I am dressed in all of my team gear: tossle cap, Big Ben #7 jersey, black and gold scarf, my seven-day playoff beard, and appropriate team-inspired underwear. Well, that may be too much information, at this point, but it’s completely relevant.
You’ve got to be kidding me—that’s not how I pictured the conclusion of this amazing football season. This year was going to be the year for us, according to me, anyway.
You can see it on my face, the disappointment is fresh and genuine. Within the last hour, my hometown football was defeated in the playoffs, by a warm-weather team from Florida.
That’s it: no more cheering for the home team, no more official jersey Sunday afternoons, no more black and gold skivvies; apparently, my home team will be watching the Super Bowl from the comfort of their own couch too.
For a team that showed so much promise in emerging players and developed talent, and displayed so much athleticism over the last six months, we just got stomped and humiliated by the other team.
On our own home turf, in sub-arctic temperatures. By a team from F-l-o-r-i-d-a: the word sticks to the roof of my mouth, like a foul-tasting food.
It’s within moments like this, as toggle between brooding in anger and becoming flush with depression, when I question my weekly allegiance to the Brotherhood of Professional Football Spectator-dom.
You may not win the Super Bowl. Your kids may not go on to be doctors and lawyers and everything may not go perfectly. That doesn’t mean it was a bad plan or the wrong thing. It’s just like a football season. Everything’s not going to go perfect. ~ Tony Dungy
Between the strands of shag carpet, circa 1970-something, I’ve been watching Steelers football since I was a kid. But, I couldn’t have cared any less for it. My family was dedicated to the weekly sport, and I can remember watching the static-infested television at my grandmother’s house, on a Sunday afternoon gathering. Aunts, uncles, parents, and one very hard-of-hearing grandfather would squawk at the players, coaching them from the plastic-covered couch.
I never understood the phenomenon, nor the hubbub of watching professional football with such dedication and loyalty. In hindsight, I’d love to declare that it was all simply, so amazing—Terrible Towels and Myron Cope, Mean Joe Green and his world-famous bottle of Coca-Cola, the Steel Curtain and something about Immaculate Receptions, Ham and Harris, Bradshaw and Webster, Super Bowl victories galore, Noll and Cowher—but, it seemed like just another televised sport, and little more than that.
When I was a teen, my father had a friend who—incidentally—played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I only met Justin Strzelczyk once, at the motorcycle garage where my father was employed and, subsequently, worked on the superstar’s motorcycle. But the thing that impressed me so much about the man, was that he was so ordinary. There was nothing about his personality that shouted Ima a Pro Player Make Way for Me; that has always stuck with me. Beyond that initial encounter, I knew that he had died, well before his allotted time, as a young man. Years and years later, I would watch the movie Concussion (2015) where Strzelczyk was portrayed as a tortured soul, presumably from the effects of repeated collisions on the football field.
Freshly minted from college, my degree prominently on display in my home, I had an opportunity to photograph the legendary Mel Blount—1989 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee. He could have been the man who worked at the grocery store, for all I knew, but as the studio manager for a famous portrait studio, it was my responsibility to handle this particular photo shoot and family portrait. I recall kids, dogs, and a cowboy hat. I wish there were more details to share, or personal reflection and insight to be garnished from this encounter. None, zip. Just be content that I remember that much.
As I aged, I received more wisdom regarding football afternoons: Sundays were a fantastic day—specifically during the time slot for the televised game—to conduct my grocery shopping. Yes, no one shops at the Super Walmart while the hometown team plays. As a married couple, my wife and I followed that shopping strategy, for years and years.
And then something happened in 2004. It was, as if, a light switch was flipped on. We just decided that that year was going to be the start of us watching football, as a family unit—albeit, a very small unit: me, her, one retriever, and our itty-bitty son. Without any sports-related experience, we began our journey into professional spectator-dom. It was a slow, and gradual slide before either of us contemplated matching jerseys or synchronized wardrobes.
In 2014, the Pittsburgh Steelers also transitioned to a new, rookie quarterback known as Ben Roethlisberger—jersey #7—aka Big Ben. He could have been a total stranger on the street, for all I knew, but in his second season, 2005, he was anything but an obscure name as he led the Steelers to a Super Bowl XL victory. And then another for Super Bowl XLIII. He also drove the team to a winning season, and Super Bowl XLV attendance, only to be defeated by the Packers. That was seven years ago, and as our Superfandom has increased, we have patiently been waiting for another spot in the Super Bowl.
By 2007, I had fully transitioned to owning and operating my own freelance web development business. One day, an existing client emailed me with a proposition. Her good friend—also known as Lynn Swann, #88, former wide receiver for the Steelers—was looking to build-out an online presence for a new business plan that he envisioned. Solely based on a referral from my existing client, he agreed to meet with me and get a sense of scope to the website that he imagined for this potential endeavor. In a series of clandestine communications—it always went through his secretary, much like how I imagine Super Spy communications—the meeting place (a local country club) was determined, and an early-morning meeting, 7:00am I believe, was established.
Dressed in my entrepreneur-best attire, I sheepishly met the football superstar. Much like Strzelczyk, Lynn Swann was incredibly normal and personable. I can’t say that I’ve ever had another conversation like that one, that day. Sure, we talked shop; although, we also discussed how I transitioned from a career in Art to that of Web Development, and I can also him asking me about my mother as he flipped the plastic pages of my digital work (yet, printed in hard-copy form) portfolio.
It was all so very surreal, and I can still recall the spread of fresh fruit that he ordered, encouraged me to enjoy, yet never touched, himself. Surreal, on a Grand Canyon scale of surrealism. Once he dismissed himself, I photographed the scene with a toy camera that was packed in my bag—I should try and locate that negative. No, the business venture never materialized into anything beyond the fresh pineapple.
I took several years of dance lessons that included ballet, tap and jazz. They helped a great deal with body control, balance, a sense of rhythm, and timing. ~ Lynn Swann
I guess it is a sense of entitlement, to an extent, where I feel that our team deserves to win the Super Bowl again—just because we are so stinking good, although that mentality quickly dissolves when you consider that we haven’t been back to the championship game in almost a decade.
Perhaps a sense of community is the best way to describe the body of football believers. Our hometown team is one that we can all get behind, to cheer for. There is a piece of me, call it extreme nostalgia, that refuses to be anything but All In for my team.
The camaraderie is real: with members of your family, friends within your circle of trust, with complete strangers at the gas station. We all want the same outcome, but sometimes that means losing together, as well. Most of time, that means losing together, as is the case with today’s defeat.
Much like movies, and those who get all riled-up about plot lines or character development, I love to remind myself of this simple fact: professional football has no direct bearing on the reality of my life. If my team wins or loses, it really makes no difference to me. I do not make my living, based on the team’s success or failure. Depression and anger, over the loss of a mostly-silly game are misplaced in your life.
From time to time, my children will watch football with us. They will ask questions like “what do the painted lines mean”, or “was that thing that just happen, bad?” and I adore them for that.
They each own some type of official sports gear; attendance in front of the television is not mandatory, but cheering for an opposing team is strictly forbidden.
Typically, my son shows no interest in the game. He doesn’t ask me questions, attempt to understand the game, or paint thick black lines under his eyes, to rally in a playoff game. He reminds me of my younger self who didn’t give two rips about professional football, and I also adore him for that. I never want to force my kids into a shape or mold that I have predetermined for them. I still believe that life is about making your own decisions, and forming your own interests, whatever they may be.
Football is a great deal like life in that it teaches that work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness and respect for authority is the price that each and every one of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile. ~ Vince Lombardi
But…it is important that they understand the reasons for watching football, beyond the simple entertainment value. The sport demands sacrifice, dedication, and extraordinary levels of discipline. All of which, are terrific characteristics to blend into your own life. If we all incorporated some of those disciplines into our own lives, we could greatly enhance and improve our own realities—minus the helmet-to-helmet head-butting.
Black and gold skivvies are, of course, optional.
Author’s note: incidentally, did you know that the term Tossle Cap is a unique colloquialism specific to Pittsburgh natives? This, I did not know before writing today’s narrative. Guess you learn something new each day.