Saturday, January 22, 2005

Snapshots of victory and defeat

1984-85. The Steelers went into Miami for the AFC Championship Game. Even at 9, I think I had a pretty good idea that the 48-TD Marino juggernaut was too much for us, but I went in at least a little hopeful. This one did not sting so much, except that the Dolphins went on to face the 49ers in the Super Bowl; the 49ers only lost once that year, and it was to the black and gold. Also notable, the debut of the Ghostbusters Steeler song: "What ya gonna yell? Go Steelers!" and "I ain't afraid of no dolphin; I ain't afraid of no fish." I still remember a KDKA news segment devoted to how the song was incorrect; dolphins ain't fish.

1989, the wildcard. The Steelers needed a win, three other losses, a solar eclipse, and a gypsy curse on the final weekend of the season to get into the playoffs, but somehow it happened. The we go into the Astrodome and knock off a heavily-favored Oiler team in OT. The next week looked like an Elway buzzsaw, but Merril Hoge went crazy and Bubby Brister was better than solid in a game that went down to the wire, 24-23. This was the last gasp (or maybe hacking cough) of the Chuck Noll era.

1990, Carmelo. I went to game 4 of the NLCS, which was the only game of the whole series lost by the home team, and is the only major league playoff game to date that I've ever been to. But my enduring memory of the series is the hope against hope that the Bucs could go into Cincy, get hot, and pull it out. Never happened--but in the 9th inning of game 6, Carmelo Martinez hit a home run ball that Glenn Braggs went ridiculously high in the air to snag. If that ball clears the glove, the Pirates would've had 3 runs on 2 hits for the game; as it was, it was just the penultimate out in a monster one-hitter by the Reds staff.

October 1992, My childhood/adolescence/innocence ended when Sid slid. At that moment I first knew the pain of knowing that something I loved was unequivocally over, with no possibility of return, that falling short was an inevitable part of life, and that something that seemed great could fall flat with a resounding thud. I was 17 and 8 months, a freshman in college, and this result was a symbolic orientation into the existential condition. Maybe if the Pirates had won or even made it to a World Series, I never would have developed an affinity for postmodernism, ennui, and cranky books. Sigh. Oh BTW, it was also the Pirates' last taste of a .500 season. Let's move on--this wound is still open.

1991-93: Victory! The early '90s was also the time of Pittsburgh's most recent full-on success story, the back-to-back Stanley Cup Penguins. Lesson learned: take a singular talent, then slowly surround him with incredible if somewhat lesser talent, and good things will happen. Lesson #2: the best team in a run isn't necessarily the most successful. The best of those teams was probably the third year when they broke the all-time winning streak and ran away with the points title, but were upset in an epic OT struggle with the Islanders. I'm not old enough to remember, but I've heard the same said about the '70s Steelers--that the best team may have been the 1976 crew that lost to the Raiders in the playoffs when Franco and Rocky Bleier were both out with injuries. Yes, this lesson may be aimed at you, Pats fans.

1994-95: AFC Championship Game #2. This is one of the two most painful Steeler losses of all-time for me, largely because (like everyone) I just didn't see it coming. Stan Freakin' Humphries? Alfred Pupunu running down the sidelines farther than he'd ever run before in his life!? This game isn't epochal for me in the way that the '92 NLCS was, but it was pretty damn painful--it's no coincidence that XXIX is the only Super Bowl since XVI that I haven't watched in its entirety or something pretty close to it.

1995-96: AFC Championship Game #3 (aka the huge freakin' sigh of relief): This wasn't supposed to be a game, but boy was it. Willie Williams making a saving tackle on Lamont Jordan Warren [had it right in my head], Ernie Mills knocking a sure interception for a TD away from Quentin Coryattt, a touchdown pass to Slash, a clinching drive punctuated by a long deep pass to Ernie Mills (a pass the Steelers never completed before that season), and then the last second heave into the end zone by Jim Harbaugh that had trouble written all over it, until Randy Fuller knocked it off of Aaron Bailey's stomch. No, I didn't have to look any of this one up--some games stick with you, and when your eyeballs are bulging out in disbelief, it's probably all the more likely.

1996: Super Bowl XXX: I have been drunker, but I've never consumed more alcohol in a day than I did that day. This was the first Super Bowl in five years where the AFC hung with the NFC, and Levon Kirkland had a monster game. Memorable images: Rod Woodson pointing to his fast-recovering knee, Michael Irvin actually getting called for pass interference, Deon Figures recovering an awesome surprise on-side kick, and of course the two Larry Brown picks. I'm in the minority Steeler camp that says we win this game if Ernie Mills doesn't blow out his knee early in the game. Both ugly picks came with Corey Holliday, who never ever ever played, on the field in the 5-wides set, and if O'Donnell had his full complement of trustworthy receivers, I still think he finds a way to get it done. Still, this sucked, but was not quite so bad as other losses to inferior teams.

1997-98: AFC Championship Game #4: The big Steeler fight song this time around, to the tune of Tubthumping, was "Elway's knocked down, he won't get up again, and now the Steelers are Super-bound." This was inspired by Bubby Brister (Elway's backup)'s comment that Three Rivers was a tough place to play, because the wind blows in off the lake. ("Wind blows in from the lake" replaced "Pissin' the night away".) All I can say about that is this: if your hope of winning a playoff game at home is predicated on knocking out the other team's starting QB, then you already know you're in trouble. On a personal level, this was my last game before becoming a Steeler fan in exile, so while it wasn't the most surprising result or the biggest shocker, it did put a stamp of finality on an era of my Steeler fandom.

1998: Thanksgiving: The Steelers had played like shit all year and yet were somehow 7-4 and well positioned going into the Detroit Thanskgiving game. Meanwhile, I was broke, not yet having much luck making friends in LA (that changed, luckily), and generally not happy, except for my weekly Steeler bar respite. Ten people showed up at Gabe's that morning for a 9:30 PST kickoff, and a lousy Thanksgiving dinner at halftime. I mean, take a dive bar that's generally bad at food, and then imagine them cooking for the holidays. This was worse. Then the Bettis coin flip happens, the Steelers lose the game, and they go into the tank for the rest of the season plus the next two seasons. In short, this was probably the single worst day of my life--my first Thansgiving away from home, poor, depressed, 400 pounds, and then this game came along. Bad, bad times.

2001: AFC Championship Game #5: After three years of sucky Steeler ex-patriatism, this was the glory year. 13-3, could've been 15-1, and looking like world-beaters. Absolutely emasculated the defending champs in the Divisional game, the day after cheering wildly at the Snow Bowl both because it was the game of the century to date but also because we all wanted to face Tom Brady and the no-name Patriots rather than Rich Gannon, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and company. Oops. This is co-#1, along with the Chargers loss, on my all-time painful didnt'-see-it-coming Steeler losses. The game seemed to take forever--even with the 3.5 hours allotted on championship Sunday, we were halfway through the second quarter of the Rams-Eagles game by the time this one ended. The running game had nothing, the defense played well, but special teams blew it big-time. This one unfolded like one of those nightmare scenarios where you think nothing bad can happen unless absolutely everything goes wrong, and then for four hours you watch absolutely everything go wrong. Just disastrous. Also, as it turned out, my last game in grad school, as I moved back home 5 months later. In retrospect, this may have been the beginning of the spiral that was the worst year and a half of my life.

2005: I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, but from the above it should be clear that I will remember it in great detail and will see it as a moment drenched with meaning 10 or 20 years from now. This isn't 1994 or 2001, where I don't see any possible scenario where we lose. Also, it looks like with Big Ben, we are going to be up there for years to come. But I also know you can't sqaunder opportunities. For parallels, I remember the 1998-99 NFC Championship Game (sorry, Joe), which was the only previous meeting of 15-1 and 14-2 teams. Along with the Snow Bowl, it may have been the greatest football game I've ever seen. I hope there's a third game on that list after tomorrow, and I hope I remember it happily in the future. If I do find larger symbolism for this one, perhaps it comes from the fact that I'll turn 30 five days after Super Bowl XXXIX, and that I finally feel like my life is on track in most every way, and getting there in the other ways. Maybe this is the time where I will get one to teach me how to deal with success, rather than how to deal with pain, underachieving, and loss.

And maybe it's just a football game--but football games are symbolic versions of the narratives we tell about success and failure, winning and losing, doing things right, doing things wrong, cutting corners and having it bite you in the ass, hubris, selflessness, teamwork, sacrifice, smart preparation, and a host of other values. If you're in Ann Arbor tomorrow at 6:30, come to Buffalo Wild Wings--I'll be the one with the Terrible Towel, drinking and screaming his head off at the actions of grown men I'll never meet, and never once apologizing for why I do it.

No comments: