This past weekend was the one I had been anticipating for quite some time. You see, after 35 years of being a huge Steelers fan, I would finally get to take a road trip to see them play, as they traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, for a huge AFC North clash against the first-place Bengals.
My uncle invited me months ago and I agreed, knowing I would have to save up for the trip, which I did. And I kind of hedged my bets that Pittsburgh would still be competitive in December (clearly more of a risk this year than five years ago), because, before this season, I had never actually witnessed any Steelers home game where there was a lot on the line and they were actually true contenders. Generally, when I get to go to a game, it's because Pittsburgh is playing "below the line," and people can't wait to give their tickets away. For example, about a year ago at this time, I was in attendance at Heinz Field to watch Pittsburgh (5-8 at kickoff) beat-up on the soon-to-be AFC North champion Bengals, thanks to scoring some free tickets from my boss. Despite the win, it was one of the coldest and most miserable experiences of my entire life. Don't get me wrong, had I known Pittsburgh would stay alive for a playoff spot until, literally, the last second of the regular season, I might have enjoyed myself more. But, instead, I spent a lot of time in the interior areas of the stadium just to stay warm.
Also, I've always been a bit intrigued by the prospect of being a "visiting" fan and how folks would treat you if you were donning the colors of the enemy. After all, I've been to my share of Steelers games at both Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field, and let's just say the home folks aren't always so accommodating to anyone wearing a different team's jersey.
I left for the game on Saturday morning with my uncle and seven other huge Steelers fans, and we bunked at a Holiday Inn in Covington, Kentucky, about a mile or so from Paul Brown Stadium.
As the group ventured out for drinks, food and fun that evening, I had anticipated some trash-talk and heckling (after all, how could we not don our proud Steelers gear?), but people were generally good sports and most of the talk was just friendly banter.
The morning of the game, we ventured over to the stadium area on foot (only about a 20-minute walk) and sort of tailgated nearby for about an hour or so. Even though you always hear those stories of how Steelers fans "travel well," it was kind of amazing to see so many people walking about dressed in black and gold. A young woman approached the group all decked-out in Steelers colors, and she greeted us with the enthusiasm of someone who grew up on the North Side of Pittsburgh. But, like a lot of people in Steeler Nation, she wasn't a current or even a former Pittsburgher. She had traveled to the game from Kentucky. And since you can easily see that state from Paul Brown Stadium, this woman may have actually been a resident of the metro-Cincinnati area.
When we arrived at the stadium, naturally, we had to partake of food and drink. And when it was my turn in line, the woman behind the counter said, "I hope y'all win it today!" I said, "really?" And that's when she told me she was from Columbus, Ohio, but like the rest of her family, she was a huge Steelers fan.
Our seats were in the end zone, located in section 154, and even though they were pretty high up there (the scoreboard was only one section above us), the view was great.
After the usual pomp and circumstance, it was time for kickoff. As is normally the case, everyone stood up as the Bengals kicked off to Pittsburgh. Only problem was, nobody in our entire section sat down the entire game. Therefore, you had to stand just to see the action. I kept waiting for people to sit, but they never did. At one point in the second half, I asked the guy next to me (a Bengals fan) if this was common, and he said it wasn't.
I guess the importance of the contest (with a win, Cincinnati would have opened up a two and a half game lead over the Steelers and basically ended their chances in the division) had everyone too nervous to sit.
Being a lifelong Steelers fan, I couldn't travel to a road game without my Terrible Towel. And perhaps for the first time ever, I twirled that thing hard and with conviction throughout the afternoon, as I was pretty pumped for the event. The game had a playoff atmosphere and post-season implications (as it pertained to the AFC North, this actually was a playoff game for Pittsburgh).
Like most of the stadium, our section had a ton of Steelers fans, including some kids, sitting behind us who seemed like they were more anti-Bengals fans, despite their black-and-gold garb. Anytime Pittsburgh did something positive, I tried to find as many strangers as I could to slap high-fives with.
Again, I had a Terrible Towel, and since I'm a Pittsburgher, it's only natural that the towel had a background story. This particular towel was given to me only last week by my mother, who found it several years ago during the Steelers' march toward Super Bowl XL. It was dirty and dingy, and my mother washed it and (for reasons only she knows), wrapped it up in a brown paper bag and placed it in her closet for safe-keeping, where it remained for the better part of the past decade.
Just last week, I got to attend the Saints game at Heinz Field (back-to-back games for the first time ever), and I had this newer towel that I tried to twirl. But, again, since I wasn't used to being at Steelers games with much on the line, I just couldn't get the thing to twirl and whip around the way I wanted to.
Also, it might have been because I was superstitious. It seems like anytime I even touch a Terrible Towel, the Steelers lose (come to think of it, no wonder Ben Roethlisberger was so bad against New Orleans).
But maybe my mother knew something I didn't, because I took that faded, ugly Terrible Towel that she found on Steuben St. in the West End of Pittsburgh and suddenly I had that twirling motion down pat. I actually felt like one of those 1970s steelworker types you always see twirling towels on the old NFL Films shows.
The great thing about the end zone where we were sitting is that most of the action (both good and bad) happened on our side of the field. Unfortunately, we had a perfect view of Andy Dalton's 20-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, a play on which he made Troy Polamalu look about as foolish as he ever has, after he bit on Dalton's fake handoff. Sadly, we also watched, helplessly, as A.J. Green made the Steelers secondary look much the same for most of the afternoon, including a 56-yard catch in the second quarter that led to Cincinnati's first touchdown and an 81-yard score from Andy Dalton on the last play of the third quarter that may have kicked-started poor Ike Taylor's semi-retirement.
But that Dalton-to-Green touchdown which gave the Bengals a 21-17 lead would be their last points of the afternoon. And in the fourth quarter, the Steelers scored the remaining 25 points at our end of the field.
We watched as Le'Veon Bell scampered 53 yards in our direction on the first play of the final period to help set up a Shaun Suisham field goal. Moments later, we watched as Dalton fumbled the football back to Pittsburgh, while trying to execute that same fake handoff that fooled Polamalu. And just a few plays after that, we watched as Bell put the Steelers' ahead to stay with a tough 13-yard touchdown run over left tackle (it was a thing of beauty). We also watched as Roethlisberger found Heath Miller for the two-point conversion to stretch the lead to 28-21.
After Pittsburgh got the football back at its own six-yard line with just under nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, and thanks to a pretty nifty punt by Kevin Huber, the Steelers looked like tiny ants at the opposite end of the field. So I was screaming for a four-minute field-goal drive. What I witnessed, instead, was Roethlisberger dropping back to pass, as rookie Martavis Bryant pulled an A.J. Green and broke wide open down the right sideline (our left sideline). When Bryant pulled in that pass and I knew he was gone for a 94-yard touchdown, it was maybe the most emotion I've ever displayed while attending a Steelers game. It was simply breathtaking, and that towel never twirled as hard as it did at that very moment.
It's funny how cyclical life can be. Back in 1988, when I attended my first Steelers game at Three Rivers, Bubby Brister found Louis Lipps on an 89-yard score. And on Sunday, while attending my first Steelers road game, I witnessed a 94-yard score.
With the Steelers now up by two touchdowns, the stands started to empty of black and orange, and some of the Bengals fans were quick-to-remind us that their team was still up by half a game (something that would only be good trash-talk if it had been the last week of the regular season). Soon, black and gold started to dominate Paul Brown Stadium and, after Bell put the finishing touches on the afternoon with a 22-yard score with just over five minutes remaining, they were pretty much the only colors left.
At one point, with about two-minutes remaining, some older guy in our section, wearing a Stephon Tuitt jersey, stood up and started a "Who dey? We dey!" chant, and he pretty much ripped Bill Cowher off word-for-word.
But I had no problem joining in on the "We dey!" part.
If someone had granted me a wish for how that game would transpire, I couldn't have hoped for a more dreamy outcome.
Other than almost losing my cell phone in the men's room (totally my fault) and getting hit with peanuts a few times during the afternoon (I guess a bat would have hurt more), I'd have to say I enjoyed my time at Paul Brown Stadium.
Obviously, a 21-point victory certainly made my stay a more pleasurable one.
Despite this being a road game, I've never actually witnessed a more important Steelers game in person, and it's certainly something I'll never forget.