“I feel the pain of everyone. And then I feel nothing.”
- Dinosaur Jr., “Feel The Pain”
I didn’t write much about the Steelers this season, though there was plenty to write about. And I certainly haven’t written anything since the Super Bowl.
Your favorite team losing the Super Bowl … it’s a strange feeling. It took me a few days to get over it. Different moments played back in my mind. The penalties. The turnovers. So many what-ifs.
But what-ifs are just that. Sports fans grow old with their what-ifs. They hold onto them for their entire lives.
“What if he caught that ball?”
“What if he makes that tackle?”
This line of thinking quickly gets you to the “if only” stage. “If only he would have caught that ball … we probably would have won.”
But in the end, the what-ifs and if-onlys only matter in our minds. The record books will read Green Bay 31 – Pittsburgh 25. And yes, I winced a bit when I wrote that.
That being said, right after the Super Bowl … I was OK. I was almost too OK for someone whose team just lost the Super Bowl. The Steelers had a great year. They were beaten by a better team, or at least, a team that was better on that final day. I don’t subscribe to the view of many NFL fans — that fans of 31 teams have virtually no reason to feel good about the season. After everything the Steelers went through this past season … if you tell me they have one last drive to win the Super Bowl, in the last two minutes? Again? Somehow? With that O-line? I take it every time.
Yeah, I was OK. But not great. Far from it. I didn’t get much sleep that night. I kept thinking about all the mistakes. The missed 52-yard field goal. The interception for a TD. Keyaron Fox’s asinine penalty. And most of all, Mendenhall’s fumble. The momentum had turned at that point. The Steeler running game was starting to look unstoppable. The Steeler fans in the crowd started to believe. You could hear the “Here We Go” chant fill Jerry Jones Stadium. And then…
So why wasn’t I depressed for weeks, or longer? Two main factors, as best as I can tell, and both are fairly obvious.
1. A recent championship.
Bill Simmons writes about a five-year “grace period” after your team wins a championship. No complaining. I don’t know if there’s an actual time limit for it, but that period does exist. It’s probably different for everyone. As a fan, you know the players should want to win it all every year. But you also know that’s not a realistic expectation. And it’s a bit greedy. (Yankee fans cannot comprehend these last two sentences.)
The Steelers have won two Super Bowls in the past six years. Throw in all the Roethlisberger stuff, and no one other than Steeler fans wanted to see them win a third in that time frame. (And you know what? That was fine with us.)
Same reason why the Penguins’ exit to Montreal wasn’t nearly as painful as it should have been. If we did feel like crying, we still had the Stanley Cup waiting to collect our tears.
I don’t, however, think this extends to other sports teams in the same city. Non-Pittsburgh fans tell me the Pirates are our penance for all the winning. I disagree. Because as things stand now, the Pirates have no chance to compete for a championship. Every baseball season is a guaranteed L. The Steelers and the Pens could both have poor years, and the Pirates would not be lifting our spirits. Call me greedy, but I just want the Bucs to have a fighting chance.
And what about the people who are just Pirate fans, or the folks who are Pirate fans above all? Whither fellow one-time Beaver County Times sports correspondent, Doc Emrick?
Again, obvious. As you get older, it’s not necessarily that you care about sports less … it’s that you start to care (and worry) about other things more. Family. Career. House. Money. Et cetera. My nonna always said she never understood why people cared so much about their favorite teams. After all, “They don’t care about you.”
Maybe this is an Italian thing. Chazz Palminteri’s character said the same thing about Mickey Mantle in “A Bronx Tale.”
All right, here’s one more…
It’s human nature. If you don’t expect much, you’re happier with each extra game. If you expect the world, you can end up fearing defeat more than you’re anticipating victory.
Even though Pats fans were spoiled from three recent championships, those titles couldn’t have been much consolation after the Super Bowl loss against the Giants.
I’m one of those people who believes that sports fans connect with each other — and their teams — more through losing than through winning. Anyone can support a winner. The pain binds us. And after all, losing allows you to play the what-if game. Conversations about winning teams often turn into:
“That was awesome, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, they were a great team.”
It’s easy for me to say, of course, because my teams have won titles. I live in Buffalo, and trust me, these folks don’t want to hear that. And why would they? Buffalo fans don’t want to hear about my pain. They’ve got more than enough of their own. They treat me like I’m some young, bright-eyed man who fancies himself a real blues singer. And I just walked into the oldest, smokiest, bluesiest club in town.
“The blues? What do you know about the blues?”
But I will press on. The following are my most painful moments as a sports fan — one for each Pittsburgh sports team. These are dictated by my own personal feelings. Yours might differ drastically. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh fans … prepare for heartbreak.
The Steeler list would be the longest. Not because I care about the Steelers so much more than the other teams — it’s just the nature of football. There are relatively few games, so the moments always feel that much more important. This is especially true with the Steelers, who, despite their success, often seem incapable of winning (or losing) a game handily.
Non-playoff moments are immediately out. Neil O’Donnell’s second interception in Super Bowl XXX would be a great candidate, but I was 13 years old at the time, and my memories of that game are a bit hazy. Thankfully.
That leaves us with a number of brutal playoff losses, most of them home AFC championship games. The one that hit me hardest — and I think this will be a popular choice among Steeler fans — is the 2001-02 loss to the Patriots.
Unlike the 2004-05 loss to the Pats, I felt like the Steelers were the superior team in ’01-’02. The Pats took an early lead on a Troy Brown punt return TD. Drew Bledsoe then took over for an injured Tom Brady, and promptly threw a TD. It was 14-3 at the half and we had to listen to Sheryl Crow sing “Soak Up The Sun” live. Nobody was in the mood for that.
Especially me. I was watching the game with my girlfriend at the time, who was from Massachusetts. That wasn’t the issue, though. She claimed to be a Patriots fan, but she wasn’t really. As I watched the first half in horror, it became clear that she’d rather see the Steelers win, because it was causing me such grief. Most people — myself included — thought that it would be the Steelers and the Rams.
Still in a state of disbelief, I slowly began to pull out of it. The Steelers were setting up for a gimme field goal, which would at least cut the deficit to one score.
Kris Brown’s field goal attempt was blocked. It was recovered by Troy Brown — who else? — who lateraled to some guy (Antwan Harris), who ran it back for a touchdown. 21-3. If I was still in the state of denial as the ball was snapped, I went through the rest of the grief stages in the time it took to score that touchdown. The internet has spared me … I can’t find a video clip.
It was over. On a blocked field goal return, of all things. The second spectacular special teams failure in the game. (The Pats only scored one offensive touchdown in the game, a 24-17 final.) There was of course, a comeback, because these are the Steelers. But the inevitable Kordell Stewart interceptions notwithstanding, the blocked field goal was the true killer. And a lesson. Nothing is guaranteed. Especially in the NFL.
Duh. Francisco Cabrera. Sid Bream. I was 10 years old. And I haven’t seen a Pirate playoff game since.
Sid Bream never gets any faster, does he? If Bonds’ throw is accurate, he’s out by 10 feet.
But as bad as that was, the moment is much worse in hindsight because of what’s happened to Pirate baseball since. We couldn’t have known then what would happen in the following decades.
It still doesn’t compare to my most painful moment of being a Pittsburgh sports fan.
A number of possibilities exist, from the David Volek OT goal to Tom Fitzgerald’s slapshot from Polish Hill. (That Eastern Conference Finals against the Panthers will probably always be the most frustrating series to me. What if the Panthers weren’t allowed to hold onto Lemieux and Jagr for seven straight games? Someone needs to make a “History Will Be Made” parody for that.) But nothing compares to…
It was the 1998-99 season. The Penguins were bankrupt. Relocation rumors were swirling. The future of the team in Pittsburgh was completely uncertain. There was a chance the playoff run was only delaying the inevitable.
The run wasn’t long, but it was memorable. The Pens were the eighth seed. Not a great squad, but they had the league MVP, and the world’s best player. Jaromir Jagr put the team on his back and the Pens defeated top-seeded New Jersey in seven games. This series is exhibit A when someone tries to tell you Jagr’s not a winner, or that he’s not clutch. His heroics in game six of that series — tying the game late, then winning it in overtime — are legendary.
Jags and the boys chugged along admirably, until they found themselves in an elimination game. Game six, at home against the Leafs. Enter former nondescript Penguin Garry Valk.
Valk’s OT goal to eliminate the Pens in the 1998-99 Eastern Conference Semifinals was the goal that really could have ended a franchise. It could have been the last on-ice moment in Penguins history. No other loss could top the feeling of what could have been the last loss. Ever. I felt like crying, but I couldn’t. I was just numb. Completely numb.
I have an excellent memory. But somehow, I’d completely forgotten what Valk’s goal looked like. I haven’t watched a replay in years. But this is all about embracing the pain. I know what I’ve got to do.
I don’t know how hundreds of Pittsburghers weren’t arrested for pummeling the Leaf fans that night. They either exhibited an amazing amount of self-control, or they were just as numb as I was.
When it comes to sports, the worst losses make the great wins feel even better. It’s true. To my Buffalo friends, I know that sounds like something people say to make you feel better. But for now, you’re just going to have trust me on this one.