Monday, January 7, 2008

Heartbreak, Again

Jerusalem – Yesterday, at a little before 7AM, the Steelers’ season ended in gut wrenching fashion.

The last few weeks have been a struggle for my favorite team. We’ve lost a key player each week, and with each individual loss, the team has taken a body blow. Willie Parker broke his leg; we could no longer run the ball. Aaron Smith tore his bicep; we could no longer stop the run. Marvel Smith had back surgery; we could no longer protect the quarterback.

Still, the Steelers have heart. It was only two years ago that the team sliced through the playoffs, won three games on the road, and made the big plays in the big game to win the Super Bowl. Despite a blowout loss to the Patriots earlier this year, I wanted to see the Steelers get another shot at the best. You can’t count out a champion, no matter what the odds – nobody wants to play an elimination game against die-hards like Hines Ward and James Farrior.

Still, when I woke up at 3AM on Sunday, I knew that it might be my last chance to watch the Steelers for eight months. Thankfully, ESPN broadcast the game live. Clad in my 2006 Super Bowl t-shirt, I was so happy for the normal sized screen that I didn’t even mind that ESPN showed the same two soccer commercials at every break.

For 3+ hours, we watched the Steelers leave it all on the field against Jacksonville. Their second half comeback was poetic; it was almost impossible to believe that we could lose. The impossible happened, though, due to a terrible play-call, a missed tackle, and a game-winning field goal that knocked the wind out of me until this morning.

After the game, I folded up my Super Bowl t-shirt, crawled into bed, and buried my face in the pillow. I slept for four hours and spent the next 24 hours in my own personal salt mine.

There’s no longer a reason for me to check in the middle of the day for a new Steeler story. The playoffs go on, but not for us. Another year goes by for Ward, Farrior, Casey Hampton and others. Great players can’t stay great forever. The window of opportunity closes, and we’re left with memories of passes batted down in the end zone, special teams break-downs, interceptions at the worst moment, and championships that could have, should have, might have been won.

So how does a fan recover from a game that he had no impact on? It’s not like I can review film and figure out how to cheer better, or that I can switch shirts or buy a new Terrible Towel. Well, “context” and “hope” are the bitter pills that people like me swallow on days like today.

This morning, I was emailing with a lifetime Red Sox fan. Before the Sox won two World Series in the last four years, my friend lived through 40 years of following a team best known for its curse. As I collected his e-sympathies, I realized again why our 2006 Super Bowl win was so special.

The 90s were filled with great Pittsburgh teams that couldn’t write their names in the books. Setting aside Mario Lemieux and a Penguin dynasty cut short by injuries, we loved a Steeler team that lost three AFC Championships at home to inferior opponents over an eight-year period (including 2001), and a Pirates team that lost three consecutive pennants at the start of the decade. The final time, the Pirates choked in such a life- draining way (the Francisco Cabrera moment) that radio stations put psychologists on the air the next morning to help the public deal with the trauma and depression. For good measure, since the turn of the century, Pitt basketball has made it to the Big East Championship game six times. We’ve won once.

It adds up to a lot of disappointment. As a fan, you get up for these championship or playoff games. Especially in our case, you imagine your small market team dropping the hammer on the Yankees, Patriots, and UConn Huskies of the world. But it just doesn’t happen often enough.

Sometimes dreams do come true, though. And when you have moments like Antwaan Randel El completing a gadget-play pass to Ward to win the Super Bowl, all those sour defeats make winning that elusive championship taste so good. I’d guess that it might even taste better than championship moments that have become an end of the year habit for some spoiled fans.

The other bitter pill that we swallow at moments like this is called “hope.” It is cold out now, but only four more months to the NFL draft. Young stars like Ben Rothlisberger, Willie Parker, and Troy Polamalu who are just reaching their prime are reasons for optimism. And between now and the start of training camp in July, Penguin Phenom Sidney Crosby may well take over the NHL. And maybe, despite Pitt’s December injuries, Sam Young and Dejaun Blair will put the program on their backs and carry it to that elusive Final Four.


So, that’s it for the 2007 Steelers season. Next year, I hope.

1 comment:

Nevena said...

Hi Ben,

Speaking of citizen diplomacy, did you see that Donna Tabor won one of the first 5 citizen diplomat awards? It's a new award (for which you should eligible, let's get you nominated next year).

Donna is from Pittsburgh, launched Building New Hope and moved to Nicauragua.