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Opening day memories and the joy of being a Steelers’ fan

The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers opened the season at home against the San Francisco 49ers, things went poorly for the host team. The year was 1993. The Steelers were a young team with a young head coach — 35-year-old Bill Cowher, who was starting his second season as the successor to the legendary Chuck Noll. Cowher’s squad took on a veteran 49ers group that day, whose roster featured stars such as Steve Young, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Bill Romanowski and Ted Washington. San Francisco bolted to a 17-0 lead, and although the Steelers fought hard, closing the gap to 17-13 late in the 3rd quarter, the deficit was too much to overcome. The Niners won 24-13, on their way to an eventual berth in the NFC championship game.

I remember that Steelers-Niners game well. It wasn’t televised locally in my area, so a friend and I went to a bar to watch it. I live along the southern New Jersey shore, which is predominantly Philadelphia Eagles country, but the bar was packed with Steelers supporters. That’s not surprising, considering the national appeal of the black-and-gold. There was optimism among the faithful for a team that appeared to be reborn under the guidance of the fiery Cowher. I’m sure a few cries of “Cowher Power!” rang through the bar that day. The Steelers didn’t win, but the kinship among the fan base was memorable.

I was at that same bar, incidentally, about nine months later when the infamous O.J. Simpson Bronco chase took place. The bar was packed with people who had gathered to watch the NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets. Suddenly, all of the television sets cut away from the game to what appeared to be a slow-motion pursuit of a white vehicle by about 40 police cars. As it eventually became clear what was happening, the entire bar grew silent. I can remember to this day the surreal image of that room, wall-to-wall with people, and everyone frozen in place like statues holding their drinks, utterly transfixed by what was happening on TV.

I have happier memories of Steelers’ opening days than the 1993 49ers game. Last season jumps to mind. A Pittsburgh team thought to be in rebuilding mode following Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement, and starting Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback, was expected to play sacrificial lamb in Cincinnati to a Bengals squad coming off of a Super Bowl run. And yet, Pittsburgh harassed Joe Burrow into five turnovers, giving themselves a puncher’s chance to win. Still, it looked as though they’d come up short, as Cincinnati scored with :02 left to tie the game at 20. An Evan MacPherson extra point was all the Bengals needed to win. But somehow, some way, Minkah Fitzpatrick broke through the line and blocked the kick, sending the game to overtime. I didn’t scream or jump up or so much as cheer when it happened. I simply sat dumbfounded on the couch, asking myself again and again, “How did he do that?” The Steelers eventually won on a Chris Boswell field goal. I’m sure I slept the entire night with a big, fat smile on my face.

Then there was the 2008 opener. The Steelers played host to the Houston Texans, and I was driving to my then-girlfriend’s house (now my wife) to watch it together. She lived in a complex of townhouses near a wooded area, and there was a shortcut down a deserted road that bypassed the busy main road. I was late, and traffic was bad, so I took the secluded shortcut. As I was coming around a bend, with thick woods on either side, a deer bolted out into the road. I swerved to avoid it, and my Ford Ranger skidded into the woods. Fortunately, I didn’t hit any big trees, but I crashed through some smaller brush and into a scrubby pine. The collision smashed my front headlight and damaged the grille and fender. I was a bit shaken up but mostly unscathed. I quickly assessed the damage, then checked my watch. It was 12:50. I didn’t think about a mechanic or contacting my insurance company. I simply thought, ten minutes until kickoff.

I was able to back out of the woods and drive, slowly, the rest of the way to her house. When I arrived, I bolted inside, annoyed that I’d missed the first few minutes, and immediately immersed myself in the game. Only later, around 7:00 that night, after the Steelers had won resoundingly, and we’d ordered out for dinner, and it was time for me to head home to get ready for work the next day, did we walk outside. “Oh my God,” she said, “what happened to your truck?” In my excitement to watch the game I’d simply forgotten to tell her about the accident. To this day, she shakes her head when it occasionally comes up. “This one,” she’ll tell our friends, jerking a thumb in my direction, “crashed his car and forgot to tell me about it because he was too busy watching the Steelers.” To which I simply say, “Yup.”

That’s how it goes as a Steelers’ fan. Watching the team on opening day is like a ritual you must complete for fear of dire repercussions should you not. We didn’t always get the Steelers on TV when I was a kid. That meant, with no satellite television at the time, you simply couldn’t view the game. But I’ve seen every opener since I was in college, which was 30 years ago. And I don’t plan to miss one in the future. Ever.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh will play a talented 49ers team that is one of the best in the NFL. Much like the 1993 squad, there is great optimism about these current Steelers. They may win on Sunday, and they may not. One game will not define their season — win, lose or draw. But that one game, the opening game, always seems more special than the others. It’s the first opportunity to see the latest version of the team that, over the next four to five months, you will rejoice over, agonize over, the team you will love, curse, and who will break your heart only to win it back again. That’s fandom, and that’s what makes football in general, and being a Steelers fan in particular, so special.

It all starts Sunday at 1:00. Get home in plenty of time to watch. And please look out for the deer.

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