For any sports team, losing has an insidious and corrosive effect. As a youngster growing up in the Burgh during the 1960s, I recall the most oft-repeated comment about the home team, typically uttered with disgust, was “same old Steelers.” Before Three Rivers Stadium opened in 1970, the Steelers’ home field was old Pitt Stadium, perched on the steep hillside overlooking the Oakland section of town. The massive, concrete oval first opened in 1925 and was used until its demolition in 1999.
Two unforgettable memories for Steelers fans old enough to have attended games at the stadium are the bitter cold of December football and the excruciatingly uncomfortable bench-type seating. There’s nothing colder than concrete in the wintertime, and the huge slabs on which the stadium’s seats were mounted radiated a chill that could penetrate anyone’s bones, no matter how many layers of clothing you might have worn to the game.
Besides fighting the elements, Steelers fans in those days were watching a pro football team which absolutely mastered the art of folding at crucial junctures of their games. No matter the bright promise with which they might have started the game, by the time the third or fourth quarter rolled around, something in the pit of every Steelers fan’s stomach told them disaster was lurking right around the corner.
Loyal followers of the Cincinnati Bengals are only too familiar with this very same gastric condition. These days, while they might have more comfortable seats and somewhat milder winters than in the Frozen Tundra days of yore, Bengals fans nevertheless have been obliged to endure decades of abysmal football rivaling the 1960s Steelers in terms of sheer ineptitude and general hopelessness. Each summer, hopes rise in the Queen City that this will be the year when the Bengals throw off the shackles of mediocrity and finally bring back the team’s first Lombardi Trophy for a victory parade. But alas, every winter—inevitable as the sunset—Bengals merchandise can be found on deep discount at department stores throughout the Rhineland.
The deep-seated hatred harbored by the Bengals and their fans towards the Steelers has a lot to do with plain jealousy—but that’s not the whole story by any means. Having spent nearly ten years as a resident of the Cincinnati area (from 1996 to 2005), there’s no doubt in my mind that Bengals fans are every bit as avid and loyal as those found anywhere in the country. While Steelers Nation has often made light of Bengals fans and their “who-dey” battle cry, we can’t honestly laugh too hard because they’re currently living a nightmare which once was our own.
Because many Bengals fans aren’t old enough to remember those lean years, some might have the notion that pro football has always been hunky-dory in the Burgh—what with six Super Bowl trophies on display in the team’s front office. In reality, though, old-time fans such as yours truly understand exactly what Cincinnati is going through. We know only too well how much their present circumstance sucks, especially for a city—not unlike Pittsburgh—where folks work hard for their money and football is an unofficial religion.
The major difference, of course, which continues to gnaw at the nerves of every Bengals fan, is that the Steelers’ organization eventually found a way to escape their decades of mediocrity to become one of the most successful NFL franchises in pro football history. Cincinnati, on the other hand, has risen above the mediocre only rarely in the 51 years since they were founded in 1966 by football legend Paul Brown. That’s a time span even exceeding Pittsburgh’s 40-or-so years of futility during the pre-Noll era.
So it is that the Steelers will trot out onto the gridiron at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday night with their shiny 9-2 record, while the Bengals languish at 5-6, having nothing beyond the most distant hope for securing a playoff berth. And for the diehard Cincinnati fan, there’s the looming prospect that the home team once again might have sand kicked into their faces by the guys with all the trophies on their way to another AFC North crown.
All of the above explains why this Monday-night matchup most certainly will not be an occasion for the faint of heart. In recent weeks, we’ve seen teams from other divisions and conferences pulling out all stops in unsuccessful attempts to defeat the Black-and-gold. Last Sunday night, we saw an injury-wracked Packers team led by a backup quarterback give the Steelers literally everything they could handle at Heinz Field. What do we think is going to happen on Monday night, in the presence of a hostile crowd and facing a Bengals team which might consider its entire season as somehow vindicated by sending the hated Steelers back home with their third defeat?
If we thought Tennessee and Green Bay were highly motivated to upset the Black-and-gold in their past two games, you’ve got to consider Cincinnati’s relative level of motivation as being completely off of the scale. The Pittsburgh Steelers will be fighting much more than the Bengals on Monday night. They’ll also be squaring off against a half-century of frustration by the Cincinnati franchise and its still-loyal fans. Now there’s a clash tailor-made for prime-time.