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At The Threshold Of The Pearly Gates

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The race isn't over yet but we have reached the point where only so much can be taken away from the Steelers organization and this team if they fail to win in Dallas. The truth of the matter is that even within Steeler Nation many, if not most, of the fan base had grave doubts about this year's team, and perhaps, the general direction of the franchise itself. Many were shaken by the collapse of last year's team. They wondered whether Tomlin was as good a coach as a lot of us had hoped he would be. Those who had never liked the selection of Tomlin in the first place, but could say little in the wake of his Super Bowl success felt embolden to question whether he was deserving of a contract extension. More time was needed, they argued, to determine whether he was just a flash in the pan.

Then there was Ben. This won't be the place to rehash the alleged and sordid details of his off field behavior. Suffice to say that many were angry and dismissive of the man and his failures. They gave up on him, and craved a trade or outright release in order to salvage what was left of the organization's integrity. Outsiders sucked their tongues and opined that the dignity of the franchise had been permanently damaged. Ignoring both the fact that the Steelers have never been a one man show on offense and the relative depth and quality of the backups, Roethlisberger's suspension appeared to many to be a death sentence to any championship aspirations. And if any doubt remained then the situation with Santonio Holmes was the final straw. Some wondered whether the Rooneys were hasty, if not fools for trading a Super Bowl MVP for what amounted to, in the minds of many, a ham sandwich.

There were other problems as well. The defense was old, especially Farrior, who according to some was only good for glue. The defensive line was too thin, the offensive line hopeless. Special teams was an unknown, and Bruce Arians would be the Devil if he weren't so incompetent. (Make sure you see Maryrose's fine piece on BA) And these were the sentiments of the friends of the program.

What continues to amaze me even to this very moment is that the football world is still having a hard time accepting what the Steelers are. What follows is written with a sense of wonder and not the least bit of resentment. Two teams are playing in the Super Bowl. One team is a sixth seed that made it into the tournament on the very last day of the season. They have sixteen players on injured reserve and have a whopping two players who have  SB experience. It has been thirteen years since the last time they appeared in the game. The other team is a number two seed. They are playing in their third Super Bowl in six years and going for their third win in that time frame. They have 25 players on their roster with championship experience, and 18 who are two time champions, including their starting quarterback, and most of their number two ranked defense. Even their coaches are highly decorated. Both teams recorded convincing wins in the conference championships. The team with the most injuries, the less impressive record and the least amount of experience is favored to win. You think Aaron Rogers is that good? I have argued that this team plays its best when it has a ‘chip' on its shoulders. Thank you Las Vegas!

If there is an emotion that overwhelms all others as we proceed to the final chapter of this season it is gratitude. Gratitude for the good fortune of being a part of Steeler Nation, a greater understanding of what that means both in terms of the obvious football ramifications as well as the more mystical aspects of community bonding that we all know but can't quite describe to full understanding. Also, there is gratitude for being a part of this precinct of the Nation known as BTSC as it grows and matures; and finally, gratitude to be a witness to this particular time in the life of the nation. For those of you under forty who have wondered what it was like in the 70s when the Steelers ruled, wonder no more. With a victory next week (or maybe even without) they will be talking about this team with the same sense of reverence decades from now as they do the Chuck Noll Steelers. While Greene, Harris, Bradshaw and Lambert will be the Ruth and Gehrig of the franchise, Roethlisberger, Polamalu, Ward, Harrison and Bettis will be known as our DiMaggio, Mantle or Jackson, Mattingly accordingly. In other words, the best of times.

I use an analogy of the Yankee dynasties purposefully because it best explains why our team seems to struggle so much to gain any outward respect. Lots of people hate or have hated the Yankees for reasons no more complicated than jealousy. Living as I do in the diaspora this fact is becoming more obvious than it might be for folks who live in the Pittsburgh market. As the season has worn on and as it has become more quietly obvious that the Steelers were going to be a force to be reckoned with in spite of the challenges placed in our path, the more openly the haters have made their sentiments known. Over the next two weeks incense will be burned, voodoo dolls will be pricked and prayers will rise to the heavens in support of the Packers. Not so much because folks are so in love with the Green Bay (though they are likable enough), but because a Steeler victory means the following.

The definitive end of the Patriots Dynasty. They are big market, East Coast and in the same general neighborhood as ESPN, but numbers don't lie. Both the Steelers and Pats will have the same number of championships over the past decade but all of Pittsburgh's will have come in the last six seasons, while the Pats last won in '04. In spite of the fact that the Steelers have a huge and loyal national  following, that they sell more merchandise and apparel than any of the other franchises and their games consistently get the highest ratings when given a national platform. They will still be viewed as small market and less desirable than a larger market team. The Brady as god and Belichick as genius conversation will probably continue, but in much more muted form. It would also help if Steeler Nation were to amp things down a bit as well. Many of us have been traumatized by the playoff losses to New England. Our fear has helped in keeping the myth of the invincibility of the Pats alive. Time to stop giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

The elevation of Tomlin into the elite ranks of head coaches. Four years as an NFL coach. Two Super Bowl appearances (with at least one win), that's batting .500. He was the youngest coach to win a championship, and if he hadn't gone two years ago he would be the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl if they win next week. His teams made it to the big dance in years where friend and foe alike thought the task to be impossible. In '08 it was the most difficult schedule in 30 years; this year its Ben's suspension among other issues. Once could be a fluke, dumb luck, whatever, twice is harder to explain without using very extravagant descriptive terms. One thing is certain; the genius Belichick wasn't quite this good when he was this young.

Further validation of the Rooneys. This country needs more examples of the right way to do business, particularly examples that demonstrate that high levels of competence and success do not necessarily conflict with high moral standards, empathy and compassion for employees, customers and the community. When they hired Tomlin there was grumbling in some corners that the Rooneys had gone overboard with their own rule (the Rooney Rule).  It was difficult to accept that a young candidate, with such little experience could possibly be the superior choice over two internal candidates from a championship staff. Tomlin would have eventually been hired by another team, but probably not until several more years of ‘seasoning' in coordinator positions. Nor would it be likely that the Bucs would have taken a chance on Raheem Morris. One reason I would love to see us win next week is to watch the US Ambassador to Ireland take his team to the White House for another afternoon of doing service work, as opposed to a sterile photo op.

The elevation of Ben into the elite ranks of quarterbacks. The redemption plan for Roethlisberger could not have been more successfully executed. He did his time, by all accounts has changed his ways, but in our culture winning covers a multitude of sins. Don't believe it? Michael Vick is getting endorsement offers again. As for Ben, if he gets a third ring that pulls him even with Brady and Troy Aikman, ahead of the entire Manning family (Peyton, Eli and Archie combined), Elway and Bart Starr. Only Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw would have more. His ticket to the Hall of Fame would be punched.

A bunch of feel good stories of players, young and old, who get to experience the ultimate; enhancing, capping and jumpstarting NFL careers. Take a Flozell Adams who spent his career toiling under the false promises of the Cowboys, only to find fulfillment with the Steelers (in the Cowboys building. How sweet would that be?). Or a Charlie Batch who was scheduled for forced retirement but became the hero of first quarter of the season and has one more chance to get another ring. Young players and rookies like Ziggy Hood and Mike Wallace, Manny Sanders and Antonio Brown, Stephenson Sylvester and Jason Worilds, Maurkice Pouncey and Jonathan Dwyer who followed the advice of the veterans and now see the promise fulfilled. Prodigal sons like ARE, Larry Foote and Bryant McFadden who have, indeed, returned home and are feasting on the fatted calf. Two time winners such as Hines, Aaron, Potsie, Big Snack, Chris Hoke who now have a chance for football immortality in the twilight of their careers.

Finally, there would be the fans; you and I, the whole Nation, but in particular the younger ones who will warm themselves a generation from now telling tales of dynasties and heroes and the wise and clever sages that led them to victory over impossible odds; and the family of noble and shrewd Irishmen who orchestrated the entire enterprise and in the final analysis became a rallying point for a community and its culture, keeping it alive and vibrant during turbulent and destructive times in violation of all common sense.