Ferguson of the Buffalo Bills. Bradshaw's Steelers would defeat Ferguson's Bills in a 1974 divisional playoff game.
In 1969 he was considered by most professional scouts to be the most outstanding college football player in the nation. As a junior, he amassed 2,890 total yards, ranking No. 1 in the NCAA, and led his team to a 9–2 record and a 33–13 win over Akron in the Rice Bowl. In his senior season, he gained 2,314 yards, ranking third in the NCAA, and led his team to an 8–2 record. His decrease in production was mainly because his team played only 10 games that year, and he was taken out of several games in the second half because his team had built up a huge lead.
In the 1970 NFL Draft Bradshaw was the first overall player selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers drew the first pick in the draft after winning a coin fliptiebreaker with the Chicago Bears due to both teams having identical 1–13 records in 1969. In either case, Bradshaw was hailed at the time as the consensus No. 1 pick.
Bradshaw became a starter in his second season after splitting time with Terry Hanratty in his rookie campaign. During his first few seasons, the 6'3", 215-pound quarterback was erratic, threw many interceptions (he threw 210 interceptions over the course of his career) and was widely ridiculed by the media for his rural roots and perceived lack of intelligence.
It took Bradshaw several seasons to adjust to the NFL, but he eventually led the Pittsburgh Steelers to eight AFC Central championships and four Super Bowl titles. The Pittsburgh Steelers featured the "Steel Curtain" defense and a powerful running attack led by Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, but Bradshaw's strong arm gave them the threat of the deep pass, helping to loosen opposing defenses. In 1972, he threw the "Immaculate Reception" pass to Franco Harris to beat the Raiders in the AFC Divisional playoffs, which is among the most famous plays in NFL history.
Bradshaw temporarily lost the starting job to Joe Gilliam in 1974, but he took over again during the regular season. In the 1974 AFC Championship Game against the Oakland Raiders, his fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Lynn Swann proved to be the winning score in a 24–13 victory. In the Steelers' 16–6 Super Bowl IX victory over the Minnesota Vikings that followed, Bradshaw completed 9 of 14 passes and his fourth-quarter touchdown pass put the game out of reach and helped take the Steelers to their first Super Bowl victory.
In Super Bowl X following the 1975 season, Bradshaw threw for 209 yards, most of them to Lynn Swann, as the Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys, 21–17. His 64-yard touchdown pass to Swann (that traveled roughly 70 yards in the air)—which was released a split-second before defensive tackle Larry Cole flattened him causing a serious concussion—late in the fourth quarter is considered one of the greatest passes in NFL history.
Neck and wrist injuries in 1976 forced Bradshaw to miss four games. He was sharp in a 40–14 victory over the Baltimore Colts, completing 14 of 18 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns, but the Steelers' hopes of a three-peat ended when both of their 1,000-yard rushers (Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier) were injured in the win over the Colts, and the Steelers subsequently lost to the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship game, 24-7. Jack Lambert asserted that that 1976 Steelers team was the best team that he ever played on, including the 4 Super Bowl teams of which he was a part of.
Bradshaw had his finest season in 1978 when he was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player by the Associated Press after a season in which he completed 207 of 368 passes for 2,915 yards and a league-leading 28 touchdown passes. He was also named All-Pro and All-AFC that year, despite throwing 20 interceptions.
Before Super Bowl XIII, a Steelers-Cowboys rematch, Cowboys linebackerThomas "Hollywood" Henderson famously ridiculed Bradshaw by saying, "He couldn't spell 'Cat' if you spotted him the 'c' and the 'a'." Bradshaw got his revenge by winning the Most Valuable Player award, completing 17 of 30 passes for a then-record 318 yards and four touchdowns in a 35–31 win. Bradshaw has in later years made light of the ridicule with quips such as "it's football, not rocket science."
Bradshaw won his second straight Super Bowl MVP in 1979 in Super Bowl XIV. He passed for 309 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 31–19 win over the Los Angeles Rams. Yet the game was far closer and more interesting than the final score suggests. Early in the 4th quarter, with Pittsburgh down 19–17, Terry would again turn to the long pass to help engineer a victory: a spectacular 73-yard touchdown to John Stallworth. Mr. Bradshaw would share the Sports Illustrated magazine's "Sportsmen of the Year" award with Willie Stargell that season.
After two seasons of missing the playoffs, Bradshaw played through pain—he needed a cortisone shot before every game because of an elbow injury sustained during training camp—in a strike-shortened 1982 NFL season. He still managed to tie for the most touchdown passes in the league with 17. In a 31–28 playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers, Bradshaw's last postseason game, he completed 28-of-39 passes for 325 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
After undergoing off-season elbow surgery, Bradshaw was idle for the first 14 games of the 1983 NFL season. Then on December 10, 1983, against the New York Jets, he felt a pop in his elbow while throwing his final pass, a 10-yard touchdown to Calvin Sweeney in the second quarter of the Steelers' 34–7 win. Bradshaw later left the game and never played again. The two touchdowns Bradshaw threw in what would be the final NFL game played at Shea Stadium (and the last NFL game in New York City to date) allowed him to finish his career with two more touchdowns (212) than interceptions (210) for his career.
In 2006, despite the Steelers being one of the teams playing in the game, Bradshaw did not attend a pregame celebration for past Super Bowl MVP's during Super Bowl XL in Detroit, Michigan. According to reports, Bradshaw (along with three time MVP and close friend Joe Montana) requested a $100,000 guarantee for his appearance in the Super Bowl MVP Parade, and associated appearances. The NFL could not guarantee that they would make that much and refused. A representative for Bradshaw has since denied this report. After an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (February 6, 2006) Bradshaw stated that the reason why he did not attend the MVP parade was that he was spending time with family, that he hates the crowds and the Super Bowl media circus, and also that the only way he would attend a Super Bowl is when Fox is broadcasting the game (it was ABC who broadcast Super Bowl XL), though Bradshaw attended several press conferences in Detroit days earlier. Bradshaw also stated that money was not an issue.
In April 2006, Bradshaw donated his four Super Bowl rings, College Football Hall of Fame ring, Pro Football Hall of Fame ring, Hall of Fame bust, four miniature replica Super Bowl trophies, and a helmet and jersey from one of his Super Bowl victories to his alma mater, Louisiana Tech.
Bradshaw retired from football on July 24, 1984, and quickly signed a television contract with CBS to become an NFL game analyst in 1984, where he and play-by-play announcer Verne Lundquist had the top rated programs. Prior to his full-time work for them, he served as a guest commentator for CBS Sports' NFC postseason broadcasts from 1980–82.
Bradshaw has the reputation of being the "ol' redneck," but, in co-host and former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson's words, the act is a "schtick." According to Johnson, Bradshaw deflects such criticism by stating that "he's so dumb that he has to have somebody else fly his private plane."
During the early part of his career with the Steelers, Bradshaw was a used car salesman during the off-season to supplement his income, as this was still during the days when most NFL players didn't make enough money to focus solely on football.
Bradshaw has also written or co-written five books and recorded six albums of country/western and gospel music. His cover of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" hit Top 20 on Billboard's country chart (and No. 91 on the Hot 100) in 1976; two other tunes ("The Last Word In Lonesome Is Me" and "Until You") also made the country charts.
Among U.S. consumers, Bradshaw remains one of pro football's most popular retired players. As of September 2007, Bradshaw was the top-ranked former pro football player in the Davie-Brown Index (DBI), which surveys consumers to determine a celebrity's appeal and trust levels.
Bradshaw has been married four times. He was first married to Melissa Babish (Miss Teenage America, 1969) from 1972 to 1973; to ice skater JoJo Starbuck from 1976 to 1983; and to prominent family attorney Charla Hopkins, who is the mother of his two daughters, Rachel and Erin, from 1983 to 1999. His daughter Erin shows champion paint and quarter horses and is a graduate of the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. His daughter Rachel is a graduate of Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and appeared on Nashville, a reality show about musicians trying to make it in Nashville, and is the widow of former Tennessee Titans kicker Rob Bironas. The first three of Bradshaw's marriages have all ended in divorce, a subject he ridicules frequently on his NFL pre-game show. Bradshaw was married for the fourth time, on July 8, 2014, to Tammy, his girlfriend of fifteen years.
After his NFL career ended, Bradshaw disclosed that he had frequently experienced anxiety attacks after games. The problem worsened in the late 1990s after his third divorce, when he said he "could not bounce back" as he had after the previous divorces or after a bad game. In addition to anxiety attacks, his symptoms included weight loss, frequent crying, and sleeplessness. He was diagnosed with clinical depression. Since then he has taken Paxil regularly. He chose to speak out about his depression to overcome the stigma associated with it and to urge others to seek help.
Bradshaw's anxieties about appearing in public, away from the controlled environment of a television studio, led to an unintentional estrangement from the Steelers. When team founder and owner Art Rooney died in 1988, Bradshaw did not attend his funeral. A year later, during his Hall of Fame induction speech, Bradshaw made a point of saluting his late boss and friend, pointing to the sky and saying, "Art Rooney ... boy, I tell you, I loved that man."
Still, Bradshaw never returned to Three Rivers Stadium for a Steelers game. When the last regular-season game was played there on December 16, 2000, Bradshaw was with the Fox NFL Sunday crew, doing their pre-game show aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, while Fox covered the game live. Bradshaw expressed regret that he could not be there, but would later say privately that he did not feel he could face the crowds. It would not be until September 2002, when fellow Hall of Fame teammate and longtime friend Mike Webster died, that Bradshaw finally returned to Pittsburgh to attend his friend's funeral.
In October 2002, Bradshaw returned to the Steelers sideline for the first time in twenty years for a Monday nightgame between the Steelers and the Indianapolis Colts. In 2003, when the Steelers played the 1,000th game in franchise history, Fox covered the game at Heinz Field, and Bradshaw returned to cover the game. In addition to appearing to take his position on the Steelers All-Time Team in 2007 as part of the team's 75th anniversary festivities, he also was on the sideline for the 2007 home opener, where the Steelers earned their 500th regular season win.
Politically, Bradshaw is a long-time supporter of the Republican Party. In 2012, he went on record on Fox News as supporting the candidacy of Newt Gingrich for the Republican Presidential Nomination. In the same interview, he also labeled linebacker Terrell Suggs "an idiot" for making comments critical of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow's public remarks about his Christian faith, saying Suggs "better be careful; if I were him I'd be on my hands and knees tonight asking for forgiveness because that's totally unacceptable."
Bradshaw is now suffering from short-term memory loss and acute Alzheimer's Syndrome, which he attributes to his experiences as a pro football player.
Bradshaw appeared on Jeff Foxworthy's short-lived sitcom, The Jeff Foxworthy Show as a motivational speaker for people needing to change their lives. Bill Engvall's character is affected by Bradshaw's rantings about witchcraft and voodoo in his pre-game warm-ups.
In 2006, Bradshaw returned to the silver screen in the motion picture Failure to Launch. He and Kathy Bates played the parents of Matthew McConaughey's character. In one notable scene he appeared nude, a move which Jay Leno spent an entire segment mocking during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He mentioned on May 23, 2008, on The Tonight Show that he has been a guest 37 times, and that 34 of them were on a Friday, which happens to be the lowest watched night of television. He pleasantly joked with Jay about being a 'filler' guest. He made a similar reference in an appearance on March 15, 2010, stating he was asked to guest because of a cancellation. Jay stated that at least he was not appearing on Friday, which hosts the more well-known celebrity guests. As of December 28, 2012, Bradshaw has made 50 appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He is also a devout Christian and wrote the book Terry Bradshaw: Man of Steel with broadcaster Dave Diles. In 2009, he was featured in a New Yorker magazine piece that satirized the recent scandal over a fake Holocaust memoir written by Herman Rosenblat. Since 2010, Bradshaw has been hosting television shows produced by United States Media Television.
He is currently filming a supporting role in the comedy film Bastards.