On December 23, 1972, Franco Harris pulled in a pass from Terry Bradshaw that ricocheted off of his intended receiver, Frenchy Fuqua, and galloped all the way home for the most improbable touchdown in the history of the NFL, as the Steelers rallied in the final seconds to knock off the Raiders, 13-7, in a divisional-round classic at old Three Rivers Stadium.
From there, the Steelers rode the wave of their first-ever playoff victory all the way to the Super Bowl where they clinched the first Lombardi Trophy in franchise hist...
Right, none of that second paragraph actually happened. Instead, Pittsburgh lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins the following week in the AFC title game, and the Dolphins went on to capture their first Lombardi with a victory over Washington in Super Bowl VII.
Nope, the Steelers didn’t parlay Harris’s heroics, a play that would soon come to be known as the Immaculate Reception, into a title, but their fans have been celebrating it my entire life—nearly 50 years. In fact, there’s a statue at the Pittsburgh International Airport of Franco making his iconic grab, and thousands of yinzers and yinzer wannabees have had their pictures taken next to it for years.
My point? The Steelers didn’t win a Super Bowl in 1972, yet, we can’t seem to stop talking about how magical that year was for the organization. Of that magical campaign, Harris once said, “It was like the entire Steeler Nation and the city of Pittsburgh were waiting for that year their entire lives.”
I was only an infant and even I feel like I was a part of that magical season.
The lesson is this: You can actually enjoy a season that doesn’t end with a championship trophy and a parade.
And that brings me to the Cincinnati Bengals, the most-recent champions of the AFC and the most-recent losers of the Super Bowl—Super Bowl LVI, to be exact.
It’s been fun mocking the Bengals in the days since they were vanquished by the Rams at SoFi Stadium, 23-20.
I’m lying. I’m actually really jealous of the season the Bengals and their fans got to experience in the just concluded 2021/2022 campaign.
Were Bengals fans upset and depressed following such a tough loss? I have no doubt that they were, but that didn’t stop many from greeting the Bengals players at the airport when they arrived home with nothing but bumps and bruises.
The Bengals’ faithful came out in full force again on Wednesday to show their love and appreciation for a magical 2021 season, as the city of Cincinnati held a rally at Washington Park.
Unfortunately, while I haven’t had any fun mocking the Bengals for losing the Super Bowl, many other Steelers fans have. The same can be said for some Pittsburgh media personalities who have spent a lot of energy debating the optics of a rally for a team that came up just short.
Steelers fans and a few folks in the local media have suggested that such a rally would never be held in Pittsburgh after a Super Bowl loss, that the standard is to win it, and anything that falls short of that is an absolute failure.
It’s a “loser’s mentality,” they say. We’re getting soft. It’s a byproduct of children being handed participation trophies all of these years.
Were they giving out participation trophies in 1972? Was the city of Denver soft for going absolutely bonkers over the Broncos’ first trip to the Super Bowl in 1977, an outcome that, despite a disappointing loss to the Cowboys, put that region on the map? I know plenty of long-time Broncos fans who revere that runner-up ‘77 season as much as they do the three Lombardi Trophies the team has won since.
Maybe Steelers fans should lower their standards just a bit, not so the team can stop trying to win championships, but so they can enjoy themselves just a bit more.
If winning it all is the only thing that matters, why celebrate anything that happens before that? Why even pay money to attend regular-season games? Why tailgate? Why buy division-title t-shirts?
This zero-sum thinking when it comes to sports fans these days (only one team and fan base can be truly successful and satisfied each and every year) is why I believe a lot of people are just plain miserable and/or bonkers.
There are varying degrees of success for most NFL teams each and every year. For example, I think what the Steelers did in 2021 by making the playoffs with an aging and soon-to-be-retired quarterback was a great story. Was it worth having a rally for? No. Will fans carry it with them for the rest of their lives? Not likely. But it sure was worth appreciating when all was said and done (I even had trouble doing that in the moment).
As I said before, this idea of mocking a team that just lost a game your team didn’t even make is really a defensive mechanism, something used to shield the pain.
But no matter how many times people post those memes about the Steelers owning six Super Bowls and the Bengals owning none, that doesn’t change the fact that the team with zero Lombardi Trophies just had a much more successful season and one its fans will likely cherish for the rest of their lives.
We Steelers fans should be so lucky.