It’s hard to think of many all-time Pittsburgh sports greats who left the city on uglier terms than Steelers receiver Antonio Brown did when he was traded to the Raiders.
I won’t rehash the past few months, but you know the things the man did on his way out of town, things that were the very definition of burning your bridges.
When it comes to all-time Pittsburgh sports heroes who left a permanent stain on their legacy, again, the list is small. The Penguins Jaromir Jagr might be one. You could make a case for Terry Bradshaw and his on-again, off-again feud with the Steelers and, by extension, the fans who didn’t exactly appreciate the time it took the Blond Bomber to reach his full potential as a quarterback in the early-to-mid-70s.
However, when it comes to Jagr and Bradshaw, I believe the sports fans of Pittsburgh have always been eager to forgive them—and they’ve actually tried several times.
Society as a whole is usually pretty willing to forgive and forget--time even heals all wounds for most sports fans--but there’s one former Pittsburgh athlete—undoubtedly one of the greatest Pirates of all time—the fans have never truly been able to fully welcome back with open arms.
I’m talking about Barry Bonds, one of the greatest players in the game of baseball for the majority of his seven years in Pittsburgh. Essentially, Bonds was the Andrew McCutchen of his day, but only better, winning the National League MVP award in 1990 and, again, in 1992 (it would have been three years straight, had the writers not decided to make it the “MVP To His Team” award when they voted for the Braves Terry Pendleton in 1991).
Unfortunately, Bonds left as a free agent following the ‘92 season and spent the rest of his career in San Francisco, where he would not only go on to win five more NL MVP awards, he would set the single-season record for home runs in 2001 and finish his career as the all-time home run leader in Major League Baseball history.
Despite the fact that Bonds spent the majority of his career with another team—and garnered even greater success in the process--his Pirates resume speaks for itself. Therefore, you may think the fans have always loved and celebrated him.
Not even close.
It’s as if Bonds never even played for the Pirates, and when you dare mention his name in the same breath as other Pirates legends—Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, etc. etc.—the fans, and even the media, often bristle.
Oh, sure, some of that has to do with the PED scandal Bonds was embroiled in during the latter stages of his career (baseball fans are less forgiving of that kind of cheating than fans of other sports).
But the main reason Pittsburgh sports fans have always hated Barry Bonds is because he was an absolute jerk.
This is an indisputable fact. When local media members—people who have to work with athletes on a daily basis—openly show disdain for a player when he’s still in town, you know things are bad. We’re talking about a guy who didn’t get along with his teammates. He didn’t get along with the media. He didn’t seem to have much time for the fans (the stories of that are numerous).
We’re talking about a guy whose college baseball teammates voted to kick him off the team.
Barry Bonds was just a bad guy, and that was never in question—even the fans were aware of it while he was still in town.
And that’s what’s so sad about everything that went down with Antonio Brown over the past few months. I obviously haven’t been bashful in bashing Brown since the end of the 2018 season. However, it wasn’t long ago that I thought he was simply the greatest football player on the planet. His clutch moments that included sideline catches and touchdowns at critical junctures are too numerous to list without starting another article.
I would often find myself just Googling minutes-long highlights of Brown on YouTube—certainly not the most productive activity for a 40-something man to partake in on a regular basis. But the guy was simply poetry in motion. He was a Pittsburgh sports icon, and I love my sports heroes.
By all accounts, Brown should have been embraced by the fans, and you know what? He was. And he had every right to be loved by Steelers faithful. He had every right to be on par with other all-time greats who made their living in Pittsburgh.
Sure, there was Facebook Live. Sure, there were other unbecoming incidents, like the one in Miami last spring. Sure, there was Brown’s public spat with long-time beat writer Ed Bouchette last summer, where Brown confronted the veteran reporter and called him a racist for, of all things, Tweeting that the receiver limped off the field during training camp.
There was even the well-publicized story written by Jesse Washington of The Undefeated, a story that portrayed Brown as a very bad character.
Despite the story’s very lurid description of Brown, it was quickly glossed over—even after Brown took to social media to threaten physical harm upon Washington’s person. Even Bouchette went on record as saying he actually liked Brown, despite everything that went down between he and the receiver.
Why? Maybe because he really was a guy that you wanted to like. Maybe it was because Bouchette knew Brown was a guy the fans wanted to like. Like I said earlier, how often do reporters openly trash athletes when they’re still in town? Furthermore, how often do they trash them even after they leave town?
Not often, and why? Because they know the fans won’t put up with it—even if the reporters are right.
Fans want to love their players.
I can still see my uncle’s reaction as he said, “He’s incredible,” after Brown out-jumped three defenders to pull in a catch that sealed a Week 1 victory against Cleveland in 2017.
It wasn’t long ago fans were chanting “MVP!” as Brown was being helped off the field with a serious calf injury he suffered in a game against the Patriots at Heinz Field in Week 15 of the 2017 season.
It seems like only yesterday I was jumping up and down and screaming “Go Antonio!” as Brown was racing for the end zone with the winning touchdown in a game against the Bengals last October at Paul Brown Stadium.
Now, I have contempt for Brown. Now, I feel like it will be hard for me to forgive him, to ever welcome him back.
Most other Steelers fans feel the same way, and why? Because Brown left town with a big, giant sneer on his face.
I didn’t want it to end this way. To reiterate, as sports fans, we want to like our heroes—even in the face of a mountain of evidence that suggests we shouldn’t.
We’re almost always willing to forgive and forget.
Speaking of Brown’s sneer as he slammed the door on his way out of Pittsburgh, it’s like what Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra told Sting as Billy Idol during that legendary SNL sketch, The Sinatra Group, “And what’s with that sneering crap? Don’t do that to the people. They wanna like you!”
We really liked Antonio Brown at one time. Will we be able to ever again?