The blessing is having been able to see the greatest Steelers win of all time. The curse is knowing we ascended to the top of the mountain, and are never likely to again see such a thrilling championship game in which the Steelers pull out a victory.
It was Friday. It was really cold and I was feeling sick. I had been pacing around my office the entire day, pretending to work when I finally came clean to my boss that I needed to leave early.
Not a football fan herself, but recognizing I took days off once every six months, and had a PTO carryover from the previous year that effectively could have allowed me to take the entire upcoming football season off, she feigned interest in the game, saying, "yeah, you gotta get ready for the big game. Get out of here! Go home!"
I was out of her office before the word "home" echoed off the walls.
My then fiance came home to me blasting music watching the AFC Championship game again - a thrilling 23-14 win over rival Baltimore in what could have been the most physical game ever played. She gave me an odd look that turned even odder when I told her I wasn't feeling good frantically, like I was telling her I locked my keys in the car and needed to be somewhere in a half an hour.
We rushed to Target where I stocked up on this new product called "Airborne" (incidentally, Airborne tablets dissolved in orange juice has become one of my favorite drinks of all time. Highly recommended).
The surging Arizona Cardinals lay in front of the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, complete with a script for any movie. The coaches passed over by the Steelers in 2007 headed to the desert and led the Hall of Fame worthy Kurt Warner and one of the best receivers of the Big Play Generation, Larry Fitzgerald, into a surprising Super Bowl bid.
There seemed to be so much more intrigue with this version of the team than its 2005 Destiny-Laden counterpart. There was no shimmering "JEROME BETTIS IS FROM DETROIT!" signs, there was no massive upset in the divisional round (just a thorough beating of the San Diego Chargers), it was a wonderfully balanced, clutch and playmaking group that earned the AFC's No. 2 seed.
I burned all my energy writing about the upcoming game, and found myself restlessly sitting through a Saturday I wished would end already.
When Sunday came, we met SteelerBro and his lady friend (future wife) at McGovern's, crammed with 300 other fans waiting to get into the bar area so we could secure a seat. After dealing with that stress and anxiety for an hour, we finally were allowed into the bar, where we got our usual table, and prepared to sit for five hours before the game started.
Normally, I'd find myself with more than enough time to drink excessively through nothing more than sheer nerves, but I said I wouldn't drink during the game. I wanted to remember all of it - something I couldn't really claim from the previous Steelers Super Bowl win. We listened to music, started chants, yelled at naysayers on TV, sent approximately 4,000 text messages and quoted movies just to pass the time.
SteelerBro, a musician, had an iPod collection that would rival anyone's. Of what seemed to be 60,000 songs, he, like myself, had a certain list he'd put on before games. It was roughly 45 minutes before game time, and with one ear bud attached to his head, and the other attached to mine, we listened to a few songs, most notably, Bulls on Parade by Rage Against The Machine.
A guy who recognized SteelerBro from his band eventually came up to us. I had met him before, he was a notorious Toucher - the guy who seemingly has to have his hand on you at all times. It starts with the handshake that lasts well beyond comfort level, and moves to your shoulder, where he'll give you something of a mix between a massage and a doctor's examination for tendinitis. One would think it would end with the standard grip of the side of your biceps, but that seems to be its final resting place until you have to forcibly push it off.
I saw him coming, don't like being touched by 50s-something men, let alone ones who don't know me, so I ran quickly to the bathroom. I don't believe SteelerBro saw him coming, and I'm sure he was upset I left him with his grabby, adoring fan, but I was in no mood to deal with it.
I came back out, and he was there, gripping SteelerBro's biceps despite him slowly backing away from him. I tried to approach from the back side as to slide back to the table undetected, but he spotted me immediately.
Handshake, long uncomfortable handshake, shoulder rub and biceps check, I was answering questions about my upcoming wedding, followed by comments about the game.
He bought us each a shot and a beer, and despite my initial refusal, he handed me the shot of whiskey, and things started going downhill.
My nerves were somewhat soothed by the sweet tang of Jamison, and the Guinness chaser went down quite well, considering my likely depleted water supply brought on by illness.
I told SteelerBro "ehh...fuck it, let's get a pitcher." So we did. That pitcher was gone in approximately 10 minutes.
So my plan to not drink suddenly turned into four beers and a shot right before game time.
Needless to say, the music was really being cranked now, followed by much more brave and loud support for the Steelers.
Any fan who's watched their team in a Super Bowl knows that feeling right before kickoff. It's the most anticlimactic moment in all of sports; to the casual observer, you see thousands of camera flashes go off, signifying what will most likely be the most mundane play of the game. But for fans of the two teams, you're left with one last moment of anticipation for the game. The What-Ifs run through your head one last time. They're released from your active imagination in sync with the crescendo of everyone who's voices accelerate with the kicker's feet as he approaches the ball.
Then it goes silent, waiting for the ball to descend. You don't remember the result of the kick, but you remember the noise before it's actually kicked off.
It started off perfectly for the Steelers. They marched all over Arizona early, working a fine game plan on both sides of the ball and were well in control. A shaky Cardinals team went three and out, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did what he does on the opening drive, hitting TE Heath Miller for an 11-yard gain on 3rd-and-10 after avoiding what appeared to be 12 Cardinals defenders in the backfield.
Running back Gary Russell scored from a yard out for a 10-0 lead.
The Steelers outgained the Cardinals 140-13 in the first quarter. Not only did it appear the Steelers were well on their way to One For The Other Thumb, they were going to do it in blowout fashion.
Arizona answered on a hugely clutch drive that included a 45-yard Warner-to-Anquan Boldin reception.
After Roethlisberger threw an interception inside Steelers territory, what appeared to be a huge win in the first quarter was turning into a halftime deficit.
Until Harrison happened.
James Harrison, a cult hero of Steelers faithful before the 2007 season when he busted out of his muscular shell, happened. Reading something in Kurt Warner, he broke off his assignment of rushing the passer, and stepped into an inside lane to intercept Warner at the goal line.
By this point I had moved from our table to another spot that had always treated me well in the season. I moved to that spot to witness a game-winning field goal, and had done it again when Deshea Townsend picked off Tony Romo to beat the Cowboys. It was my spot.
With my feet firmly planted in My Spot, I saw Harrison make the play, and a mosh pit ensued. It was hard to stay in my spot, but I vowed not to leave it until the play was over. Harrison broke to the outside, and we were all thinking, "good, no Cardinals points, halftime lead."
Then he kept going.
Field goal range, maybe? Nah, clock expired.
It got almost quieter. We all had ample opportunity to take another drink. One guy even flagged down a waitress and ordered nachos. Harrison was still going. It had to be the slowest play in NFL history.
He got to about midfield, and all you saw was a cadre of Steelers defenders struggling to keep up with the gassed Harrison. But you saw Boldin on one side, and Fitzgerald bowling his way through his own team on the sideline in pursuit.
Scoring became a legitimate option. He could make it! He kept going...and going...and...
Fitzgerald caught him from behind at the goal line. I was beside myself yelling "WAS HE IN?? WAS HE IN!"
Ref signals touchdown, the place went ballistic.
HAD to be the biggest play in Super Bowl history. HAD to be. I mean...to quote Jack Buck, "I can't believe what I just saw!"
I was borderline crying at this point. Harrison is probably my favorite Steelers player of all time, and he just scored on a 100-yard interception return to take a 17-7 lead into the locker room at the Super Bowl.
It would get more dramatic.
Arizona did not quit. Darnell Dockett complete destroyed the Steelers' biggest weakness, its interior offensive line, and very finely positioned himself for MVP honors, regardless of the outcome of the game (I'll still argue Dockett was more instrumental in the Cardinals' ability to get back in that game, and damn near win it, than any other player, including Fitzgerald, who was mostly blanked until his huge touchdown).
The entire bar went deathly silent as we saw Fitzgerald break loose from a short post. He evaded Ike Taylor, who had done a phenomenal job on Fitzgerald all game long. When Polamalu missed the chance for the tackle, leaving just Harrison in pursuit, I knew he was going to score, and quickly ran to the bathroom.
I had stopped drinking, just to save myself for the rest of the night, and with the sound of the game not available in the bathroom, I wanted to just stay in there for a while, wondering how the Steelers managed to blow a 17-7 halftime lead. I adjusted my hat in the mirror, splashed some water on my face to cool off from the kilm-like temperatures in the bar, composed myself and headed back just after the kickoff.
It was eerily quiet in the bar, which probably was bordering on overcapacity. I noticed a group of older people who had made their way to the table underneath the TV we were watching. They had found themselves amid the party despite not appearing to have any rooting interest.
This made me angry. Maybe it was the fact the Steelers were down 23-20 with 2:37 left to play.
I glared at them as the noise level began to increase again. SteelerBro and I voice our extreme displeasure of LG Chris Kemoeatu's holding penalty that put the Steelers back to their own 12-yard line.
Then It happened again.
It was Roethlisberger-to-Holmes. It happened a lot on that drive.
Roethlisberger to Holmes for 14 yards for a first down. Then back to Holmes for 13 yards. Roethlisberger to Nate Washington for 11 yards, and a four-yard Roethlisberger run. Timeout.
The place was screaming, yelling, pleading...all to the chagrin of the group that seemed to think entering a bar/restaurant chalk-full of Steelers fans on the last drive of a Super Bowl would be a quiet and calm place.
Then Holmes took a Roethlisberger pass and busted it 40 yards, and bedlam ensued. SteelerBro and I were jumping around, yelling with everyone else, and I caught the eye of what appeared to be the alpha gentleman of the older group gaining the courage to come over and talk to us.
I informed him in no uncertain (or legal) terms he was to sit his bloated posterior down and silence himself. They didn't look in our direction again. It's my defining "I'm not proud of myself except I am" moment.
Roethlisberger went back to Holmes but it fell incomplete. He went back to him again in what was without a doubt the finest throw of his career. It was Holmes' finest reception.
Tone's toes were down. Replay confirmed it.
Again, I could not believe what I just saw.
Pandemonium broke out, TV crews were on hand to witness 500 or so people all seemingly embraced at the same time, screaming, yelling, slapping hands, spilling drinks and smashing into each other.
We didn't have any energy left for LaMarr Woodley's strip-sack of Warner, or Brett Keisel's ensuing recovery. Roethlisberger knelt out the most dramatic Super Bowl ever played, and we celebrated in a completely different fashion than we did the Super Bowl win over Seattle.
We celebrated it with no energy whatsoever. We had none left. We sat in a haze, smiles on our faces, taking pictures and giving high fives to anyone we saw.
The place emptied out roughly an hour afterward. We took sips of champagne and finished off our last pitcher.
We got a ride home, and the whole way back I remember just thinking how someday I would be writing about the memory of that day. There isn't one specific lede with this story. There were so many huge moments, the emotional rollercoaster we had just been through couldn't possibly be duplicated.
But it will live forever, even after a tough Super Bowl loss two years later, and eventually leading to an 8-8 season that will likely be Harrison's last in a Steelers uniform. There's always that game. The game where we Couldn't Believe What We Just Saw.