Happy New Year, everyone! I hope your New Year's Eve activities were joyous and safe. Living in Pittsburgh, there's always something to talk about in a sporting sense, and 2011 was no exception.
Join me as I discuss my favorite sports moments from 2011 involving the teams I follow and care about. And heck, I'll even throw in some personal moments that involved yours truly.
* The first memorable moment happened on the very first day of 2011. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals played in the NHL Winter Classic at Heinz Field on New Year's day. I'm not a huge hockey fan, but I remember the city and fans treating the day almost as if it was a Super Bowl. It was no small task finding a ticket for the game as hockey fans traveled from all around the world looking to be in attendance. My girlfriend, a huge Penguins fan, was one of the lucky ones who got to witness the rare outdoor hockey event in person. The Classic was originally scheduled for noon, but because of a very rare mild and rainy New Year's day in Pittsburgh, the game had to be pushed back to 8pm. And because the rain persisted throughout much of the day, it was touch-and-go for a while there as to whether or not the NHL would get the game in, but thankfully, things went off without a hitch. Unfortunately, the Penguins lost, but most Pens fans who attended the event said they had an awesome time, regardless. A little unfortunate side-note from the memorable day was that the Winter Classic just so happened to be the day that Penguins star player Sidney Crosby suffered the hit that led to his year-long battle with concussions, and he's missed a significant amount of playing time over the past year.
*Just two weeks after the Winter Classic, Heinz Field would see another memorable event, only this time it was a more common occurrence-- an exciting playoff game involving the Steelers and their bitter AFC North rivals, the Baltimore Ravens. When the playoffs began last January, the Steelers were the number 2 seed and the Ravens were number 5, but it seemed almost inevitable that the two teams would eventually clash at Heinz Field. January 15th, on a Saturday evening, just so happened to be that night. Things didn't start off well for Pittsburgh, and they trailed at the half, 21-7. I had just left work when the second quarter ended, and even though I still had hope for a comeback, the rational side of me was prepared for a very depressing evening. But by the time I got home from work, the Steelers had already tied the game at 21. Thanks in large part to safety Ryan Clark, the defense had two quick takeaways in the third quarter, and the offense capitalized with two touchdowns. Fast-forward to late in the 4th quarter with the game tied at 24 and the Steelers facing a 3rd and 19 just before the two-minute warning. Just when it looked like the Steelers would have to give the ball back to Baltimore, Ben Roethlisberger unleashed a pass 58 yards down field to rookie receiver Antonio Brown, who pulled the pass in and helped cradle it against his helmet before going out of bounds inside the 10. Rashard Mendenhall eventually punched it in, and the Steelers held on for a very memorable, 31-24, victory. I remember talking to my mom that night, and she said, "I can't believe we have to go through this all over again next week." Welcome to playoff football, Mom!
*Speaking of the next game, due to the New York Jets upset of the heavily favored New England Patriots at Foxboro, the Steelers got to host the AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field on January 23rd. The Steelers built a 24-3 halftime lead before holding on at the end, 24-19. The game wasn't nearly as exciting as the week before, but one thing I will remember is Jets coach Rex Ryan slamming his headset down in disgust after Antonio Brown caught the game-clinching pass on 3rd down with under two-minutes remaining.
*The Steelers were off to their third Super Bowl in six seasons, and another time that I will always cherish from 2011 was the two-week period leading up to the Big Game. Yes, I know the Steelers lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV, and years from now, the only stuff anyone will remember about that game will be Big Ben's pick six, the secondary getting schooled by Aaron Rodgers all night, and of course, Rashard Mendenhall's critical 4th quarter fumble. However, the two weeks before the Super Bowl, Steelers fans seemed way more festive to me than they were leading up to Pittsburgh's other recent Super Bowl appearances. I don't know why. I know my mom was happy about it, and she relayed story after story to me about her interactions with people, and how happy they were when she would bring up the Super Bowl. I also encountered many people who were pretty happy about it, too. Even my boss, who is normally more critical than not, was very excited about the build up to XLV. A week before the game, I went to a party at a friend's house, and stopped at an establishment to pick up a six-pack of whatever so I wouldn't show up empty-handed. I was discussing the Super Bowl with the guy behind the bar, and when he gave me my change, he said with a sparkle in his eye, "You enjoy that game next week!" You could tell it meant a great deal to him. Anyway, to the people who say stuff like, "I'd rather see the Steelers not make the Super Bowl at all rather than see them make it and lose," how can you say such a thing? Weren't you happy when the Steelers beat the Jets? Didn't you celebrate that night? Weren't you festive for two weeks? That all has to count for something, right?
*A few weeks later, I had my own little highlight as I bowled a 190 in a league game. This, of course, enhanced my desire to get better at the sport, and I went out and bought my own ball. I spent the next couple of weeks spending way too much money, trying to improve my skills. Didn't work out as well as I'd hoped.
*Shortly after Super Bowl XLV, Michael Bean, founder and editor of Behind the Steel Curtain asked me if I would like to write some stuff for the main page. I had been writing fanposts on the Steelers blog site all throughout the 2010 season, and I was very excited about the opportunity. Beings that it was the offseason, however, I was worried about coming up with one or two stories each week. Fortunately, I was more than able to do that, and this helped me become a better, more well-rounded writer. It also allowed me to search the vault of my memory-bank and sort of relive many great moments that I've experienced as a Steelers fan throughout my life.
*Speaking of BTSC, in late June, I wrote a fun little "preview" of the Steelers 2011 season. Basically, I was just having a little comedic fun (even if I do believe in deja vu and want every Steelers season to end like 2005), and it was received rather warmly on BTSC. However, the day after I wrote this, I found the post linked to an Atlanta Falcons message board on NFL.com (I said the Steelers would beat the Falcons in Super Bowl XLVI because they always do well against "bird teams" in the Big Game), and the people on this board took me to task. I wish I had the link to the site, but I do remember that someone said, "This guy is not a writer, he's a blogger. To call this guy a writer is an insult to writers." Someone else called me pompous, and yet another Falcons fan gave me the best compliment of all: "A legendary moron." Believe it or not, I was proud of that. Anyway, if the Steelers have to enter the playoffs as the 5th seed, don't fret. Remember what transpired in 2005. It's written in the stars.
*To the surprise of many, a memorable part of 2011 involved the Pittsburgh Pirates actually flirting with contention for the first time since the late 90's. As late as the end of July, the Pirates were five-games over .500 and in first place in the National League Central division. Unfortunately, they soon suffered through a ten-game losing streak and fell out of contention pretty quickly. But it was a great summer being a Pirates fan again. I will always remember how the fans came out and showed their support for the team and demonstrated to the rest of the baseball world that there are plenty of Pirates fans out there, and PNC Park is an amazing place to watch a baseball game. If the Pirates can ever get it together and become a true contender, people will realize what a great baseball town the City of Pittsburgh truly is.
*Another great thing that happened to yours truly in 2011 was getting the opportunity to appear on Terrible Towel Talk--an Internet radio show produced by Michael Bean--one night in October, a few days after the Steelers defeated the Titans at Heinz Field. I was talking to Michael online, and he asked me if I would be interested in calling into his show. This was around midnight, but I said I would because I've always had an interest in sports talk radio. Needless to say, I was a little nervous having never appeared on the radio before. To calm myself down, I was out on my street, after midnight, doing wind-sprints. I think it worked, because even though I was still a little nervous, it wasn't as bad as it could have been if I hadn't found a way to release a bit of tension. It was a ton of fun, and maybe I'm just full of myself, but I think I did pretty well for my first time. Many thanks to Michael for the opportunity.
*My last two favorite sports moments from 2011 happened on the same day on October 30th. The first, and most important to Steeler Nation, was Pittsburgh's impressive, 25-17, victory over the New England Patriots at Heinz Field. To say that Steelers fans were a little sick and tired of Tom Brady's dominance of the Steelers defense in recent years is a bit of an understatement. "Styles make the match" is a phrase often used when one player or team appears to have the number of another player or team, and Brady's quick release and willingness to pick a defense apart with underneath passes was the kryptonite of Dick Lebeau's philosophy that, sooner or later, a quarterback will make a mistake. Well, Brady is one of the all-time greats; mistakes are not his norm. That's why much credit has to be given to Lebeau for his willingness to have his corners play a more aggressive style against Wes Welker and Company on Devil's Night. Brady was off his game the entire day, and Pittsburgh's secondary turned in maybe its most impressive performance in a season filled with many great performances. As for me, well, just as the Steelers were putting their finishing touches on a great night, I was in the beginning stages of the greatest bowling match of my life. In my first two games, I bowled a 168 and a 188. But I saved my best for last. In game three, I was in a zone and didn't have an open frame until the 9th. I wasn't sure of my score at that point, but I thought I had a real good shot at my 2nd 200 game (first in league play). When I began the 10th frame, I had a 190, and for the first time in the match, I was a little nervous. I knew I needed at least ten pins to accomplish my goal. On my first roll, I picked up eight pins, but unfortunately, the two pins that I left were the 4 and 7. Since I'm left-handed, this required me to pick up a pretty difficult spare for any recreational bowler. Unfortunately, I didn't pick it up, but a 198 is nothing to sneeze at, and I was very proud of what I had done. A 548 isn't too far away from a 600 series. It was truly a great day all the way around. The Steelers knocked off their long-time nemesis, and I bowled a 548. Can't get much better than that.
I hope you enjoyed reliving some great moments with me. May 2012 be even greater for you and yours.
Happy New Year!