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When losing hurts so good: The life of a diehard Steelers fan

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Tough losses hurt, and the more invested you are, the more it hurts. But in the midst of this pain, there's the realization of why it hurts, which, in some ways, makes the pain almost seem worth it.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Full disclosure, I'm a Cleveland Cavaliers fan, and Thursday night's drubbing at the hands of the Warriors hurt, a lot.

I've felt this feeling many times before. That "knot in your stomach, only gobs of unhealthy comfort food will temporarily numb the pain" feeling. As a diehard Steelers fan, I've experienced this feeling several times, and each time, it feels like the worst loss I've ever experienced as a fan.

I could live to be 100 and will never forget that first, worst loss. It came in January of 1997, with the Steelers facing the Patriots in the Divisional playoff round. My friend had the audacity to host a birthday party the day of a Steelers playoff game, so to my chagrin, I missed the first half. But after sneaking away from my friends, I found a TV and turned on NBC, where the horrifying third quarter score of "Patriots 25, Steelers 3" cold clocked me like a Mike Tyson forearm. My world temporarily devastated, I sat alone in somber acceptance before rejoining my friend's 11th birthday party (editor's note: my friend Sean was a 49ers fan; he got his the day before, courtesy of the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers).

The 1997 AFC title game loss to the Broncos hurt, mostly because Pittsburgh dismantled that same Denver team just a month earlier. The 2001 AFC title game loss to the Patriots stung bad, too, mostly because the Steelers gave that one away (they allowed two special teams touchdowns in the first half) as opposed to New England thoroughly beating them. Watching Kordell throw his helmet in angst at the end of the game, you also knew you were watching the end of that era of Steelers football, a reality that drove this fan to walk two miles after the loss in the cold and snow to eat the only thing that would give me temporary comfort: a large bucket of KFC popcorn chicken, with biscuits and potato wedges.

As bad as that loss stung, and as much as my sides hurt from all that KFC, easily the hardest loss to stomach as a Steelers fan was that 2004 loss to the Patriots in the AFC title game. As a college freshman living through the normal first year college struggles of homesickness, juggling school with fraternity life, avoiding the freshman 15, etc., the 2004 Steelers were my refuge, a team that magically seemed to win every single game behind a rookie quarterback, the ageless Bus, and a defense that looked like the Steel Curtain reincarnated. That loss, which came at the coldest, darkest time of the school year (Toledo, Ohio in mid January isn't what you'd call paradise), was tough to handle, while my roommate's cackling following each Patriot touchdown didn't help either. The brave face I tried to put on the following morning didn't make it very long, as it only took the sight of one New England hoodie in my 8:00 a.m. class to send me storming back to my dorm room to sleep off the rest of the day.

Over a decade later, I sit here again, with this same, helpless feeling. Why do I/we do this to ourselves? Wouldn't it be easier to be invested in things that tugged less on the heart? Why can't I be like the other three dozen "fans" that surrounded me at the restaurant tonight, the fans that jumped on the bandwagon and that shrugged off Thursday's loss like they were throwing away losing lottery tickets. Why can't I avoid caring too much?

The answer, which is what I would suspect most people's answer is to this question, is because, in an indescribable way, even the pain feels good. The pain is a reminder about how much we care. It feels good to care about something bigger than ourselves. It feels good to escape the stresses of our daily lives and cheer for a collective group to succeed, a group you've spent countless hours supporting throughout a span of four, five, six, sometimes seven months. Because you know other fans feel the same way you do. Because you love watching the evolution of a team, watching them come together, watching them compete for a common goal. Because you love sports, being invested in a team, and enduring the tough losses because it only makes the big wins that much more sweet. Because cheering for this team is in our bloodlines like a fate that can't be avoided. Because being a true fan still means something, and going through this pain is just a small price to pay for the joy that is being a true fan of a team.

It also gives me a really good reason to start searching for the nearest KFC right now. There's something about those biscuits that makes even the worst loss seem OK.