Sunday, February 1, 2009

Pittsburgh Steelers - Tonight's The Night

When the Pittsburgh Steelers win tonight they will have won more Super Bowls than any other team.

The Steelers ride into their third American Football Conference championship game in five years tonight, their fourth in seven years, their sixth since 1994, and their 14th since the original cast of football icons led by Franco Harris himself mapped out a sporting empire in the 1970.
The line: Steelers by 6.
Series: Steelers lead, 17-10, including 1-0 in playoffs.
The skinny: Teams have met three times in the same season 18 times, with 11 sweeps. ...

The Ravens led the NFL with 34 takeaways. Ed Reed has 10 INTs in their past eight games. ... John Harbaugh (16) and Mike Tomlin (32) have 48 regular-season games between them as head coaches, fewest for conference title game coaches in the Super Bowl era since the Colts' Don McCafferty and the Raiders' John Madden had 42 between them in 1970.

Terry O'Neill takes the term "Steelers fanatic" to a whole new level. Some may remember his name from the last time the Steelers were in the Super Bowl. O'Neill is the guy who had a heart attack at Cupka's Bar on the south side when Jerome Bettis fumbled. A few years later, as the Steelers are approaching another big game, O'Neill said his friends are a little worried about him come Super Bowl Sunday. Terry O'Neill now has a pacemaker that still goes off occasionally on Steeler Sundays."This is how I'm introduced: 'Remember the guy who had the heart attack back when Jerome Bettis fumbled?'" O'Neill said. O'Neill's name is on T-shirts that say "Home of Heart Stopping Action." O'Neill went to the hospital after his heart stopped beating when Jerome Bettis fumbled on the goal line against the colts in the playoffs. Alive, O'Neill laughed a lot. "Another Pittsburgh guy, Andy Warhol, said we all get 15 minutes of fame, and here I am, talking to you after being dead," he says.

When did this game of games, this week where endlessly irritating television commercials used to trumpet the coming of Super Sundays with a chorus of trumpets and kettle drums worthy of the closing credits of "Britain at War" disappear into a world where the pregame words of the combatants sound like Elizabeth Barret Browning talking in her sleep?

A lot started with Myron Cope, for him, the Steelers were the best men. Myron passed away last year, but don't let that fool you. In both my mind's eye and hear I see him and hear him shouting from wherever the best of Pittsburgh calls heaven.
If that's a little confusing, then be aware that Myron spoke three languages: Pittsburgher, Cope-Speak and English -- definitely in that order. For 35 straight seasons, following a distinguished newspaper career, Myron was the Steelers' "man in the radio-TV booth." He was also Pittsburgh Nation's conscience, cheerleader and elder statesman. When it came to the Steelers, he was about as objective as a Florida real estate guy trying to sell you 32 acres of swampland.
A good catch in Cope-Speak was a "yoi." A great catch was a "double yoi." On the rarest of rare occasions, he even resorted to a "Triple Yoi." A Steelers first down was greeted with "Okel Dokel."
When Myron spoke, Pittsburgh listened. It had no choice. Picture the sound of the Last Empress of China dragging her elongated fingernails across the face of the world's largest blackboard. That was Myron's falsetto voice spreading the saga of the Steelers up and down across the air waves of Western Pennsylvania.
He knew his audience the way a father knows his children, and that bond led to the invention that lifted thousands and thousands of battered Pittsburgh emotions at a time when it was clear that the empty mills were never coming back. When the blue collar economy went straight down the old outhouse shaft, it was Myron Cope who rallied the Faithful.
He gave them The Terrible Towel.
The way Myron explained the birth of the Terrible Towel was like this:
"The general manager of my station wanted a gimmick, but I told him I wasn't a gimmick guy, and he said I better reconsider because my contract ran out in three weeks, so I told him 'I'm your gimmick guy.'
"I got on the air, and I told anyone and everyone within the sound of my voice (at Myron's decibel level, that meant from Three Rivers Stadium on up to Saturn) should bring a yellow towel to the game. If they didn't have one, they should buy one, and if they couldn't buy one, they should dye one."

The Terrible Towel was born. It is the most recognizable symbol in all of sports -- a yellow hand-held blizzard that could have distracted the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
If as you watch Sunday's game on television, one huge slice of the grandstand turns bright yellow, the sun has not fallen on Raymond James Stadium. An army of Terrible Towels has.
This will be the first time the Steelers of Pittsburgh try to win a Super Bowl without Myron Cope on this planet. But they best be warned. He's watching. He has always watched these Steelers with the same intensity that Pittsburgh always watched him. The older guys who retired from the front office will still tell you how amazed they were when Cope would check into the players' hotel surrounded by crowds of fans so large that security guards were needed in every city.
Not much has changed since then. Back in Cope's old hometown Sunday, the wind off the Allegheny River will rattle through downtown with all the subtlety of Harry Grebb's left hook. It will jar the teeth and cut through layers of clothing. This is the way it's supposed to be in the Western Pennsylvania weather, with God in his heaven, the calendar just dipping a single toe into February and the Steelers about to play football in the Super Bowl.
If Cope were here, he would frown on Florida's 70-degree weather but remind you it would be fine as long as his Steelers won. He would tell you that they had to win because back home there are generations of families that learned about Bill Dudley and Jock Sutherland and Bobby Layne and John Henry Johnson through the tribal elders. Now they tell their own children about Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swan and Franco Harris and Jack Ham.
And then he would remind all that he was the one who gave air time by the hour to the creation of Franco's Italian-American Army -- the Franco Harris fan club. He explained to the world -- or at least Pittsburgh, which was his world -- that Franco's Army was the brainchild of the brainchild of a pizza guy and a baker to honor the Steelers star who was of African-American and Italian-American ancestry.
This will be his kind of game with his kind of stakes and thousands who made the trip from Pittsburgh will wave their Terrible Towels the way Joshua's horn players zeroed in on Jericho.
Let the record show that two days after Myron's death, hundreds of people gathered in the teeth of a heavy snowstorm in front of City Hall in Pittsburgh. As one they saluted their fallen hero in the ceremony that featured one, whole, solid minute of silent Terrible Towel waving.

This is an athletic opulence few cities even aspire to with any practicality. The Arizona Cardinals, who play the Philadelphia Eagles in today's earlier National Football Conference title game, have not mounted such a grand stage since the Truman administration, or approximately two decades before anyone so much as thought of a Super Bowl.
And still modern Championship Sundays in Pittsburgh deliver a seismic coupling of pride and wariness, something realist short story master Alice Munro might call "a terrible amount of luxury and unease."
The Steelers lost both championship games in the short history of Heinz Field. They've lost the last three title games played in Pittsburgh and four of the last five. But because they took the hair-raisingly uncharted Cincinnati-Indianapolis-Denver route to Super Bowl XL just three years ago, and because a victory tonight against the Baltimore Ravens would put them in a seventh Super Bowl (more than anyone except the Dallas Cowboys), they retain the perpetual civic burden of capacious expectations.
"We're used to this in Pittsburgh," said Hines Ward, the dean of Pittsburgh's stars. "No disrespect to the Pirates or the Penguins, but the standard around here is the Super Bowl every year. That's just what's expected."
Expectations are only part of the Pittsburgh/Steelers equation. On the other side is identity, as there is likely no fan base so intense, so far flung, so proud of something even as often indefinable as Pittsburgh ethos. "More than any other sports franchise I can think of, there's a kind of work ethic about them, and I don't know if it's branding, because that gets oversimplified into black and gold or whatever, but it's something about the Steelers that is recognized in London, in Manchester; there's a Steelers bar in Leon, France."
Consequently, Pittsburghers, regional expatriates and converts the world over have an implied license to take this simple game hyper-seriously, regardless of the debatable global urgency of an event like tonight's. It's all predictably manic, if not a little bit comic.
"I've found what epitomizes Pittsburgh, what sums up what we're all about, and it's right there in the main terminal at the Pittsburgh airport," said Bill Crawford, the gifted young Pittsburgh comedian. "There are two huge statues there. One is of George Washington, and one is of Franco Harris. People from Pittsburgh pass them and think, 'Yeah, that's normal, let's get our flight,' or 'Yeah, that's totally all right, let's go to Brookstone.'
"But people from outside the city see that and think it's ridiculous. They're like, 'What? Wait, this guy's the father of our country, and this other guy caught a football off somebody's helmet 35 years ago.' You can hear the argument, right?
"Dude, he was the first president."
"Oh yeah? Well Franco was a first-round draft choice in 1972."
"But Washington beat the Redcoats."
"Hey, Franco beat the Raiders -- it's pretty well documented. It was Immaculate."
"C'mon; he was the leader of the Continental Army!"
"Franco had Franco's Italian Army, it was his army, so in my mind, Franco's up one."
Small wonder that our own view of world history, even as it's unfolding, often gets seen through a black-and-gold looking glass. On the front page of this newspaper, the morning of Dec. 29, an all-capital letters, five-column headline read, "BIG BEN DOWN, PROBABLY NOT OUT." The one-column head next to that said, "Israel pounds Gaza by air again."
As the next Steelers cataclysm draws within hours, additions to the faith are fervently sought and dutifully recorded. The Steelers have never lost to a division opponent such as Baltimore in a postseason game. They're 7-0. When they beat an opponent twice in one season, as they have the Ravens this year, they've never lost a third meeting such as this. They are 7-0.
In the compound Pittsburgh equation though, there is something more than, again, "a terrible amount of luxury and unease."
"The reason we watch sports is the uncertainty of the outcome, but it's particularly compelling in a framework of success, like in Pittsburgh," "Look at San Francisco. There is a history of bohemia, which is generally enough to color a future of bohemia to a certain extent.
"With Pittsburgh, the Steelers are the embodiment of everything the city has ever done right, presented today in the urgency of a live event, a live event that can color the question of whether we can continue to do so.

Go Stillers !
Kickoff: 6:30 p.m EST.

This was mostly pieced together from several different sports articles, too many to credit, so forgive me.

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