Category: NFL

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Christmas in July, Steelers style

My grandfather died last week. That now officially makes my stat line 0-4 in the grandparent department. He lived a long full 91 years, so it was not unexpected or sudden. That always makes it easier when the family is able to mentally prepare ahead of time. I took his passing and the service a few days later in stride as adults do in their own ways.

It wasn’t until I sat down to write my first article for SCN a few days after the service that the feels hit me with full force. As a child, my family moved constantly. I learned to never develop ties to any one place as we fluttered from house to house, city to city, state to state. I joined the Navy straight out of high school, which of course meant even more moving as an adult. There’s only been one constant in my life, and that was my grandparent’s house. For my entire almost fifty-one years, that home was the bedrock that centered the entire extended family.

It was a small and humble house on a quiet street in a small town. My mother had three younger brothers and one younger sister, so the tiny house was packed to the brim. Factor in that side of the family all being well over six feet tall and you get the idea. Picture Gandalf visiting Frodo in his shire home, and that would be pretty accurate. As a young kid, however, it never felt small or cramped. To my young eyes, it was familiar, comforting, and as perfect as you could get.

I had my first introduction to the Pittsburgh Steelers in that house. Living in Arkansas, my grandfather along with my three uncles were all major Cowboys fans. It was January 1979, and apparently there was some big game going on. I was only six years old and did not watch sports. I became curious as to why they were all so worked up and yelling at the tv. I asked questions as I tried to understand the rules and make some sense of what I was watching. Instead of helping me, my much older uncles started making fun of my questions and gave me a hard time about not knowing the basic rules of the game.

After several minutes of teasing and escalating insults at my expense, I was in a fighting mood. I loudly announced to the entire house “I hope this other team beats your team!” And then, even though I still didn’t understand what I was watching, I knew to cheer when they booed and laugh when they were angry. Of course, the Steelers beat the Cowboys that day 35 – 31 in one of the most epic Super Bowls ever played. A few years later, I would find a book with Franco Harris on it detailing every Super Bowl through 1980 and the inspiring stories of the Steelers championship years would cement my fandom as I used their strength and persistence to fend off severe bullying at yet another new school.

In 1998 as an adult, it was Christmas day, and the family was gathered in that same home for a giant holiday meal and to exchange gifts. There was one nondescript and unassuming box left to open. I was directed to sit down in my grandfather’s recliner. NO ONE sat in his chair. As a kid, I would have sooner sat on a live and angry porcupine than dare let my rear end come close to his chair. It was just not done. The entire family gathered round and handed me the small box. I seriously started to wonder if they had discovered I only had weeks to live and somehow I had missed it. My aunt, the youngest of the siblings and more like an older sister to me, handed me the box with a smile.

I opened it, still afraid of what I contracted and how many days I might have left in the world. It was a shirt, folded in a way that all I could tell about it was that it was a Steelers shirt. I had a closet full of Steelers shirts. I felt a brief panic wondering how I was going to fake the excitement that the entire family clearly expected me to experience opening this amazing…t-shirt. Then as the folds fell away, I saw it. The signatures. Jerome Bettis, Dermontti Dawson, Levon Kirkland, Alan Faneca…just to name a few. Now there was no need to fake anything. I was speechless. “How…” I stammered as my brain had been reduced to stunned mush. It turned out my aunt was good friends with the girlfriend of Carlos Emmons that he had met while attending Arkansas State. My aunt had asked her friend if Carlos could get a shirt signed for me, and after a brutal 7-6 loss to the Patriots, he passed the shirt around the locker room. Most of the team took the time to do so. I’m not much of a collector or autograph seeker, but this felt like a personal gift from the team, and no matter how many times I have moved since, that shirt finds a spot of honor on my wall. There have been many Christmas gifts over the years, mostly forgotten before the wrapper hits the floor. I will always remember being in that house, sitting in THAT CHAIR, and seeing those signatures as I lifted the shirt out of the box.

With my grandfather passing, the family has been clearing away the last remaining possessions and then the house will be up for sale. My grandparents were the central force that bound the extended family, and that little house was the foundation of it all. Countless memories were forged there, from rambunctious board games played on the kitchen table to all the football games watched together where one very loud Black and Gold section joyously held its own in Cowboys country. I will be sad beyond words to see it go and only pass by as a stranger in future years, still able to hear the echoes of past cheers and laughter coming from its walls.

It’s easy to always be looking ahead to the next date on the calendar. The next mini-camp, the next signing, the next game. Take the time this upcoming season to just savor it with the people and family you are experiencing it with no matter what, win or lose, good results or bad. The best part about being a fan of a team like the Steelers is the memories it leaves, even when the people and places where they were forged have left us. I’ll never watch a Steelers game and not think about that house…that home…and in doing so it will always be with me.


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