It was the 1994 preseason. The Steelers were playing some team at old Three Rivers Stadium—it doesn’t matter who.
Any who, I didn’t see this particular game live. Nope, I was enjoying life as a 22-year-old and missed the whole thing. I did catch the highlights on the news the next day and was struck by something I had witnessed—a familiar sight from the recent past.
Mike Tomczak, a veteran backup quarterback who the Steelers had acquired prior to the 1993 campaign, made a hardnosed run that gained a lot of yards. Just about everyone in attendance at TRS stood up and cheered wildly for Tomczak as he was being helped to his feet. But it was more than just applause, you see. It “felt” like a repudiation of all things Neil O’Donnell, the Steelers' primary quarterback over the previous three seasons. I can’t remember what I muttered to myself at that moment, but it was something along the lines of, “You jerks! Here we go again with this crap!”
That’s right, long before Super Bowl XXX and Larry Brown, Steelers fans had decided that O’Donnell simply didn’t have what it took to be a quarterback in the NFL; much like with Mark Malone a half-decade earlier, once the fans formed this opinion, they refused to ever allow O’Donnell back into their good graces.
Fast forward to Saturday night and the Steelers 2022 preseason opener against the Seahawks at Acrisure Stadium. Mason Rudolph entered the game in place of Mitch Trubisky, the veteran quarterback who piloted the first two offensive series in his Steelers’ debut—including one that resulted in a touchdown on the opening possession—before calling it a night.
How was Rudolph greeted by those in attendance, a fanbase that has always insisted that hatred has nothing to do with the criticisms of the fifth-year quarterback out of Oklahoma State? By booing him rather loudly, so loudly that it was obvious to everyone—including Rudolph, who was asked about it after the game.
This is why I write the things that I write and have certain opinions on the subject. I don’t know what the definition of gaslighting actually is, but it is a little annoying to constantly be told that you’re not hearing and seeing the things that you’re literally hearing and seeing regarding Rudolph and the rather palpable opinions the fans have about him.
This is so 1980s and 1990s for me. This is such a blast from the past but not in a good way. This is what I grew up with and witnessed as a young Steelers fan. Even back then, I knew it was stupid and low-brow for people to say the things they were saying about Mark Malone, O’Donnell and, eventually, Kordell Stewart. I read about all of the horror stories involving Terry Bradshaw’s early days as a Steeler, stories that weren’t celebrated, by the way. Nope, the fans were the bad guys in this tale—and rightfully so.
Ugly is ugly, no matter which football team a person cheers for.
People like to talk about clickbait when it comes to articles like this one, but the Steelers fans in attendance at Acrisure Stadium on Saturday night provided the clickbait material the moment they opened their mouths to boo the home-team quarterback.
Being critical of Rudolph’s play is one thing. You can wrap your head around the fans not buying into him as a quarterback. It’s the most scrutinized position in all of team sports.
This is something entirely different.
It always has been when it comes to Steelers fans and a quarterback they don’t like.
Regarding my last article about the treatment of Rudolph, a reader said to me, “Isn’t it a bit insensitive to bring up Stewart’s past and how Steelers fans treated him?” Oh, I don’t know, wasn’t it way more insensitive for the fans to actually treat Stewart the way they did?
Booing Rudolph for simply stepping onto the field goes beyond normal criticism of his play. It goes beyond cheering for someone else like Kenny Pickett because you like him more. It’s ugly, and it’s vile, and it’s something that, quite frankly, makes Steelers fans look like idiots.
I love when history repeats itself in the form of Super Bowl championships and parades, but I don’t love reliving history with the 2022 version of “Li’l Abner in Cleats.”
Part of me has always wanted to believe that Steelers fans are better than that, or at least that they’ve evolved beyond the behaviors of the 20th Century.
But I guess an elite player is the only thing that can truly mask their often ugly, irrational and obnoxious behavior when it comes to who's playing quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.