Friday, February 27, 2009

Super Bowl XLIII -- Day Two

Sunday, February 1, was a beautiful day – bright and cool. We got up early, bade farewell to my brother’s friend, Barb, and set out on our first quest – to find a car wash. We couldn’t show up to the Super Bowl in a dirty Mustang. Once that was accomplished, we set off for Tampa. Around Orlando, we stopped and got some breakfast. Seeing us in our Steelers’ finery, a young man in his Sunday best had to tell us that he was pulling for the Cardinals. This has become a recurring story since I’ve got back to Alabama. I’m wearing my newly purchased, official Super Bowl XLIII Steelers’ merchandise and somebody comes up to me and engages me in conversation. The conversation usually goes something like this: “I guess you like how the game turned out, huh?” I think, wow, your powers of deduction are staggering, but I smile politely and say, “You bet.” Then, he shrugs and says, “Ya, well, I was hoping the Cardinals would win, but I guess it’s alright that the Steelers won.” I think, well, I’m glad that you’re dealing so well with the outcome. A few intrepid souls have then told me that the refs handed the Steelers the game. Why do they think I want to hear this? Every time I see a Crimson Tide fan, I think, most, not all, Alabama fans are a bunch of whiney punks. But I have the decency to keep that thought to myself.

Anyway, arriving in Tampa, we went to the parking spot my brother had reserved the day before (at the discounted price of $50; on Sunday it was $100). As we walked to the stadium, it was a repeat of the previous day. Steelers’ fans were high-fiving each other and talking to one another like long-lost friends. The Cardinals’ fans wished us good luck and we, just like all the other Steelers’ fans responded in kind. Once again, I did not hear anybody talking smack to the other team’s fans. Everybody was civil, the way it should be.

Arriving at the stadium, we had to pass through a security check. Thinking ahead, neither my brother nor I had a backpack, binocular case, or camera case since we knew these were not allowed. They had dumpsters filling up with backpacks and other items that were verboten. I only hope that these things were donated to some local charity rather than throne away because there were some nice backpacks in there. I, however, was unknowingly carrying contraband – my eyeglass case. They made me throw it away. I didn’t argue, but what the hell did they think I was going to do with a leather eyeglass case? They didn’t look through my binoculars or my camera, obvious security risks, but that glass case, that had to go. Similarly, when my brother bought some bottled water in the stadium, they removed the bottle caps. Apparently, they don’t want people throwing bottle caps onto the field. Of course, I can through a bottle of water a hell of a lot further than a bottle cap, but that’s another matter.

Once we passed through the security area, we found ourselves in the “NFL Experience” once again. We did our level best to help the local Tampa economy by purchasing more souvenirs. The NBC studio crew was finishing up taping their pre-game show and Jerome Bettis was hustled past us by security. I snapped three pictures of him as he passed.

I swear, Bettis is on the other side of this young woman. Blocked ... by a Cardinals' fan. I hoped this was not an evil omen

I was really itching to get into the stadium, so we went in about four hours before kickoff. Climbing to the top of Mt. Raymond James Stadium with the help of a Sherpa and a few tanks of oxygen, we found our seats. After spending some time rummaging through the official Super Bowl XLIII seat cushion, which, in addition to the seat cushion itself, included a Pepsi bandana, an official replica Super Bowl coin, a free download of some Super Bowl video from I-Tunes, and a tiny flashlight for use during the Bruce Springsteen half-time show, we sat down and gazed out at the nearly empty stadium.

The two best flags in the world.

I don’t care what George Carlin said, I love a football stadium. I don’t want a park, I want to see a struggle of life and death, good and evil, my team versus the enemy. This was a deeply spiritual experience. Sitting there, looking down at the Steelers’ endzone, I think I know how the ancient Egyptians must have viewed the Valley of the Kings, how the Greeks viewed Mt. Olympus, how the Celts felt in the presence of Stonehenge, how my ancestors felt when they saw the Statue of Liberty or when they saw the inclined plane in Johnstown. Yes, it was that moving.

Matt Millen and Phil Simms, aka "The Brain Trust"

Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward spent a good 15 minutes shooting the breeze.

After sitting there awhile, my brother decided that he needed some lip balm. After a little over an hour, he returned without his quarry, but he did have nachos (and the aforementioned capless bottled water). By that time, some of the players were coming out and warming out.

"Big Snack" in the middle.

Big Ben and Fast Willie

Troy auditioning for a new position.

FWP is a blur. Either because he's so fast, or I'm so high in the stands I'm trying to take pictures through an air inversion.

After taking a number of pictures, I realized my camera was running out of batteries. The spare batteries, naturally, were out in the car. So, I left on my own fruitless quest. As I was returning, I heard the PA speaker announce the entrance of the Steelers. Spurred on, I ran (alright, I walked really, really fast) back to my seat. Unfortunately, on the way back, I lost my Terrible Towel. As I’m a firm believer in the jinx, I was deeply troubled by this loss. In fact, I’m such a believer in the jinx, I was wearing my white Jerome Bettis jersey. I had worn the black one earlier in the season, and the Steelers lost, so no more of that. Also, I was wearing my Steelers’ socks, for only the third time ever.

As we sat there waiting for kickoff and as the stadium filled up, we got to talking with folks around us. I can’t emphasize how amazing it was to talk to people from all over the country like we were all kin. Always the same question, where are you from? When the guy behind me asked my brother where we were from, he told the guy that I was living in Alabama and my brother was living in Tennessee, but we were raised in Plum Boro. The guy was raised outside Pittsburgh, but he was living outside Philly. He commiserated with my brother about being surrounded by Titans’ fans, but, he opined, at least Jeff Fisher is a good coach. Remembering that Keith Bullock had deliberately pressed on Tommy Maddox’s neck, temporarily paralyzing him, and believing play like that is encouraged by the coach, I, speaking about Fisher, said, “I hope he gets the Ebola. In the testicles.” It turned out that the guy sitting behind me was a Titans’ fan. Oh, well.

My brother's opinion of the Titans.

Sitting so close to the top of the stadium gave us a great view of the flyover

On with the game. Deferring to the second half, the Cardinals kicked off to the Steelers.

Lining up for the opening kickoff

The kickoff

The opening handoff

The second play from scrimmage and my batteries had all but died

A methodical drive brought the Steelers to the one-yard line. When Ben Roethlisberger fell into the endzone for a touchdown, cheers and high-fives burst out. Then, Ken Whisenhunt challenged the call. Naturally, we believed he was nuts. But, alas, the zebras agreed with him. From the heights of joy to the pits of despair in a few minutes. We thought we had been robbed by the refs. Another game where we’d have to play to two teams. Little did we know the number of bad calls and no calls that would plague both teams – what else could we expect from the worst officiated season across the NFL. Coach Mike Tomlin made the right call and kicked the field goal.

The Cardinals’ first possession ended in a three-and-out. Our defense was on fire. Our hopes were rising. We scored a touchdown on the next possession. Up 10 to 0, out gaining the Cardinals 140 yards to 13 – we knew we were going to clobber the Cardinals. Our joy was climbing exponentially. But, of course, Whisenhunt is a brilliant coach, and he had a great plan. On the Cardinals’ next possession, they moved the ball 83 yards down the field to score a touchdown. 10-7 wasn’t a bad score, but we started to worry.

By this point, I thought I was all screamed out. I couldn’t believe how much noise I could make. And that’s all it was – noise. Like some primal emotion ripped from the Neanderthal part of my brain, when the Cardinals came to the line, I emitted a loud, long, guttural Go-o-o-o-o-o. It wasn’t like the Latin American soccer announcer Go-o-o-al. It was like some Teutonic war chant; it was race memory. The little kid beside my brother kept putting his hands over his ears in a vain effort to drown out the cacophony. Clearly, he could not believe that such sounds could be emitted from the human throat. On at least one occasion, he shot me a dirty look for disrupting his serenity. I smiled sweetly and bellowed Go-o-o-o-o-o-o! I continued for the entire game. Later, on the way up the highway after the game, my brother, his voice hoarse and cracking was amazed that my voice was still intact. I reminded him that, as college professor, I talk for a living.

Then, the unthinkable happened. Big Ben threw an interception when his pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage. With the Cardinals at the Steelers’ 34-yard line, my brother and I didn’t say a word to each other. We could only hope that the great Steelers’ D would hold the Cardinals to three points. Going into halftime tied, after manhandling the Cardinals in the first quarter was bad enough, but going in trailing them would be unbearable. Then, to our utter astonishment, James Harrison (“Silverback”), the Defensive Player of the Year intercepted a Kurt Warner pass and huffed and puffed the ball a hundred yards for a touchdown. I’m sure it felt like an eternity for Harrison. It felt like an eternity for us in the stands. The nagging feeling that he wouldn’t make it clawed at hearts and souls like hyenas at a wounded gnu (or something equally icky). As he began to visibly slow down, Cardinals players started to catch up to him. I think the collective will of the Steelers’ fans coalesced around him as he broke through at least three tackles to fall prostrate in the endzone. Harrison was exhausted … we were exhausted. Breathlessly, we waited to see if the replay booth would take away our touchdown (I say “our” because every fan in the stadium was emotionally and physically spent by the end of his run). In what some are calling the greatest play in Super Bowl history, James Harrison’s 100-yard interception run-back for a touchdown withstood the scrutiny of the replay booth.

I didn’t actually watch much of the Boss’s half-time show. I was too exhausted and too shaky to stand. I had to sit and rest. While everybody around me stood and cheered, I sat, worried, wondering what the second half would bring. I wondered if Tomlin and Dick Labeau would make adjustments for what Whisenhunt and his coaching staff would bring in the second half. I trembled to think what he was about to unleash on us.

Before my batteries did finally give out, I got some good pictures of the rather impressive light show and pyrotechnics from the halftime celebration:

The third quarter was a bit of a mess for the Cardinals. A number of unsportsmanlike penalties helped the Steelers drive down the field to try a field goal. After another personal foul, the Steelers had three cracks at the endzone. The Cardinals’ D, however, despite my best Germanic war whooping, stood stout and kept the Steelers from scoring a touchdown. Up 20-7 late in the third quarter, I was still nervous. At the start of the post-season, I had taken part in a contest picking the brackets and the eventual winner of the Super Bowl. I had the Steelers beating the Cardinals 24-21. I knew, no matter how much I wanted it otherwise, things could change. And I’m just enough of a German Fatalist to know that change is frequently bad.

My worries were confirmed when midway through the fourth quarter Warner hooked up with Larry Fitzgerald for a touchdown to cut the Steelers’ lead to 6 points. The two defenses stood strong, with the Cardinals pinning the Steelers on their one-yard line. Then, in the most idiotic call in the game, the Steelers’ center, Jeff Hartwig was called for holding when he was bull rushed onto his back into the endzone. Since this was holding in the endzone, it was a safety. Once again, it seemed like we were playing two teams at the same time. I thought my head was going to explode. I think my brother’s head did explode (a little bit).

When you’re at the game, you can see the whole field, unlike when you watch it on TV. Also, because the television image is really two-dimensional, the players often look closer to one another than they really are. When Fitzgerald broke through the middle of the field, it was clear to everybody in the stands that he was going to score a touchdown. When you’re in a traffic accident or in your dissertation defense, or some equally horrible event, time slows down. I’m sure there’s a psychological reason for this. You see every little detail and feel every little pain in excruciating, soul-crushing detail. With 2:37 on the clock and the Cardinals leading for the first time, 23-20 (16 unanswered points), I sat down with my head in my hands and thought bitterly, I paid how much for this “Experience”?

I should develop more hope. Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes, and Tomlin certainly had hope. Eight plays, 2:02, and one of the most remarkable catches in Super Bowl history later, Roethlisberger and Holmes hooked up for the winning touchdown catch. Fear clutched at my throat the whole two minutes. I could only dare to hope that we would score a field goal and send the game into overtime. That was the only hope I would allow myself to have. And when Holmes made the catch, with three Cardinals’ defenders blanketing him, we knew that he had scored the winning touchdown, despite the fact that it was at the other end of the stadium. But there was the dreaded booth review. With what felt like an elephant sitting on my chest I waited to see if they would take away our touchdown.

This past year I’ve suffered great personal loss and professional setbacks, but, for the first time in five months, I didn’t think about them. I was filled with unbounded joy as the referees confirmed Holmes’ touchdown. Joy. Sheer joy. Clapping and cheering and hand shaking and more cheering and more clapping. And I got to share it with one of my brothers. I only wish my whole family could have been there. Joy.

But, of course, Warner, Whisenhunt, and the Cardinals still had 35 seconds, and they were not going to give up. They, however, had to contend with what got us to the Super Bowl in the first place – our defense. With five seconds to go, LaMarr Woodley knocked the ball out of Warner’s hand, Brett Keisel recovered, and we got to watch the best play in any football game – our quarterback's kneeldown.

My brother and I cheered and yelled to the heavens. The Steelers had won their sixth Super Bowl, and we got to see it in person. It was one of the best days of my life.

The camera on my cell phone isn't the best, so take these shots for what they're worth.

Getting ready for the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy.

Joe Namath presents the Lombardy Trophy to the team

Roger Goodell presents the Lombardy Trophy to Dan Rooney

Mike Tomlin on the team

Ben Roethlisberger on the team

Santonio Holmes' musings

When the Lombardi Trophy was presented to the team, we yelled and cheered some more. And when all of the confetti had been cannoned into in the air, and the team was walking off the field, my brother and I just sat there. We had a long trip home, so we were not in any hurry to rush out of the stadium. Just as we were some of the first to enter the stadium, we were among the last to leave. We gazed out across the nearly empty stadium, this now hallowed ground, the site of our great victory. We could claim it as our victory. I know that some people hate it when fans of a team say “us” or “we,” but we felt that we had contributed to the Steelers’ victory. We had not played the game, but we had contributed our psychic energy, our very being. We were physically and emotionally spent. When we finally did get up to leave, we couldn’t believe how shaky our legs were. It felt like we had run for miles and miles and were about to collapse.

As we made our way through the throngs of fans standing in a line to buy their Super Bowl victor’s merchandise, a line that stretched over several football fields in length, we decided to get our goodies online. Exhausted, but happy beyond bounds, we made our way back to the car for our long trip home. As we passed other Steelers’ fans, we high-fived one another, wishing each other a safe trip home. This had been a great family reunion. And though it might seem obnoxious to say, I would love to do it again some time in the not too distant future.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Super Bowl XLIII -- Day One

I couldn’t believe it. The Steelers had beaten the Ravens for the third time this year. Then, they beat the Chargers to advance to Super Bowl XLIII. They had survived the league's toughest schedule. They had done more than survive – they were on their way to the Super Bowl. I literally couldn’t believe it. As I’m sitting on the couch, exhausted from willing my team to victory, my wife says something stunning – why don’t you go to the Super Bowl. I’m lost for words. After what seemed like a half hour or so, I asked her if she’s serious. Knowing that I’ve been a die-hard Steelers’ fan since I was seven years old in 1968 (2-11-1 baby), she realized how important this was to me. And, since Tampa is only about a 9-hour drive, it was doable. I told her the tickets would be expensive. She asked how much, and I quickly turned to the internets. Chagrined, I told her the nosebleed seats were around two grand. Without missing a beat, she said, buy two and take your brother from Tennessee. He can drive, pay for the food, and the hotel, and I could pay for the tickets. Again, I asked (I’m sure my voice was trembling) if she was serious. She smiled and said yes.

So, my brother and I drove to Daytona Beach to stay with a friend of his. On the way down, I had what would turn out to be a recurring experience – the unbelievable camaraderie of what is usually called “Steeler Nation.” We passed another Mustang all decked out with Steelers’ magnets, flags, and bumper stickers. About an hour later, we stopped to get gas and something to drink. A few minutes later, this middle-aged woman walked in wearing a Steelers’ sweatshirt. My brother asked her if she was in a Mustang. Immediately, her eyes lit up and she said we must be the guys wearing the Steelers’ jerseys who passed them up the road. After just a few minutes of chatting, she asked where we were from. My brother said he was living in Tennessee and I was living in Alabama, but we had both grown up in Plum Boro, outside Pittsburgh. She was from Greensburg, but now lived in Huntsville with her husband. This question, where are you from, turned out to be a standard question among Steelers’ fans. It is some kind of bonding mechanism. It’s like long-lost family members rediscovering one another. There is a joy and a sense of bonding like I’ve never experienced in any other setting or any other fandom. They said they envied us for going to the game. They couldn’t get tickets, but they didn’t want to stay in Huntsville. They wanted to watch the games with their “friends” in the Steeler Nation. Therefore, they were driving to a great sports bar in Panama City, Florida to watch the game. They were driving almost 400 miles, 7 hours, to watch a football game in a bar because they wanted to be with people they probably had never met before, but who they knew would welcome them as long-lost family. This is why Steelers’ fans “travel well.”

Saturday before the game, we drove the 140 miles from Daytona Beach to Tampa to reconnoiter the situation and check out the “NFL Experience.” After paying $10 to park in K-Mart parking lot, we went on a quest for the “Experience.” We finally found it, and proceeded to stand in line for an hour or so. Luckily, we developed a great game – inappropriate jerseys. We took pictures of folks wearing jerseys of teams not actually playing in the Super Bowl. Some people were wearing jerseys of teams that had never been in any Super Bowl. Here are a just a few:

I guess that Adrian Peterson really is, as they say over at KSK "Purple Jesus." Look here, he brought Walter Peyton back from the dead. Unfortunately, he turned Sweetness (and himself) into a white dude.

Here are the two Cardinals' fans we saw at the "Experience." Seriously, there were probably 300 Steelers' fan for every Cardinals' fans. Amazingly, everybody was very cool. The fans of both teams treated the other with respect and good sportsmanship. I know it's only anecdotal information, but I didn't hear anybody talking smack to anybody else.

This Browns' fan appears to be looking for something. If it's a Super Bowl appearance by her team, she might have to wait a long time. (I know that's snarky, but, come-on, it's the Browns. Wait to you see what I have to say about the Ravens).

If your wife sees that you made her kids dress in 49'er's jerseys, she will win the inevitable divorce case. "Momma don't let your babies grow up to be '9ers":

Or Redskins,

Or Cowboys, er Cowgirls. Hey, look, it's Tony Romo after a bender in Juarez!

Making your kid wear an Eagles' jersey might be worse child abuse than the '9ers.

This is just confusing. I imagine the conversation went something like this, "Dad, if you get to wear the jersey of a substitute high school teacher in Minnesota, then I want to wear the jersey of an Eagles safety." To which his brother said, "If you get to wear a DB's jersey, then so do I." I'm not sure of the logic either.

These guys, however, might win the prize for messing up their kids. Could you find enough disparate jerseys to force your kids to wear?

Come on! You've got to wear, at the very least, a jersey of a team that actually exists. This would be like wearing a Bill Belichik replica hoody from a time when he wasn't cheating.

The “NFL Experience” is great if you’re a kid or somebody who likes to play punt, pass, and catch games. If you don’t, you’re s.o.l. (sort-of-out-of-luck). Also, if you think paying $5 for a bottle of Pepsi, $8 for a Budweiser, or $10 for an Italian sausage sandwich is highway robbery, you’re similarly s.o.l.

When you think of heavy industry, you think of that great steel town -- Phoenix.

This is also where people can buy their souvenirs. My brother offered to buy me some things, but I told him I’d take care of that myself – then I saw a painting of Jerome Bettis pancaking the great Brian Urlacher. It was autographed by the Bus. It was on sale for a tad less than $2000. I told my brother I had changed my mind; he demurred.

The "NFL Experience" also had 32 dummies in team uniforms. They were set up so people could stand behind them and get their picture taken like they were a genuine football player. Neat.

Some parents stuck their poor little kid inside the hollowed-out hulk of a Browns player. Child abuse, again.

I was, however, able to achieve some slight revenge against all the crap dished out by Ravens' fans on my two favorite football sites, D.C. Steeler Nation and KSK:

I know -- real mature. But I really couldn't help myself.

After spending several hours soaking up the whole “Experience,” our feet and legs were killing us. We called it a night and drove back to Daytona Beach, eagerly waiting Sunday.

A benevolent Buddha watched over us as we left.