Of the thousands of sporting events I've watched all throughout my life, I have a hard time thinking of more than maybe a handful of moments where the result of a game left me feeling truly euphoric. As you might expect, I have the Pittsburgh Steelers to thank for most of my states of euphoria.
Below, I'd like to share those moments and how they helped shape me as a Steelers fan:
Steelers upset the Broncos, 24-17, in Divisional Playoff Game at Mile High Stadium on December 30th, 1984
Many consider the loss to Miami in the 1984 AFC Championship Game to be the last stand for the great Steelers teams of the 70's, and maybe in the context of the times, it probably felt like a continuation of the Super Bowl teams of the previous decade. But, truth be told, with the exception of John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Donnie Shell and Jack Lambert (who missed most of what would be his final season thanks to turf toe), the championship magic had long-since dissipated by '84, and this was already a mediocre football team that would struggle for respectability during the remaining years under Chuck Noll.
I started watching the Steelers in January of 1980 as a seven year old and was fortunate enough to witness them capture their fourth Lombardi trophy in six seasons with a victory over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV. Unfortunately, THAT was the final chapter of the great dynasty, as many Super Bowl heroes soon departed, and the team struggled to make the postseason in subsequent years. While older fans may have had an air of entitlement and superiority thanks to the Super 70's, I was reared on mediocre records, mediocre rosters and watching my favorite football team lose to the Bengals, Browns and Oilers on a pretty consistent basis in the early 80's.
By December of 1984, when the Steelers (9-7) traveled to Mile High Stadium to take on a 13-3 Denver team in the Divisional Playoffs, I certainly didn't "feel" like my birth-right was a Super Bowl. In fact, I didn't think there was any way Pittsburgh was going to win that game. I rooted hard, of course, but was totally stunned by the outcome. "Mark Malone defeated John Elway?" To this day, I still can't believe it.
As a 12 year old, it was my first true Steelers "moment," and it taught me to always believe in your team, and that football games aren't won on paper.
Steelers knock off Oilers in overtime in AFC Wildcard Game on December, 31st, 1989
Our very own Maryrose has stated more than once that sports teams such as the Steelers may not be necessary, but they sure are important to the people who care about them. When Pittsburgh captured the last playoff spot in the AFC following a Vikings victory over Cincinnati on Monday Night Football in the final game of the 1989 season, I was simply elated. It was Christmas night, and what a great present for Steeler Nation, especially after the 5-11 campaign in 1988 and the first two games of the '89 season, in-which Pittsburgh was blown out by the Browns and Bengals by a combined score of 92-10.
I was 17 and on Christmas break that week, and unfortunately, the elation of the Steelers making the playoffs quickly gave way to some very serious family issues that placed a dark cloud over my household for the remainder of my school vacation. However, in the midst of everything that was going on in my family, I clung to the hope of the upcoming Steelers wildcard game in Houston's old Astrodome, and that's when I first realized the great diversion a sporting event can be.
After Gary Anderson's kick sailed through the uprights from 50 yards away, and Pittsburgh knocked off Jerry Glanville and the hated Oilers in overtime, I felt nothing but pure joy. I can remember jumping out of my chair, with my arms in the air, while my late grandfather pulled out his "lucky" penny and handed it to me. All the family problems seemed to be washed away at that moment, and things started to feel "normal" again.
On a slightly less serious note, speaking strictly as a fan, that victory over Houston taught me just how precious a playoff victory is and how it can stay with you forever. Despite the hundreds of Steelers games I've watched in my lifetime, I've only personally witnessed 20 postseason victories, so as far as I'm concerned, any playoff victory is something to be cherished.
Steelers defeat the Colts, 20-16, on January 14th, 1996, to reach first Super Bowl in 16 seasons
As I touched on earlier, the Steelers were an average football team for most of my youth, and the thought of them even making the Super Bowl again seemed too far-fetched to even imagine. However, I did imagine it a lot and suffered through every postseason disappointment--including January of 1995, when Pittsburgh was upset by the Chargers in the 1994 AFC Championship Game at old Three Rivers Stadium.
A year later, when Jim Harbaugh's Hail Mary pass eluded Aaron Bailey's grasp and fell to the Three Rivers turf on the last play of the 1995 AFC Championship Game, it was a feeling and realization I had always dreamed of: "The Pittsburgh Steelers are actually going to the Super Bowl!"
Following the game, I jumped into my uncle's car and drove around the city, honking the horn at passersby--the first and only time I've ever done that.
Unlike the previous feelings of euphoria, that one stayed with me for weeks, even after the loss to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX. I know many people still feel betrayed by Neil O'Donnell for his two very unfortunate interceptions, and I realize the loss is at the top of most fans' lists of most heartbreaking moments in Pittsburgh sports history, but I don't look at it that way. Up to that point, it was the greatest time I ever had following any team, and it's something I'll always treasure. Those Bill Cowher playoff teams of the 90's represented a resurgence in Steeler Nation after many tough years, and that AFC Championship was the crowning moment and a bit of a return to the glory days of old.
Regardless of what our standards are as a fan base, the fact is, even making it to the Super Bowl is more of a rarity than maybe we'd like to acknowledge--there's a reason only two teams (the Steelers and Cowboys) are tied for the most appearances with eight. If it was really that easy, I'm sure people would figure out a way to get back there more often.
The Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions have never even been to a Super Bowl. In baseball, the Chicago Cubs, with all their rich tradition and history, haven't been to the World Series since 1945. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a pretty rabid following, but they haven't been to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1967.
Like Steelers fans, the standard for Lakers faithful is "NBA title or bust." However, I'll bet fans of the Clippers, the "other" NBA franchise located in Los Angeles, would probably give anything just to see their team make it to the NBA Finals.
I don't have feelings of disappointment when I think of the final weeks of the1995 season, only feelings of euphoria.
Steelers defeat the Seahawks, 21-10, on February 5th, 2006, to capture their first Super Bowl title in 26 seasons
I'm not sure if fans can truly pay their "dues," but I sure felt like I put up with my share of anxiety, heartache and pain during the first 25 years that I followed the Steelers. Yes, winning playoff games is always nice, and watching your team just make the Super Bowl is something to cherish for a lifetime. However, like all fans, I wondered if I'd ever experience the joy of seeing my team win it all.
It's funny how, even as a fan, you can have a "pinch me" moment. I certainly had one in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XL, when I realized the Steelers were going to defeat Seattle. Once the final whistle blew, and I watched Cowher present the Lombardi trophy to Mr. Rooney, I felt like I owned a piece of it. The next day, when I wore the championship t-shirt I bought at Parkway Center Mall, I felt like I actually accomplished something, as weird as that seems.
The theme of this piece has been euphoric moments, and believe me, the elation and euphoria I felt after Super Bowl XL is something I still carry with me to this day. Super Bowl XLIII was awesome, and in many ways, superior to Super Bowl XL, but there's nothing quite like the first time. I'll never forget how I felt in the hours, days, weeks, months and years following Super Bowl XL.
In conclusion, the great thing about euphoric sports moments is they're rare and something you truly can't experience unless your heart belongs to a particular team. My heart belongs to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I don't know when I'll experience that next feeling of euphoria, but if it's anything like the moments I described in this post, I'm positive it will be something I'll remember for the rest of my life.