Friday, January 28, 2011

soaking it all in


here we are, nine days away from the 45th edition of the national football league's biggest game, and the extra anticipation time gives me a chance to reflect.  for those of you who are steelers fans, i would encourage you to think about this along with me, lest you let this moment slip by without savoring it.  and for those of you who are not steelers fans, i would simply want you to know that while i understand if you resent the steelers for their frequent success, i also don't want to rub it in your face. 

if it is possible, i simply want to enjoy these moments while i can without gloating.  you might think that i am a spoiled sports fan, and you might be right, i don't know.  but i can tell you one thing: i'm doing my best to enjoy every moment of this journey; every printed word; every blog; every black and gold picture in the sports section; every scrolling ticker across the bottom of the nfl network.  i want to soak every bit of it in.
i was born in southwestern pennsylvania, nearly an hour south of pittsburgh.  i was born in 1976, at a time when the steelers were the muscle and guts of the nfl, in the midst of winning four super bowls.  i was three years old when the steelers won their fourth in january of 1980.  i was more interested in climbing curtains than the steel curtain.  an unfortunate accident of the cosmos caused me to be just a few years too late to enjoy the mania that was being a steelers fan in the seventies. 

still, i loved pittsburgh.  we didn't go there very often, and so it represented something holy and sacred, big and magnificent, full of radio stations and rivers, skyscrapers and something better than all of it: sports.  i started falling in love with sports at an early age.  i played football for the green demons, i played baseball for the local sports store, the locker room.  i spent many late nights secretly listening to the pirates on my little am radio under the sheets.  my sweetest dreams would be when lanny frattare would croon into my craning ears: there was NOOOOOOOOOOOO doubt about it! 

but the steelers, oh the steelers.  i turned 11 in 1987.  by then, the dynasty of the seventies was a distant memory, as mean joe green was inducted into the pro football hall of fame that year.  starting in 1985, the steelers went 7-9, 6-10, and then 8-7 during the strike season of '87.  football wasn't so fun, except when dad and i would throw football in the yard.  i'd pretend to be louis lipps, but dad was probably bradshaw.  we only called him mark malone when he would throw an awful pass into the bushes.  such was steelers football in the eighties, when i was finally old enough to care. 



nonetheless, i liked it.  whether it was a gene passed to me in my dna, or a kind of infection i caught as a baby, or even a coming-of-age event in my early childhood, i cannot say.  what i can say is that i was black and gold, through and through.  i had a bedspread with matching curtains and i would spend hours just staring at the steelers logo like it was an icon of the deepest religious sort.  even at that age, without a solid team to cheer for, i began a lifelong obsession with that logo and the team that wore it. 

my bedspread as a child


me with my steelers corkboard, circa 1987

my fanaticism only grew in 1988, when my family packed up our belongings and left the center of the football universe to live in the heart of bluegrass country.  i resented the fact that most people in kentucky only cared about basketball, and those who did like football mostly cheered for the bengals.  this merely served to steel my stubborn fanaticism, and ink my very soul with a rabid and robust obsession. 

this is something i made in 1990, and it shows my developing insanity.  "#6 in the black and yellow cadillac" is a reference to bubby brister.  you can also see references here to rod woodson and merrill hoge.  i was already beyond help at this point.

still, there were more losing seasons, until things began to change for the steelers in 1992 when i was a sophomore in high school.  the rooneys hired a local boy by the name of bill cowher to be the new head coach, replacing legendary coach chuck noll, who had been the head coach of the steelers for 23 seasons.  they began to put together winning seasons under cowher, and by the time i was a sophomore at grove city college - back in black and gold country - they had reached the superbowl for the first time in 16 years.  finally my moment had arrived!  finally, this team that i read about and listened to music about and cut out newspaper clippings about had made it. 

i grew up in the shadow of the greats.  we had to stop and genuflect at the mere mention of the name franco.  to me, the graceful animal known as a swan had only received that name because of its resemblance to an even more graceful wide reciever for the steelers.  if mean joe wasn't the embodiment of the steelers, then jack lambert was, and his toothless scowl was emblazoned on my psyche as a symbol of what the steelers would never again be: warriors; wild men; winners

"our greatness will never be repeated," lambert seemed to be scowling at me

so this was it, right?  finally redemption.  we had lloyd and green and levon.  we had woodson and carnell lake.  we had bam and yancey and hastings and dermonti.  we had....o'donnell?  i watched in despair as neil o'donnell shrivelled before not only the dallas cowboys, but also the formidable ghosts of steelers past, who made sure he would always remain the average quarterback that he was. 

i would have to wait some more. 

but i never wavered.  as i've already said, my blood is black and gold.  turns out my tears are, too, as i learned after watching cowher console his wife and daughters after that superbowl XXX loss.  still, i wiped them with myron cope's official terrible towel, and faced the future with unbridled fanaticism. 

in the spring of 2004 i was a full-grown man, still enamored with his childhood obsession.  i still ritualistically sat down in front of the television each sunday in the fall and watched my steelers.  i still decorated my walls with pictures and clippings.  i still listened to steelers songs and doodled the logo on scrap pieces of paper.  i still read everything i could get my hands on, including steelers digest, a weekly publication of steelers news.  i had been doing my research about college quarterbacks, since the steelers went 6-10 in 2003 and were going to get a decent draft pick.  for months i had been hoping that this kid phillip rivers would still be on the board when our number 11 pick came up.  i still remember where i was when i heard that rivers and (eli) manning had been taken early, and the steelers drafted some kid named roethlisberger (what kind of name is that) from miami of ohio (where?).  i was sitting outside of a target store in my car, listening to the radio, and trying to ward off my disappointment.  


"why can't we just get a franchise quarterback?" i wondered in disappointment.

less than two years later (wow, that is amazing!), the steelers were taking the field for superbowl XL, ten years after their loss to the cowboys.  and you know the rest.  they won.  they had their franchise quarterback.  then, three years later, they won again.  and now, two years after that, they have a chance to win their third in six years.  it would be their seventh, if they were to win it, and many people would look with contempt on a franchise and its fans that seems spoiled rotten.  maybe, if i were in your position, i'd do the same thing.  i don't know.   all i know is that i'm not in your position.  i'm in the enviable position of rabidly rooting for a team that is finally forcing the ghosts of its past to stay in the past.  i'm in the overwhelmingly blessed position of having a lifelong obsession with a team that personifies much of what i believe to be good and right and important.  i'm in the surpassingly wonderful position of cherishing each and every moment of this run because i've also been in the position of cheering for a team with several-year-long losing streak.  i'm in the only position i really know how to be in: watching the black and gold, terrible towel poised, hope springing eternal, passion boiling over, fanaticism uncontained.  i am a pittsburgh steelers fan. 

whatever happens next sunday, win or lose, i recognize that i am abundantly blessed as a football fan.  don't think that i don't realize that.  i do.  i appreciate it.  that 14-year old kid in me still wants to doodle little sayings and sketches; the 9-year old in me wants to pretend to be hines ward running down the sideline with a touchdown to win the game; and the grown man in me wants to remember that, while sports is such a tiny and ultimately rather insignificant part of life, i didn't always have this.  and i won't have it forever.  i have it now.  and i intend to enjoy every word, every note, every play, every ticker, every click of the mouse, every black and yellow headline.  i will soak it all in. 

i promise. 


8 comments:

Joel Peterson said...

Go Steelers!

greg. said...

thanks for stopping in and reading!

Emoly said...

It's fifty days until spring in case anyone cares about that...

And I wonder where Jackson got his swinging from the curtains from... it must be genetic.

*whispers* go steelers

julie said...

is it just me, or does the media seem anti-steelers and pro-packers? what the heck?!!? it annoys the heck out of me.

greg. said...

emily: i appreciate the cheer, even if it's only a whisper. ;)

julie: the packers are the sexy pick. they're hot and they have the young quarterback without some of the "baggage" of the steelers' quarterback. the steelers have already won 6 trophies, and 2 of them have been in the last few years, so people want a new story (nobody likes a dynasty, except the fans of that team). whatever. haters gonna hate. go steelers!

Mrs. Milinovich said...

You snuck and listened to the radio under the covers? Now I find out!

Go Steelers!

julie said...

and another thing: i am so annoyed that people are commenting on how cool the packers guy with the long hair is - HELLO???!!! that is polamalu's gig. ridiculous. don't get me started.

Mrs. Milinovich said...

greg,
those bad passes were on purpose. I threw passes directly into the bushes (they weren't terribly sticky or sharp) to train your body to pain and eyes on concentration. remember the hill sloped down directly into those bushes? you would run at full speed into those bushes, and usually ended up catching the ball. You were a really great football player. too bad your knee got messsed up in the little league football.
dad