I've never been to a Steelers playoff game. For that matter, despite living in Pittsburgh my entire life and being a rabid Steelers fan since the age of 7, I haven't been to very many Steelers games at all over the years. It's not that I have a problem with Heinz Field or anything, it's just that the tickets are so hard to come by, and they're just so darn expensive.
Fortunately for me, in late 2008, I started dating my lovely girlfriend. Unlike me, she's more of an "in the moment" kind of person and doesn't have to think every little thing through like I do. She's also extremely generous. And one night in the late summer of 2009, my girlfriend called me to surprise me with the news that she had purchased two tickets online for the NFL Kickoff game between the Steelers and Titans on Thursday, September 10th at Heinz Field.
I was very happy. As I said, I have never been to a postseason game, but seeing the Steelers open up the NFL season as defending Super Bowl Champions is the next best thing, in my opinion.
And what a match-up. The NFL really loves to throw its champion into the fire right away. Just a season earlier, the Titans entered the playoffs as Super Bowl favorites after winning 13 games in 2008--including a 31-14 beat-down of the Steelers in Tennessee in the penultimate regular season game--but lost to the Ravens in the divisional round, and the Steelers marched to their record sixth Super Bowl title. Would Pittsburgh have won if they had been forced to travel to Tennessee for the AFC title game? We'll never know, but the Titans were going to have a chance to show the whole world that their exit from the playoffs was a mere fluke.
Besides the lopsided score, the loss to the Titans at the end of the '08 season was infamous for something else. It was the game that several Titans, particularly LenDale White and Keith Bullock, stomped on, mangled and out and out disrespected the Terrible Towel on their sidelines for all the world to see. The Titans' actions towards the Towel were a hot topic among Steelers fans the week of the season opener and everyone was seeking sweet revenge.
As for me, I had something else on my mind in regards to the season opener.
I met my new girlfriend at work, but we hadn't told anyone of our relationship at that point. For one thing, we just weren't ready to announce our romance to our co-workers. Secondly, I was my girlfriend's superior, and we weren't sure if that would be frowned upon.
You might be wondering what that has to do with the Steelers/Titans game. Well, my boss, OUR boss, also had tickets for that game, and I was more than a little concerned about running into him with my new lady and having our relationship revealed prematurely. I was only mildly concerned at that point. I mean, what are the odds of randomly running into the boss in the middle of 65,000 crazy Steelers fans? Besides, we were both pretty good at being discreet.
Unfortunately, my girlfriend screwed up a bit a couple of days before the game, and she not only told our boss that she was going to the game, she told him the section, row and seats that her and her "friend" would be sitting in. When I found out, I was a little miffed. Call me a jerk, but I just wasn't ready to disclose our relationship. The boss told my girlfriend that he would come over to say hi during a break in the action. I thought we were screwed. My girlfriend had just given our boss a map to our exact location at Heinz Field. There was no way we could keep our relationship a secret any longer.
I was standing near by when my boss and girlfriend were having this conversation, and he asked me if I was going to the game with anyone.........It was time to come clean.
I looked my boss straight in the eye, took a deep breath and said......."No, I'm watching it on tv."
Fast forward to game day. I was very uptight about going to the game, but I knew my lady spent a lot of money on those tickets--there's just no way around it when you buy them online--and if I backed out, I would potentially risk damaging the relationship. Therefore, I bit my upper lip and headed for Heinz Field with my girlfriend by my side.
We parked in Mt. Washington (my little secret to avoid the traffic), rode the incline down to Station Square ,and then took the Gateway Clipper to Heinz Field. I was relaxed when we were on the boat, but once we got off, I was extremely paranoid, and I acted like it. I scanned the crowd, hoping not to run into the boss. Fortunately, we managed to miss him on the way to our seats.
Once we made it to our seats, instead of being happy, I was even more nervous. I felt like such a sitting duck. I knew that at any second, my boss could pop his head into our section and the relationship would be exposed.
I was never relaxed the entire game, and perhaps that was fitting, because it was a pretty intense contest.
The Steelers offense only managed one yard in the first quarter, and after a three and out early on, a Steelers fan stood up and shouted, "This is why I bleepin hate Arians!" This was literally five minutes into the first quarter of the first game AFTER winning the Super Bowl. I know this is a "What have you done for me lately?" society that we now live in, but I thought that was a bit much.
Fortunately, the Titans offense, led by quarterback Kerry Collins, didn't fare much better. Perhaps that was due to the fact that Troy Polamalu was playing like a man possessed in the first quarter. He was everywhere, and in addition to recording six tackles, he made one of the most beautiful interceptions I've ever seen when he jumped up and snatched a Collins pass out of the air with one hand. Troy was like a one man show early on, and he was clearly the best player on the field. It was number 43 at his most dominant.
Sadly, in the second quarter, Aaron Smith blocked a 31 yard field goal attempt by Rob Bironas, and during the scrum for the football, Troy's knee was injured and he had to leave the game.
Despite the defensive struggle, Ben Roethlisberger was having a great night--he would ultimately go 33/43 for 363 yards and a touchdown--and late in the first half, he connected with Santonio Holmes on a 34 yard touchdown pass with 1:22 remaining. It looked like Pittsburgh would go into the locker room with a 7-0 lead.
However, without Troy in the lineup, Collins looked less confused than he did earlier, and he only needed a few plays to move Tennessee all the way down field to tie the score with a 14 yard touchdown pass to Justin Gage with 48 seconds left.
Halftime was the time I really thought my boss would show up. Thankfully, my sweetie wanted food, so I went to the concessions to buy her some snacks. I hoped that my boss would stop by when I was gone. When I arrived back at my seat armed with food and drink (about five minutes into the third quarter), I asked my lady if the boss had come by to chat, and she said no. Damn it!
The game remained tied at 7 into the 4th quarter before Bironas connected from 45 yards out to put the Titans up, 10-7, with 11:03 remaining. But Jeff Reed tied it with a 32 yarder of his own with 2:57 left in the fourth quarter.
You couldn't ask for a more exciting finish between two of the NFL's best teams on opening night, right? I guess, but I was still nervous about running into our boss, and I convinced my sweetie that it was late and that we should leave. Yes, I know. I'm an idiot, but for some reason, my girlfriend agreed with me, and I grabbed her hand, and we got the heck out of there
She kept asking me why I was rushing, but we both knew why. I figured if we could make it onto the Gateway Clipper boat, we would be out of danger with regards to seeing my boss. Fortunately, we were able to make it aboard in pretty reasonable time. Unfortunately, they weren't showing the game on the boat television. Thankfully, there was another boat next to the one we were on, and they were showing the game on their television. Just minutes earlier, I was in the stands watching this epic battle unfold thanks to the tickets that my girlfriend bought out of the goodness of her heart. But because of my insecurities, I was reduced to watching the game through a window on the tv of a boat that I wasn't even on. My woman should have dumped me right then and there.
Anyway, I thought the Steelers were going to win it in regulation. Roethlisberger was on fire down the stretch, and he hit Hines Ward with a 30 yard catch and run deep into Titans' territory with precious little time remaining. Unfortunately, Hines was stripped of the football on the five yard line, and the game went to overtime.
The Steelers won the toss, and Ben's hot play carried into the fifth quarter as he drove the Steelers straight down the field. Skippy connected on the game-winning field goal with 10:28 left in overtime to give the Steelers their seven straight season-opening victory.
The injury that Polamalu suffered turned out to be an MCL sprain, and he missed a significant amount of time and was never quite the same again that year.
As for the Towel stomping Titans, they would start the year 0-6 and miss the playoffs. Curse? Perhaps.
As for the Steelers. Well, they would also miss the playoffs after suffering a five-game losing streak late in the season.
As for the relationship? My girlfriend doesn't work with me anymore, but people at work do know about our relationship now, including my boss who confronted me about it a few days later. Sadly, he said he suspected it all along. I wish I had known that. I wouldn't have been so nervous at the Titans game, and we sure as heck wouldn't have left before it was over.
Oh, and my girlfriend and I are still together and happy as ever.