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That time a road trip to Three Rivers Stadium became a journey for the ages

The tale of a journey to watch the ‘95 Steelers play a memorable playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium.

Buffalo Bills v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Last week, Jeff Hartman posted an article asking for people’s favorite memories of Three Rivers Stadium, which was imploded twenty years ago. I began a response to that inquiry in the comments section but, as I wrote, I realized there was plenty of material for an article of its own. Let me take you back to January of 1996, then, on the eve of one of the most epic snowstorms to hit the eastern United States in decades, as five friends from South Jersey piled into a battered Ford Explorer and made the six hour drive to Pittsburgh to watch the Steelers host the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.

Like much of the generation that first learned about football in the 1970s, my friends and I became Steelers’ fans as little kids watching the team rampage through the NFL on their way to four Super Bowl titles in six seasons.

We grew up at the Jersey Shore, on the outskirts of Eagles’ country, but were far enough from Philadelphia that our fandom was not mandatory. That made us free agents and at liberty to choose the most attractive suitor. There were several legitimate contenders at that time. The Minnesota Vikings, whose defense had a cool nickname (the Purple People-Eaters) and who employed a quarterback (Fran Tarkenton) who was a 70s version of Russell Wilson. The Oakland Raiders, who were like a motorcycle gang in pads and whose penchant for cheap shots and dirty play prompted Chuck Noll to famously pronounce that they represented a “criminal element” in the NFL. And the Dallas Cowboys, Oakland’s polar opposite, whose squeaky-clean reputation, pristine uniforms and glittering star on their helmets had earned them the nickname “America’s Team.”

Then there were the Steelers. The black-and-gold uniforms. The swarming, physical defense. The magnificent offense that could kill you on the ground or in the air. They came from Pittsburgh, a blue-collar town from which there were just enough transplants in South Jersey to make the city seem familiar. Plus, more often than not, the Steelers beat those other teams in the biggest games. It was an easy choice for me and my friends.

We were the kings of our elementary and middle schools as Steelers’ fans. We paraded through the hallways in our team gear, smirking at Dallas fans, getting into fistfights with Oakland fans, laughing at those who supported the lowly Eagles. Philly made a surprising Super Bowl run in 1980 but lost to the hated Raiders. Our contempt grew. The Steelers hadn’t fared so well in that 1980 season, finishing 9-7 after back-to-back titles in ‘78 and ‘79. But they would be back on top in no time. They were the Steelers. That’s what they did.

Only they didn’t. Not in ‘81. Nor in ‘82. Nor in any subsequent season. They had a few good runs, such as 1984, when an underdog squad led by Mark Malone took a 9-7 group to the AFC Championship game where they fell to Dan Marino and the Dolphins. Mostly, though, it had been a devastating regression to mediocrity as the players from the championship era retired and gave way to a lesser version of the black-and-gold. Pittsburgh went 76-75 in the 80s and qualified for the playoffs just four times. Mediocrity, indeed.

By 1995, the wait for the Steelers to re-discover their former glory had become excruciating. Hope sprung eternal, however, as Bill Cowher, whom few had heard of when he was hired to replace Chuck Noll after the 1991 season, revived the team with a dynamic defense and a bruising rushing attack. It was once again an exciting time to be a Steelers’ fan. I was now in my mid-20s and remained in touch with my core group of friends. When the playoffs following the ‘95 season rolled around, we resolved to be there.

Five of us made the trip. There was Ed, my oldest friend, who was now working for an accounting firm; Kendall, a master craftsman who was in the process of starting his own cabinet-making company; Fish, a ski bum who worked just enough to pay for his trips to Vail and Killington; Eric, who had played offensive line at Millersville University and was employed as a bouncer at a, uh, gentleman’s establishment; and yours truly, three years into the teaching and coaching career at which I remain employed. We piled into Kendall’s Ford Explorer on a Friday afternoon and headed for the Steel City.

It was dark by the time we cleared Philadelphia. We picked up the Turnpike at Valley Forge. From there it was a five-hour shot to Pittsburgh. The CD player shuffled through our favorite classic rock as we traversed the state. Led Zeppelin IV. L.A. Woman by The Doors. Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge of Town, with everyone shouting the lyrics to “Badlands.” We talked excitedly about the game, about the vulnerability of a declining Bills’ dynasty as Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Company reached the twilight of their great careers. Blitzburgh would overwhelm them on defense, we were sure of it. Eric ate half a pizza from a Sbarro at the rest stop near Harrisburg. It was January, but we drove with the windows down for the next fifteen miles.

We had a contact at MonValley Travel, a Pittsburgh-area travel agency, who had set us up with tickets to the game, a suite at the Hilton directly across the bridge from Three Rivers and passes to an 8 a.m. tailgate party in the stadium parking lot. It was late when we arrived. There were four beds in two adjoining rooms for five guys, plus a couch in the main area. Kendall drove, so he got a bed. Eric was 6’4-275, so he got a bed. Ed, Fish and I went three-way rock-paper-scissors for the remaining two beds. Fish lost, which wasn’t a bad thing. His feet smelled like a dumpster. The Steelers were staying in the hotel but we figured they were sequestered somewhere. We ordered room service, claimed our respective beds and watched some T.V. before nodding off.

The alarm blared at 7 a.m. We jumped up, showered and chose our gear. The temperature was in the teens and, beginning with the tail-gate, we would be outside for about eight straight hours. That meant layers. Long-johns. Thermal socks. Winter coats and hats. And of course, Steelers’ gear. Eric rocked a throwback Joe Greene jersey. Ed and Kendall wore Steelers’ jackets. Fish looked ready for the slopes in a ski parka but donned the requisite Steelers’ hat and gloves. I couldn’t fit my Jack Lambert jersey over all of my other clothing so I wore it underneath, closer to the heart, while clutching my Terrible Towel. It was game day. We were ready.

We rode the elevator to the lobby. The doors opened and we were greeted by a sea of fans in black-and-gold attire. Terrible Towels swirled madly. “Here we go!” chants rose and fell. Grown men looked like giddy kids on Christmas morning. We ordered drinks in the restaurant — Bloody Mary’s for the boys, a Screwdriver for myself — and smuggled them outside. It was a short walk across the bridge to the stadium. Four hours to game-time.

Game Day - January 6, 1996, with the author (right) and his close friend Ed

There was a huge figure crossing the bridge about twenty feet ahead of us. He was wearing work boots, a checkerboard hunting jacket and a brown cap with ear flaps. He had shoulders like Paul Bunyon. Fish ran up ahead to get a look at him, then circled back. “That’s Strzelczyk,” he said. “I swear to God. That’s Strzelczyk.”

I had to see for myself. Justin Strzelczyk, the Steelers’ starting right tackle, who at 6’6-300 pounds was indeed a massive man. Why would he be walking across the bridge to the game? Wasn’t there a mandatory team bus or something he had to ride? I hurried past him, then pretended to look out over the railing at the stadium until he approached. I turned back in time to get a good glimpse as he passed. Sure enough, it was him. The beard and thick neck, a black “Property of Pittsburgh Steelers” sweatshirt beneath his open hunting jacket.

“Good luck,” I said. He nodded. It felt like a good omen.

(A decade later, when I heard the news of Strzelczyk’s bizarre and tragic passing, I couldn’t help but think of that encounter on the bridge. In that moment, he seemed to be living the dream of so many young men like myself — a starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers, hours from participating in a huge playoff game. Maybe, right then, he was doing well. But it did not end up that way. It reminded me of how we can never know what’s going on in the hearts and minds of these larger-than-life figures, and that, while we may project our own desires and expectations upon them, we can’t possibly understand their experience).

We found the tailgate at the stadium. It was packed with fans, all of whom seemed primed for kickoff. A grill was stacked with smoking sausages while kegs dispensed an endless stream of I.C. Light. Occasionally a Bills fan would enter the vicinity and be serenaded with boos. It was cold. Damn cold.

I wandered the parking lot to stay warm. Frisbees and footballs zipped through the air. Music played. Some people had unloaded full lounge chairs from their campers and erected tents under which they grilled an array of foods. Burgers, hot dogs, ribs, chicken. If you could grill it, it was being grilled. A man in a Louis Lipps jersey threw up into a trash can. I passed three guys with their shirts off whose chests were painted with the red, blue and yellow hypocycloids that adorn the Steelers’ helmet. It was a carnival.

By kickoff we were two parts numb from the cold and one from the beer. We were seated in the second row of the upper deck, where the wind whipped ferociously. We jumped up and down, partly to stay warm and partly from excitement. A man in the first row turned around and high-fived us. “Let’s go!” he screamed. The brotherhood of Steelers’ fans on full display.

The big concrete bowl-type stadiums that had been built in the 60s and 70s, like Three Rivers, Vet Stadium in Philly and Riverfront in Cincinnati, were unaesthetic and unimaginative. But boy, were they loud. The bowl seemed to trap the sound, and when the crowd was in full-throat you could hardly hear the person next to you. Buffalo had been one of the first NFL teams to make wide use of the no-huddle offense, which relied upon quarterback Jim Kelly to call plays at the line of scrimmage. Every time the Bills took possession, a roar went up that sounded like a jet-liner taking off. Kelly would walk up to the line and shout instructions, then flail a series of hand-signals in the direction of his receivers. The more he flailed, the more the crowd screamed.

Then, when Pittsburgh had the ball, a hush would fall. From our vantage point, it was easy to see plays develop. We could see a receiver come open and we’d shout to quarterback Neil O’Donnell, “Thigpen! You’ve got Thigpen!” When he’d throw to him we’d congratulate ourselves as though he’d heard us. When he didn’t we’d lament: “What the hell, Neil? Thigpen was wide open!” The luxury of fandom.

The Steelers were too young and too fast for the aging Bills. They raced to a 20-0 lead early in the second quarter. It was 23-7 at halftime and 26-7 midway through the third. Then, Jim Kelly got knocked out of the game on a crunching hit from Lloyd and defensive tackle Bill Johnson and went to the locker room. Backup Alex Van Pelt took his place. That’s it, we thought. The game is in the bag.

This hit on Jim Kelly would have drawn four flags and two arrest warrants today.

But Van Pelt led a touchdown drive that made the score 26-14, and Kelly returned to lead another. Now it was 26-21 and the stadium had gone silent. The Steelers needed a play to take the momentum back. Thankfully, Yancey Thigpen made one.

On a 3rd and 8 midway through the 4th quarter, where a failed conversion would have given Buffalo the ball back with the chance to take the lead, Thigpen soared high to snatch a throw from O’Donnell for a big gain. The Steelers finished the drive with a touchdown, then added another in the closing minutes. It was a 40-21 final, although Buffalo’s second-half comeback had made it feel much closer.

Yancey Thigpen with the catch that saved the day

We returned to the hotel, exhausted. Eight straight hours on our feet in temperatures where the wind chill was near zero, screaming our lungs out. It felt like we had been participants more than spectators. That’s what a live event does — it puts you on the set, where you have a role to play. Ours was to scream as madly as possible for as long as we could to make life miserable for Jim Kelly and the Bills’ offense. I remember standing in the shower, motionless, feeling the hot water sting my hands and feet as it thawed my frozen body, thinking we did our job.

A light snow had begun to fall. There was a big storm coming, someone said. No one took much notice. We headed to the hotel bar to celebrate. Once again, upon exiting the elevator, we entered a mad-house. Only this one was louder, drunker and more euphoric. As we pushed our way towards the bar, someone sang out, “I, got a feel-ing!” Every voice in the place screamed out the retort:

“Pittsburgh’s going to the Super Bowl!”

Someone at the bar was handing out beers to anyone who would take them. An older man grabbed me and hugged me. There was a woman in a “Franco’s Italian Army” tee shirt and what looked like black and gold Mardi Gras beads dancing on a table. It was like being at a fraternity party where all of these strangers had suddenly become our pledge brothers.

The remainder of that evening is largely a blur. We ate too much, drank too much and generally abused ourselves. I do remember Fish hitting relentlessly on a woman who was about three inches taller than he, and at one point, when she had presumably grown tired of him, she patted him on the head like he was an overly-excited canine. It was both emasculating and hysterical, and it earned him the nickname “Pat,” over which he was bitter for years to come. I also remember staring out the plate glass window in the lobby at one point and watching the snow fall. It was coming down much harder now. I may have wondered about our trip home the next day. Or not. I was a Jack Daniels drinker back then. It had a peculiar habit of fogging the memory.

The next morning, two things were quite clear. First, it felt like someone had hit me in the back of the head with a shovel. The headache was all-encompassing, from the dull throb at the base of my skull to the pounding at my temples. Second, the snow was still falling. Furiously now, with a foot on the ground already. Ed, the accountant, clearly the most practical of the group, was waking everyone up. “If we’re getting home today,” he said, “we gotta go.”

We packed hastily and hit the road. The on-ramp to the highway took us past Three Rivers. I stared out the window at the big concrete bowl and flashed back to my childhood, the voice of Dick Enberg on Sunday afternoons doing the intro to the games, with the requisite aerial view of the stadium and the confluence of the rivers. Those moments had always filled me with such hope and anticipation. They represented the beginning of a three-hour journey that would define my week. A win or a loss would set my mood for days. Little had changed, then or now.

The snow was relentless. There were several accidents and dozens of cars pulling off the road. We took turns driving and no one went faster than thirty-five. It took us half the day to reach Harrisburg. The radio announced that the governor had declared a state of emergency. The plows could not keep the highways safe or clean. The National Guard had been deployed. The snow-fall totals were extraordinary. Twenty inches in some areas. Two feet in others. We were young and dumb. We pushed on.

By late afternoon the Turnpike was largely abandoned. We pulled into the rest stop near Hershey but it was closed. We were tired and hungry. No one said much. Darkness fell. The snow swirled madly through the beam of the headlights. It was nearly impossible to see. Then, near the Valley Forge exit, a set of flashing lights appeared in our rear-view. We pulled over. A state trooper informed us the Turnpike had been shut down. No vehicles were allowed on the road. We explained we were trying to get home to New Jersey. “Not tonight you aren’t.” he said. We were escorted to the exit and directed towards a hotel. The desk manager informed us we were just in time, they were closing up shortly. The staff had been sent home so he could only give us one room. It had two queen beds and a couch. It was the best he could do.

I claimed the couch. The others negotiated sleeping arrangements. Fish took his shoes off and we all screamed at him to put them back on. The second AFC divisional playoff game was on TV. We tuned in, and to our surprise the underdog Colts were leading the Chiefs in Kansas City. Kansas City was the top seed, so if Indy won the Steelers would host the AFC championship the following week. We loaded up on snacks from the hallway vending machine and cheered wildly for the Colts to pull the upset. They did, and we celebrated all over again. Suddenly, no one seemed to mind the fact we were stuck in a single hotel room together eating Andy Capp’s Hot Fries for dinner. There were some arcade games in the small bar near the lobby. We held a Frogger tournament deep into the night. The snow kept falling.

On Monday afternoon, a Denny’s opened up across the street from the hotel. We trudged through the snow and were informed by the manager they had one waitress, one busboy and one cook on duty. We could have eggs or pancakes, that was it. No one protested. We ate like kings.

The snow stopped falling, at last. When all was said and done, the “Blizzard of ‘96” dropped over 30 inches on most of the east coast. We were trapped in the hotel for a second night before the governor opened the roads on Tuesday. We made it home by mid-afternoon, over fifty hours from the time we’d left Pittsburgh. We’d all met up in the parking lot of a diner when we’d departed so the next hour was spent digging out our cars. My driveway was thigh-high with snow and I had to park two blocks away in the lot of a CVS. I ate some soup and went right to sleep. My bed had never felt so good.

Three weeks later, the same crew assembled at my apartment to watch the Steelers lose to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX. We were disappointed in the result but so much of our conversation, and so much laughter, revolved around the road trip. That was the last time I can remember the five of us being together. Life happens. Conditions change.

I barely see those guys these days. Eric ditched his bouncing gig, went into food management and moved out of the area. Fish is still back and forth between work and the slopes. Ed, Kendall and I always seem buried with some grown-up obligation. Still, when we do talk, or text, we laugh at every reference to “Pat,” or to Frogger, or to the disease that was Fish’s feet.

And of course, we discuss the Steelers. I was with Ed when they ended the twenty-six year drought and defeated the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. We jumped around together just like we’d done as kids. Ed, Fish and I were together a few years later for the AFC Championship when Troy picked off Joe Flacco and ran like a whirling dervish to the end zone to secure another trip to the ultimate game. The Steelers are the thing that binds us. I suspect that will always be true. No matter where life takes us, we share that bond. It is the brotherhood of our Steelers’ fandom, and it is unbreakable.