I got my writing done Sunday morning, and thought about heading down to the bland breakfast buffet at my hotel. I've been in Columbus since Oct. 23, and outside of a nice stroll through THE Ohio State University's campus, it sort of dawned on me that I was really bored.
Cousin Meghan in Pittsburgh had bugged me for the past two weeks to make the trek east to watch a Steelers game. Work had occupied all of my time over the past three weeks, and just the thought of a three-hour car ride was a stronger deterrant than even catching a regular season game at Heinz Field.
Until I smelled the buffet when I walked into the lobby. Spontaneity took over. If I was going to eat that buffet again, it was going to be before I did something exciting.
Seven years ago, I would have been there the whole weekend. As Bob Seger sings, "those days have passed me now/I've got so much more to think about/deadlines and commitments/what to leave in, what to leave out."
Now, I've got too much to do. It's not so much the present act of doing things, it's what happens when I get less than six hours of sleep. My energy level drops faster than my cell phone battery (caution to all perspective G1 buyers) without a proper recharge.
A spark went off inside my head when I took in the smell of Grade C eggs and watered down Five Alive juice. I wasn't going to be a prisoner inside Room #235 this Sunday. My options to watch the game would not consist of sitting amongst Browns fans down at the BW3s, or bothering my hoteled neighbors with my vocal support of the Black and Gold.
I decided I was going with the wind instead of against it for a change.
I plugged in my phone with the notoriously weak battery (caution to all perspective G1 buyers) and threw all my stuff together to get in my Mazda 6 rental and head across Ohio to snowy Pittsburgh.
I texted Cousin Meghan immediately, and asked her if a seat was still available. It was about 9:30 a.m., I could make it without a problem, and be back to Columbus by about 11 p.m. I was all set to freeze my butt off, but Cousin Meghan asked me the silly question:
"Do you want to sit in the box?"
One of Cousin Meghan's friends is related to the Rooney family, and while I understand I've clearly got no way to avoid sycophantic bias, she is truly one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. Cousin Meghan and I joined her for a pre-season game last year (vs. Green Bay), and not only did she get us tickets and a parking pass, she helped us build the grill we bought too.
Yeah, I'm pretty much useless.
Cousin Meghan told Marie I was coming, and she offered to let us sit in a luxury suite to watch the game.
I went from eating doughy biscuits and gravy to getting in a car to dine on Heinz Field catering goodness in a comfy, padded chair.
"Marie is the GREATEST!" I IMed Cousin Meghan. Obviously, Meghan is a close second.
I could usually get up to about 85 m.p.h except in West Virginia, where every bass-ackwards twit driving a mid-90s truck decided the left lane was where they should be to crank George Strait at a whoppin' 59
mph. I was fine, though. I listened to my pre-game song list on my iPod and made it to Meghan's place in Oakland by about 1:50 p.m. I tied up traffic while I parked on the curb and may or may not have nudged a car's bumper. Otherwise, it was a decent inner-city parallel parking job.
I sent my boss the notes she needed for our meeting Monday morning, and we were off to pick up Marie.
After enjoying some time getting her dog as fired up as we were for the game (poor thing...small dogs crazy-excited running around on hardwood floors is sadly hilarious), we got into gridlock traffic getting to Heinz Field.
I called SteelerBro from outside Heinz Field to let him know (heh heh heh) where I was sitting, and made our way up to the Promised Land, a.k.a. The Fourth Floor - the luxury suite level.
We had the usher open up the windows to get the feel of the snow that had begun blanketing the field in a storm commensurate with what I'm used to, as a native Minnesotan. It lasted just long enough that the game wouldn't be compromised, but provided the fans with an excited charge before kickoff.
I chomped down a hot dog and some chicken strips along with my Ethiopian can of Coke as fans continued to pour in and watch Paul Ernster struggle mightily with punting against...and with...the wind.
A definite advantage to watching games live...things like winning the coin toss and deferring are met with the same enthusiasm as a first down completion, or a stop on third and long. The crowd reacted vigorously, knowing the best defense in the NFL was going to start the game on the field. It took the ref a minute to find the coin on the snowy ground, a sign of competenace and efficiency.
At least they got that call right.
I wasn't in a position where I could yell and scream like I'm used to doing. I wanted to keep it at a low roar, and I was tested immediately with Polamalu's interception. He made a diving catch that defied physics against Philadelphia, but seeing it live gives me a completely new appreciation for what that man is capable of doing. He looks as if he's skipping frames of time when he runs.
I firmly believe God made the people in the NFL to be professional athletes. A percentage of them were built specifically to play their respective position. Troy Polamalu was born to be a Hall of Fame strong safety, and I'm not sure if anyone in the NFL is more of a natural athlete than he is.
He alone is worth the price of admission.
I kept snapping pictures despite not having a zoom option (caution to all perspective G1 buyers), just trying to soak in as much of the atmosphere as possible. The two biggest aspects of the game I felt were just not noticeable if the game was watched on TV was just how loud and in synch the crowd is with "HERE WE GO STEELERS, HERE WE GO!" and just how much energy Willie Parker brings to the team and the crowd.
My original column was going to refute my long-standing belief of how much one individual running back isn't ultimately important. I'm a big fan of what Mewelde Moore has done for this team, but Willie Parker is truly the straw that stirs the drink of this team. The subtle juke he has in him to side-step a would-be tackler at the precise moment needed to turn a 2-yard gain into a 5-yard gain, the way he seems to have the whole run choreographed in his head just as he's getting the snap.
This was a different offense in Week 11, and while Ben was much-improved, it was a different offense because of Parker. And the way the crowd reacted when he didn't take a negative run all game fired up the offensive line - and they played a tremendous game in the run game and pass pro.
Probably the coolest aspect of it was during a third quarter TV timeout. The Steelers defense had mostly dominated the game, and the Chargers faced third and 9 from their 32 yard line.
The music became a little louder than it had been, and the cameras were fixed on Brett Keisel, who was playing a fantastic game. He motioned for some more noise. Just at that point, the jumbotron started showing slow-motion replays of big defensive hits to Styx's "Renegade."
I could feel the anticipation of the crowd start to swell. Maybe I wasn't the only one thinking, "Oh sweet, I haven't seen a compilation of hits the defense has collected this year!"
"Oh mama, I'm in fear for my life from the wrong arm of the law/lawman has put an end to my runnin', and I'm so far from my home/Oh mama, I can hear you cryin' you're so scared and all alone/Hangman is comin' down from the gallows and I don't have very long/YAH!"
Right on the last beat, James Harrison was shown giving Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick a suplex, and it quickly flashed through several huge hits that had the crowd borderline hysterical.
While it was difficult to take my eyes off it, I looked down at the defense on the field. All 11 of them were turned and watching it. Tyrone Carter - in on the nickel - was hopping up and down in tune with the music. Keisel seemed to be playing a little air drum. Harrison stood and stared at it.
Just a complete badass.
At the point the song slows into a floor tom-led repeat of the chorus, and it was highlighted by the hit everyone saw coming...Hines Ward leveling out Keith Rivers.
Frankly, Hines, if you're reading this, you know that was worth the fine. If not for you, certainly for us. That hit will live on forever.
If I was a San Diego Charger, I gotta admit, I would have been a bit intimidated at that point. The song and highlight reel stopped, and they all collectively turned and looked at Rivers, who was breaking the huddle. You could hear the low growl of all 11 defenders, as if they were collectively telling Rivers they were coming after him. The crowd was completely hysterical, and for me, it defined perfectly why I love the NFL.
Credit to Rivers and a very tough Chargers team, they brilliantly executed a screen pass that went for 26 yards and a huge first down. Kind of a bummer, but that highlight clip being played at that time got the exact reaction the team wanted when they put it together. Kudos to the video production staff of the Steelers.
Fast-forward to right after the field goal Nate Kaeding actually made, giving San Diego a 10-8 lead.
Ben strolled calmly onto the field, as if he'd been preparing for this situation. I commented on One For The Other Thumb Sunday morning that San Diego has to like its chances in a close game. At this point, I was completely turned around on that opinion. You just knew Ben was going to put it all together on one drive.
Sandwiched between two completions to Ward were two Parker runs for 14 yards. Steam was building in Pittsburgh's huddle while everyone else was adequately frozen.
The offense responded to yet another penalty on Ward when St. Michael-Albertville High School alum Matt Spaeth caught his sixth pass of the game, and it was only a matter of time until the Steelers got in the end zone, and capped off an excellent game.
Parker scored, but a holding penalty nullified it, which was too bad. That was the kind of touchdown that motivates a team for the rest of the season. Parker even took a few extra chest pounds in the corner of the end zone, announcing his return. The offensive line took a rightful celebration. They played at a level commensurate with a Super Bowl contender, and collectively showed their critics they're better than what they're percieved to be.
Might as well let Jeff Reed get in on the drama. He calmly knocked down a 31-yarder to seal the NFL's first-ever 11-10 game.
I won't get into the bumbled lateral-touchdown-reversal at the end of the game, because, as Ward says, "it's about winning and losing, and we won."
Cousin Meghan got me a thermos of coffee, and I hopped back in the Mazda 6 that was parked on the curb. I headed down Fifth St. looking for 376 West, listening to Tomlin's press conference.
I thought I was going to manically rush to get back to Columbus, but I was at a perfect state of calm. I was drinking in the memory of the atmosphere with each sip of Folgers I took.
Watching a game without checking on my Fantasy Football team, or commenting on a message board. Watching a team that rebounded extremely well from a brutal loss, showing a top-notch coaching staff's ability to prepare its team.
Watching a regular season Steelers game in a luxury box, a game that had everything a fan of the winning team could want.
What's my rush? The buffet will be there tomorrow...