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Strange Days: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Steelers

In these uncertain times, the one constant with fans has been the Pittsburgh Steelers.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Jets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I sat down to write a “normal” article this weekend, which for me usually entails a lot of film breakdown and scheme analysis, but quickly found I could not stay focused on the details of such a piece. Bigger thoughts were impeding my process. For those willing to indulge me, I’ll share some of those thoughts now.

When I was a kid, my bedroom was lined with posters. My walls were separated by themes — there was a wall devoted to basketball (I was partial to Moses Malone, Dr. J and the 76ers), a wall devoted to hockey (Flyers fan… sorry) and of course, a wall devoted to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That was the biggest of the four walls. I can still see the giant poster I had of Jack Lambert snarling through his face-mask on that old Sports Illustrated cover. I’m pretty sure that poster gave my little sister nightmares:

The fourth wall in my room was devoted to cultural icons. I had posters of Hunter S. Thompson, Bill Murray in Caddyshack and Farrah Fawcett in her legendary red bathing suit. Plenty of bands, too. Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Clash. My favorite band poster was a crushed-velvet black-light one of The Doors. This one, to be exact:

I’ve been thinking about The Doors a lot lately. Not so much their music, but about the apocalyptic, end-is-near theme that permeated Jim Morrison’s lyrics. Almost any rock n’ roll fan remembers this famous refrain from “Roadhouse Blues:”

The future’s uncertain,

And the end is always near.

But it’s another lyric that has my attention these days:

Strange days have found us

Strange days have tracked us down.

They’re going to destroy

Our casual joys

We shall go on playing

Or find a new town…

These are indeed strange days. The COVID-19 pandemic has touched us all in some way, turning the simple act of going to the grocery store into a commando mission against an invisible enemy. The shelves of our local supermarket are bare, especially the aisles containing hand sanitizer and toilet paper. A buddy of mine bought fifty surgical masks on Amazon and is (half)-jokingly talking about selling them for $50 a pop. Handshakes have disappeared, as evidenced by this awkward exchange Sunday night:

“Social distancing” is a term that is new to our lexicon but one we’re unlikely to ever forget. As I write this, the high school at which I teach is entering an indefinite hiatus. No one can say with certainty when we will resume. My son, who is a student at George Washington University in Washington D.C., has just been recalled from his study-abroad program in Botswana. We have to figure out how to get him home this week, no easy task given the travel restrictions in place and the simple logistics of extracting someone from southern Africa under these conditions. Strange days have found us, for sure.

What about those middle lyrics in Morrison’s stanza, however? They’re going to destroy, Our casual joys? In some ways, they already have. “They,” meaning the virus, of course. Like going out to eat at a favorite restaurant. Lingering in a coffee shop. Attending a sporting event. Restaurants and coffee shops, in my area, are still available for those who wish to attend. Sporting events are not. Anthony Defeo mourned their loss, properly, in this recent piece. In some instances, this is simply disappointing. Like losing March Madness, or seeing basketball and hockey disappear. In others, it’s more than that. The girls basketball team at our school reached the state championship game last week. They’ll never get to play it, as the remainder of the tournament has been canceled. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those girls and their coaches is gone, just like that.

The most constant of the casual joys in my life has been my attachment to the Steelers. Each and every year since I’ve been seven years old, the Steelers have been a huge part of my existence. I have devoted thousands of hours talking about them, watching them, travelling to see them. And now, writing about them. The only relationship that has lasted longer than my fandom has been the one I have with my family. No other friend or entity has been there as consistently. They’ve brought me great joy, irrational sadness and more memories than can be chronicled. A few, however, are worth sharing.

In 1982, I got into a fistfight with a fellow sixth-grader who had the nerve to suggest the Steelers were washed up. Turns out the little punk was right. Still, I had no choice but to fight him. You can’t let another kid trash-talk your team when you’re 12. Those are the rules.

In 1990, while in college, a friend and I drove to the Meadowlands to watch the Bubby Brister-led Steelers defeat the Jets 24-7. It was the first Steelers game I’d attended, and I marveled at the swarm of Terrible Towels that took flight in the 4th quarter, turning the stadium black and gold. “Steeler Country” wasn’t just a banner at Three Rivers Stadium. It was a living, breathing, Terrible Towel-swirling organism.

In 1996, three friends and I took a January road trip from South Jersey to Pittsburgh to see the Steelers defeat Buffalo in a Saturday afternoon Divisional playoff game. We celebrated in the city that night before crashing at the Hilton just across the water from the stadium. By the time we woke up, there were six inches of snow on the ground. The snow fell relentlessly all day as we moved east along the Turnpike at a snail’s pace. We were just past Hershey when a national guard blockade forced us off of the highway. We spent the night in a run-down motel eating from the vending machine and watching the Colts gloriously upset Kansas City to give the Steelers home-field advantage in the following week’s AFC Championship game. The “Blizzard of ‘96” dumped over thirty inches on the region and the Steelers went to the Super Bowl for the first time since I was a kid.

Ten years later, I smashed my TV remote to smithereens by spiking it into the ground when officials in the Pittsburgh-Indianapolis playoff game overturned a sure Troy Polamalu interception that would have sealed their upset victory over the Colts. Instead, Steeler Nation was forced to endure an excruciating final five minutes that did not end until Indy kicker Mike Vanderjagt shanked a game-tying field goal on the game’s final play. The Steelers won the Super Bowl a few weeks later, ending a twenty-six year drought. My television remote did not survive to witness the celebration.

I bring these memories up because, like all of us, I’m at a strange moment in my life. This pandemic, and the national reaction to it, has altered, temporarily I hope, so much of what we know. What will life be like these next two weeks? The next two months? When will things return to “normal?” I don’t have those answers.

Those who remember Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant satire Dr. Strangelove will recall how a rogue Air Force general sent his bombers to destroy the Soviet Union because he believed they were conspiring to pollute our precious bodily fluids. COVID-19 presents a similar threat. Not to our bodily fluids, per se, but as a menace to our physical well-being. Hopefully, we will emerge with our health in tact. But the virus is guaranteed to make things strange for a while.

I’m not given to philosophical moments of reflection much these days, but when I am it often stems from uncertainty. When I’m unsettled, or when I worry, it often helps to reflect and take stock of things. Reassess my priorities, so to speak. When I got married, my sister gave the toast. “My brother cares deeply about three things,” she told the room. “His family, his career and the Pittsburgh Steelers.” That still seems about right. They are not my only interests but they are the things to which I am most devoted. As I head home to start my work hiatus, it’s comforting to know there are constants in life. My family will always be there for me. I will throw myself back into my career as soon as I can. And the Pittsburgh Steelers...

...just tagged Bud Dupree! And cut Barron and Chickillo! The Big Ragu retired! Hargrave and Finney are gone! A new fullback is headed to town! Then there’s the draft. Where do we go with so much depth to fill? And what about Big Ben? How will he look? How might Randy Fichtner tweak his schemes? What role will Matt Canada play? How will the defense evolve with a full off-season to integrate Minkah? So many questions, so much to talk about.

COVID-19 may bring some strangeness to our lives. It may put on hold the casual joys we’ve come to know. But it will not destroy them, and when they return perhaps we will cherish them for the manner in which absence makes the heart grow fonder. Perhaps we will be kinder to one another once we begin to socialize again. Perhaps we will appreciate the things we had come to take for granted. Like handshakes. A glass of wine in a nice restaurant. A family gathering. Maybe even toilet paper.

The health and well-being of my loved ones is foremost in my thoughts. Beyond that, the thing that brings me the most comfort amidst the uncertainty is that when all of this is over, and we’ve emerged from self-quarantine and it’s ok to gather again without fear of an unseen enemy, football season will be right around the bend. A season I look forward to like few that have preceded it. For the intrigue of what it holds for the Steelers. For the absence of worry. For the normalcy.

I wish everyone great health in the coming days. Lean in to your loved ones and to the things you cherish. And when these strange days have passed, let’s ride that A-bomb together, kicking and screaming and waving our Terrible Towels like Major Kong, shouting with great abandon as we root for our beloved Black and Gold.