I've loved All Star exhibitions since I was a kid. I remember in the very-early 1980s getting white undershirts and writing on them with blue ink for the NL and red for the AL. Then I found out that in baseball they wear their team uniform in the actual Tuesday night classic. I made my own AFC jersey with the number 32 on it. Then I started my No. 12 jersey and only got to the BRA before my mother banned me from markers and monitored my Fruit of the Looms more closely.
Yes, the Pro Bowl was my favorite. I'd open my Topps packet and see "All Pro" bordering many a Steeler card. The skills competitions were pretty cool too. I felt like I was watching the best of the best. The greatest players never declined an invitation. They were honored to be selected and were always there. To me, at the age of nine, it was like watching an assembly of gods.
Now these days, these exhibitions seem more forced. It's like pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz and being disappointed on what you see. Instead of the almighty and powerful of the Emerald City, you get the fourth option at linebacker because one is playing in the Super Bowl, another is feeling the wear-and-tear of the season and the third is being sentenced and can't make it to Orlando. There have been talks of eliminating it altogether, but that seems like another window shut on the glory of yesteryear and many a childhood. I figured I'd blow it off this year because somebody's flipping a house on HGTV for the 79th time in a 24-hour period and my wife dedicates herself to that like she's watching a royal wedding. I would surely hate to disappoint her.
But something moved inside me this week. At first I thought it was a kidney stone lurking near the outer reaches of my ureter, but it was something else. It was Roosevelt Nix being named to the AFC squad, bringing the Steeler player total named to the team to ten with nine attending.
Nix represents the blue collar aspect of the Steelers and the NFL. Another great undrafted free agent from Kent State, Rosie is finally getting national attention for contributions that Steeler Nation has deemed invaluable for the last few seasons. It feels good to see that guy included in this showcase. It can never be taken away from him and I want to witness it.
Not just seeing No. 45 play in his first Pro Bowl is awesome to me, it's seeing Big Al Villanueva, Cam Heyward and Chris Boswell there for the first time as well. You expect to see Steeler stars like Ben Roethlisberger (6th), Dave DeCastro (3rd), Antonio Brown (6th), Maurkice Pouncey (6th) and Le'Veon Bell (3rd) donning red and white on Sunday...but you feel good for these other hard working guys. Ryan Shazier, despite his devestating injury, was named to his second Pro Bowl. While not in Orlando, No. 50 had dinner with teammates Vince Williams, Arthur Moats and L.T. Walton this week and remains very much a part of the team.
Don't get me wrong, I wish these Steelers weren't playing in this game. We'd all much rather see them boarding a plane for Minneapolis and spending oodles of our money on Super Bowl memorabilia. But something tells me this experience with nearly a fifth of the team, and the entire coaching staff, together will prepare this team to miss the game next year and convene in a stadium in Atlanta that has a Chik-fil-a, but can't serve it on Sundays.
Why do I think that? I feel the time together in the sunny locale with nothing on the line could inspire them to realize what they're capable of and what they're missing. But it can also bond them as one. The photos of comraderie are cool to see. Ben is wearing cleats to honor Shazier and the late Dan Rooney. Bell is openly talking about pride in being a Steeler and contract progress and Al and DeCastro are off fishing together.
While none of this solves any of the problems that reared their ugly heads and caught up with the Steelers against Jacksonville, it has the feeling of the beginning of greatness. I know I'm going to read plenty of comments pooh-poohing this column and this game. I get that. I may be crazy for feeling this way, It could be the residual of sniffing the above-mentioned markers when I was nine or that pesky kidney stone....but I really want to see the Steelers playing ball, even if it can't be in the big one.
I'll be watching. Will you? If not, let me know what happens on Flip or Flop...