Friday, February 10, 2006

A city united: in Pitt for Super Bowl XL

Here's the Turret version of the story on Super Bowl weekend in Pittsburgh. I'm going to eventually expand it into something a lot longer and crazier -- designed for the online/blog readership, and not subject to the same, er, thematic restrictions present in print. For now, see what you think.


Turret staff writer

I left the Ohio River behind as I crossed the bridge out of Kentucky and into Cincinnati on Interstate 71, which took me past the Reds Stadium, across the Buckeye State's farmlands, and into Columbus.

From there, it was another two hours to Bridgeport on I-70, where I met the Ohio again, driving across the water from Wheeling, West Virginia.

I was traveling to Pittsburgh to watch the Super Bowl with my brother Zach, who's lived there since we were in college. When the Steelers miraculously fought their way through three playoff road games--the first sixth-seeded team ever to make it through a championship game--he called and told me that I'd better get up to Steel Town.

I didn't need much convincing. Eight weeks earlier, Zach had read me the headlines of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette over the phone. The paper, after a spate of losses, was asking in the headline, "Is the season over?" The Steelers had found themselves at 7-5, and playoffs hopes were dwindling.

They responded by running the table and beating the top three seeded teams in the AFC to earn the unexpected berth in Super Bowl XL.

Near Pittsburgh, the Ohio's banks aren't nearly as inviting as they are in Louisville--the husks of ancient steel mills muddy the sides of the river and old railway trestles span the water, giving the region its rather unappealing nickname: the Rust Belt. Even though a decade-worth of stricter environmental regulations has cut down on noxious emissions from the mills, the air takes on a distinctly metallic odor near Highway 7.

From 7, I headed across the Ohio River again via Route 22 east-bound and Steubenville's distinctive "Wishbone Bridge." I passed through Weirton, Hankey Farms, and into Pennsylvania, then down Interstate 279 to the Fort Pitt Tunnel, which opens onto the Fort Pitt Bridge and one of the most spectacular cityscapes I've ever seen--Three Rivers.

On the way into the city, the marquees which hung over the highway to advise travelers of traffic conditions had all been switched to read "GO STEELERS!!!" Steelers flags hung in the windows of restaurants, and bars had repainted their exteriors with team slogans like "In Ben we trust" and "One for the Thumb!"

We met at Zach's girlfriend's apartment across the street from the Mellon Arena. Once we'd said our hellos and exchanged hugs, Zach reached into his coat pocket.

"I picked this up for you," he said, handing me one of Myron Cope's official Terrible Towels. "I figured you could use it."

The three of us walked through biting wind down to Pittsburgh's Strip District, a collection of bars and parking areas that are normally packed during the nightclub scene. It was 11:30 Sunday morning, though, and we weren't out to dance or socialize. We needed seats at the Sports Rock, a sprawling two-level sports bar that catered to Pittsburgh's fans.

We thought we were there in plenty of time--but so did the other 300 fans standing in line outside the Rock. The Super Bowl wouldn't kick off for another seven hours, but the fans were already out in force.

All wore Steelers gear of some description, from leather jackets to Terrible Towel tube-tops. Black and gold team jerseys were most prevalent, however; in line, there were countless Roethlisbergers, Bettises, and Wards, a crowd of Polamalus, and even a Krieder or two.

Once we got inside it took a couple hours to find a place to sit, but we managed eventually to secure some good real estate in one of the Rock's side bars.

The hawkers we'd seen outside had moved indoors with the crowd, and one was trying to sell "Roethlis-burger" hats shaped like floppy cheeseburgers along with black-and-gold bead necklaces to the Steelers faithful. When he made his way over to me, he saw my camera and thought I might be able to get him some press. He told me his name was Bob, and that selling Steelers merchandise was a "fun, weekend thing" for him--a side project from his weekday job of manufacturing custom leather jackets for Las Vegas casinos and, he claimed, Jay Leno. He told me he had a couple in the works for several Steelers players.

A girl in a pink and white Steelers jersey asked me to take her picture. She said her name was Missy and that she was Terry Bradshaw's cousin.

Long before the game started, members of the throng, at random intervals, started a cheer of "Here we go, Steelers, here we go!" Everyone joined in.

Zach told me that even in the off-season it wasn't uncommon in Pittsburgh to hear this cheer while standing in line at the grocery store or while out to eat.

The disc jockey eventually started playing Steelers songs, including "Here We Go," and everyone sang along at the tops of their lungs.

By the time the game started, the crowd was whipped into near frenzy. Past Super Bowl most valuable players paraded onto the field, and at the sights of Tom Brady and Troy Aikman the bar erupted into bloodthirsty choruses of boos and hisses. On the other hand, Lynn Swann, the MVP of Super Bowl X as a Steelers wide receiver in 1976, elicited a frenzy of cheering.

The game commenced, and every play was an emotional rollercoaster ride. When Seattle surged ahead for the opening score with a field goal, a somber pall began to settle over the crowd. As Pittsburgh struggled into three consecutive three-and-outs, things looked even more grim. This wasn't the team we'd watched barrel through the playoffs on the strength of a second-year quarterback's suddenly flawless throwing arm. Big Ben was choking, and we couldn't believe it. Zach looked ashen.

It was the second quarter before we had any good news. Finally in the Seahawks' red zone, Jerome "The Bus" Bettis, a 13-year NFL veteran and toast of Steel Town, punched the ball up to the Seattle one-yard line. Roethlisberger kept the ball on a quarterback sneak for the next play and dived for the end zone. The Sports Rock erupted in screams of joy.

It only got louder. In the third quarter, Willie Parker busted through the Seattle defensive line for a 75-yard touchdown, the longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history. Pittsburgh led 14-3, and we were ecstatic.

A huge man who looked as if he could be a professional running back came hurtling out of nowhere and hoisted my brother up toward the ceiling with one arm, cheering wildly. He set Zach down and scooped me up, and we screamed at each other. Triumph was in sight.

When the game finally ended, the Steelers had emerged victorious 21-10, in one of the ugliest--but most emotional--games I can remember. We watched as coach Bill Cowher accepted the Vince Lombardi trophy from the NFL commissioner, and many held each other, cheering and crying, as Jerome Bettis, trophy hoisted high, declared that Detroit would be the last stop for the Bus. It was "One for the Thumb," Pittsburgh's fifth Super Bowl victory. The last one had been about two weeks before I was born.

Inside the Sports Rock and across the city of Pittsburgh, fans were cheering, weeping, and waving their Terrible Towels. Zach and I roared, embraced, and celebrated with the rest of them. Somewhere in the backs of our minds we knew that the game had been technically disappointing, but watching as the Steelers walked off Detroit's Ford Field as champions, we didn't care. Everyone was swept up in the joy of the win.

On the way back to Louisville the next day, I listened to sports radio talk show hosts bemoan the poor officiating and, especially as I neared Cincinnati, deride the Steelers--but none of that mattered.

As we walked back to Kristen's apartment through freezing wind and snow, we waved our towels at passing cars, which responded by honking their horns as passengers leaned out the windows, joyously proclaiming the victory. We were cold, exhausted, hoarse, and deliriously happy.

* * * * * * *

Monday morning, the game was turned over to the hands of the legion of sportscasters nationwide who proceeded to spear Super Bowl XL for lousy play, bad coaching, and worse officiating. Bengals fans were e-mailing the networks, saying that "the fix was in," and hosts were talking about the National Felony League.

I didn't care. When the controversy dies away, history will remember the 40th Super Bowl for Jerome Bettis walking into the sunset, for Willie Parker's amazing run, and for Bill Cowher giving the Lombardi trophy to Steelers owner Dan Rooney after 10 years of near-misses.

And nothing will ever take away the memory I'll have of being there, in Pittsburgh, when it happened--just one fan in the throng, swept up in the indescribable tide of joy and solidarity of the moment of victory with everyone who's ever loved the Steelers.


UPDATE: Open Post at Argghhh!
UPDATE: Open Post at Mudville!