I do not really remember what led me to liking the Pittsburgh Steelers as kid around first grade. I assume it had something to do with the team’s colors, or maybe a picture of a player I saw during one of the rare instances the Steelers were on TV in central Nebraska. That did not happen often, I am sure. The central Nebraska TV market is halfway between Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs territory. Some years we were in the Broncos’ market; other times we were in the Chiefs’ market. CBS had the corner on NFC games, and it seemed every Sunday was filled with games featuring either the Dallas Cowboys or the Washington Redskins.
So I don’t remember how it started — I can just remember being thrilled every time I could watch my favorite team on TV. Time has dimmed the memories from Super Bowl XIII and XIV, but I can still remember how cool I thought the Mean Joe Greene Coke commercial was, and highlights still bring back glimmers of memories.
When my buddies and I played pickup backyard football games as kids, everyone else wanted to be Nebraska Cornhuskers stars. Not me. I wanted to be Jack Lambert or Franco Harris. They were the ones I respected and admired the most.
Forward ahead a few years: My freshman year of high school was about to start -- a tumultuous year for me personally in life. But I was excited with high school football and the NFL season fast approaching. That all came to a screeching halt when my beloved Franco was released by the Steelers. The news was devastating to me, and I was mad that my favorite team dumped the man that gave so many years to the organization. I didn’t understand the situation or the hardball that was taking place 1,500 miles away. The only thing I knew and cared about was that Franco wasn’t part of the Steelers anymore. That was my first dose of the business side of the NFL that would tantalize and frustrate me for decades to come.
Through the years, my anger towards the Steelers faded as I started to realize Franco’s release was just the business of the game. That didn’t stop me from being frustrated when other great players left the Steelers, one after another. They either retired, left via free agency or were cut by Pittsburgh.
I’ve always tried to catch the highlights or read the stats in the newspaper for the players who left via free agency. How could I despise Rod Woodson, Yancey Thigpen, Chad Brown, and Hardy Nickerson? These were players I cheered for when I could watch them. I couldn’t shut off my emotions for them and the memories of the years of pleasure they gave me by watching them win countless games just because they went to another team. Now, I did have my limits — no way I would root for them when they played against the Steelers; that would have been over the top.
Around the same time Thigpen was getting settled in Tennessee I hooked up my dinosaur computer to the Internet for the first time. Cyberspace created a whole new avenue for following the NFL and the Steelers. Even though the Internet was still in its infancy, already sites were following the NFL 365 days a year.
It was with the help of the Internet that I could follow along when, after the 2007 season, Alan Faneca left Pittsburgh after amassing his last first-team All-Pro of seven while with the Steelers. Ten years of admiring Faneca for his run blocking and pass protection would not end just because he signed with the New York Jets. The Jets made Faneca the highest-paid offensive lineman ever, something the Steelers refused to do. It was not my place to be mad at another man for making a business decision to support his family and generations to come. His eight and ninth consecutive Pro Bowls came in his two seasons with the Jets.
Fast forward more than 10 years and future Hall of Famer Antonio Brown is on the precipice of forcing his way off the Steelers, his home for the past nine seasons. While I am upset that the situation has escalated to this point, my irritation will not carry over to his new team. I am not some cyborg that can shut off my emotions toward a player that has treated me to over 11,000 yards and 74 touchdowns.
That fateful night when Big Ben threw a strike to AB at the goal line and he somehow stuck the ball over the line while fighting off three Ravens — am I supposed to wipe those memories from my mind and despise him on his new team just because he no longer wears the black and yellow? Not me. I’ll wish him the best unless he plays against the Steelers. I will find joy in watching Brown when he tears apart another team on Sundays. The joy will be dimmed, but it will still be there. It’s same joy I feel when I watch Julio Jones, or DeAndre Hopkins, or so many of the other Steelers I have admired over the decades who have moved on.
Maybe I am just different, as I am an NFL fan first and a Steelers fan second. Or maybe it’s that I have followed this happening with other players closely over the years and understand that it is simply part of the big business called the NFL. Whatever it is, this is how I feel.
This year, I’ll buy a new jersey (probably JuJu Smith-Schuster’s) and retire my Brown and Le’Veon Bell jerseys to the back of my closet, where they’ll hang with a half-dozen others.
Unlike the 79 percent who voted in the recent BTSC poll, I absolutely do not hope AB flounders. I see no point in that. I am not vindictive in hoping another person fails. There is actually a word for that feeling: schadenfreude. From Wikipedia: “Schadenfreude is the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another.” That is just not who I am or what my beliefs are all about.
I wonder how many of those who want AB to flounder also beamed with joy for Woodson and others when they were inducted into the Hall of Fame or lamented Faneca not being elected to the Hall recently. How will these fans react when Brown dons his golden jacket and Steelers hat when he is inducted into the Hall? Some will not watch, while others will hope he makes a fool of himself. And then there are others like me who will be proud of AB and his accomplishments throughout his entire career (not just his time in Pittsburgh) and will wish him the best of luck in whatever endeavors life tosses his way.