As is probably the case with many of you, I can attribute most of my sports allegiances to my family. That group of weird, loveable people shaped me more than I can ever express, and I am learning to appreciate them more every day, even as a nearly 30-year-old adult with my own small family to properly influence.
I grew up in quite the blend of a household. My dad is a born and raised Yinzer from the heart of Pittsburgh. My mom, however, is a southern girl through and through, spending most of her life in small-town Georgia. Both grew up fans of their own local sports entities, and I suppose I was destined to fall hard into sports fandom myself. Black and Gold infiltrated my heart early in life, and with my mom adopting Dad’s Steelers as her own quickly after their marriage, it was absolutely no contest where my loyalties would lie.
Although the Pittsburgh roots originate with my dad, it was Mom who was the real sports enthusiast, along with her dad, my Granddaddy, who has been a stout Atlanta Falcons fan his whole life as well. This being the case, Atlanta’s Black and Red has a special place in my football-loving heart as well, although they still place a fairly distant 2nd behind my Pittsburgh Steelers.
So when the AFC North and NFC South schedules line up every 4th year, the ensuing Steelers/Falcons matchup is one we circle on our calendars. It doesn’t matter the records or what’s at stake for each team, this rare matchup is always a special one.
My first recollection of the matchup was the 2002 doozy of a game where a red-hot Tommy Maddox threw for nearly 500 yards and a big Pittsburgh lead going into the 4th quarter before 2nd year sensation Mike Vick led the Falcons to 17 unanswered points to force Overtime. The game ended in a tie after each team had a FG attempt blocked and a final Maddox to Plaxico Burress heave was ruled short of the goal line and time expired. Quite a start for an 8-year-old kid just getting into football!
Then I think about two years later in 2004, when Rookie sensation Ben Roethlisberger took a 15-1 Steelers squad to the AFC Championship against Tom Brady’s Patriots, while Mike Vick led his high-flying Falcons to the NFC title game against the Eagles and Donovan McNabb. I was rooting so hard for a Steelers vs Falcons Super Bowl, but alas both teams fell short of their title bids in excruciating fashion.
Then there’s 2016. Again, both team’s appearing in their conference championships, only this time, the Falcons prevailed in a romp over Green Bay to head to only their 2nd Super Bowl ever. Meanwhile, my dream of Steelers vs Falcons in the Big Dance was thwarted again by #12 and his Boston cronies as they felt the need to remove my Steelers from the picture. From there, it’s 28-3 and you know the revolting remainder of that story for Atlanta.
In between the near Super Bowl matchups came some actual memorable faceoffs. A narrow OT victory for Atlanta in a 2006 shootout before Big Ben got revenge in a 3rd straight OT game in 2010. Troy Polamalu swiping an incredible sideline INT from a young Matt Ryan. Memories of my granddad and me tossing light-hearted jabs back and forth on the phone after a tough Falcons loss to my beloved Steelers, or Mom rooting for Pittsburgh but then feeling so bad for those “poor old Falcons” when they just couldn’t get it done during another rough season.
We’ve always said, “We’re all going to have to get together and go to a Steelers/Falcons game one of these years.” Unfortunately, we won’t have the opportunity to make it for the 2022 rendition in Atlanta, as the game arrives sandwiched between two out-of-state weddings, one for my younger brother, who tied the knot in October, and the other for my younger sister in January.
That’s okay, though. One day that dream will become reality. For now, come Sunday at approximately 4:30 eastern time, I’ll pick up my phone and trade some more good-natured jabs with my granddad, and rant and rave with Mom and Dad over the good, the bad, and the ugly from the previous three hours. I’ll even get to watch the game with that now married brother of mine who lives about 30 minutes away.
In a way, it feels like childhood reaching out a slightly faded hand to tap me on the shoulder and remind me why I love this game, and these teams, so much.
It’s more than just a football affair. It’s a family affair.
What are some teams that you have an affinity for other than the Steelers? Any family influences that shape your fan experiences? Let me know in the comments section below. Go Steelers!