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BAD Memories: The healing of a black-eyed nation courtesy of the red, white and blue combined with the black and gold

Family is everything, and it absolutely should be. But it goes way beyond blood though. It took a long time for my mother to understand how and why my kids had so many “aunts” and “uncles” when she only had two children. Sure, my kids have my blood sister, their Aunt Lisa and her husband, Uncle Greg. But there’s Uncle Mike and Uncle Hoss (Yinzers through-and-through), Aunt Yvonne (who’s African American), Uncle Andy and Cousin Colin (we attended his Bar Mitzvah), Aunt Rosie, England-born Uncle Davey, Cousin Eva (Her Quinceanera was so much fun) and so many more relatives that don’t share the Davis DNA but feel and act like family with no quotation marks necessary.

Then there’s my black-and-gold family. Like my blood relatives, we sometimes disagree about family business. But being a Steelers fan instills a feeling of kinship that can’t be adequately described. This week, those that bleed black-and-gold lost a family member that Steeler Nation shared a bond with way-back-when on October 7, 2001 during the aftermath of a national tragedy.

Toby Keith didn’t grow up anywhere near Pittsburgh, unless Oklahoma is near Sewickley, and nobody told me. The legendary country music singer always seemed less blue and more like a black-and-gold collar guy though. True, Toby Keith Covel grew up in a Dallas Cowboys household. But after witnessing the Immaculate Reception on television in 1972 at the age of 11, the future superstar with 20 No.1 Country singles to his name, said that he became a die-hard fan that day. During his lifetime, Keith went to many Steelers games as a fan and even proudly displayed seats from the old Three Rivers Stadium in his gym. On February 5th, the 18th Anniversary of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl XL victory over the Seattle Seahawks, America began mourning after learning the news that Toby Keith succumbed after a courageous and painful battle with stomach cancer at the age of 62. A member of Steeler Nation, Keith will be remembered as not only a music superstar, a man of the people, and a patriot who sung of the ideals of a country that he always considered great, even in a time where patriotism had waned for what has unfortunately become a nation somewhat divided.

But there was a time, not so long ago, where this land that we love came under attack and Toby Keith and the fans gathered at Heinz Field healed together. Many of us vividly remember the devastating events of September 11, 2001. Some of us weren’t yet born or too young to remember. But for those that lived through that devastating day will never forget the something that happened (as I continue to quote Keith’s anthemic answer to 9/11 “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue -The Angry American), “A mighty sucker punch came flying in from somewhere in the back. As soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye, man, we lit up your world like the 4th of July”. What I’m trying to convey is this… As a nation, people of diverse races, creeds, sexualities, ideals all came together as fellow Americans in a beautiful way. Patriotism was at an all-time high as we recovered from said “sucker punch” and said “big black eye”. It seemed every doorway or porch in this nation was adorned with an American flag and Yankee Pride was in full force. But there was still apprehension and fear that the terrorists’ dastardly deeds weren’t finished, and that more tragedy could be administered to and upon the citizens of the United States.

Less than a month later, I got a chance to witness history (though I absolutely did not want to in this way) as the Week 3 matchup that was initially to be the inaugural game at Heinz Field was postponed due to the horrific attacks. So, Week 5 vs. the Cincinnati Bengals became the first-ever regular season game in the history of the stadium. As I was there in person clutching a Terrible Towel in one hand and an American Flag that stadium personnel handed out at the gates before the game, I marveled as young Americans were sworn in to military service as they took their oath before the game and the United States Continental Army Band performed “America the Beautiful”. But when Toby Keith appeared to present the first National Anthem in stadium history, the song meant so much more than ever before. There was no fanfare or showmanship. There was no celebrity privilege or arrogance on display either. It was just an American citizen with a wounded heart that sang the song of his country in solidarity with his countrymen and women, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and so-on and so-forth. Every fan in the stands stood hypnotic and transfixed as emotions of pride, pain, hope, and thankfulness were heard with every country-accented syllable. Hope and fear continued at Halftime when President George W. Bush appeared on the Jumbotron with the announcement that the U.S. had begun air strikes against Taliban positions in Afghanistan. People erupted with cheers, but the realization that we were officially at war was absolutely frightening and at the forefront of our minds. As for the game, the Steelers provided a much-needed distraction and departure from reality, but I’d be lying if I remembered many of the details of the 16-7 victory that included Jerome Bettis’ 153-yard effort and his surpassing the 10,000 career-yard mark, a Kordell Stewart touchdown run, 8 receptions by Hines Ward and a Chad Scott interception. But really it was about the heart and soul of America hand-and-hand finding a way to heal courtesy of Toby Keith, the red, white and blue combined with the black and gold. Rest in Peace, Uncle Toby. Your Steeler Nation Family joins your family and fans as we will miss you immensely.

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