Pittsburgh’s goin to the Super Bowl

January 25th, 2011

On the day of the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh, I woke up at 4AM Sunday morning and packed the last of my things: backup terrible towel, extra jersey, and a few more hand warmers just in case. As I drove to the Austin airport for my 6AM flight to Memphis, I thought about how empty the roads were and how the only other people active in the city were at a 24 hour Whataburger somewhere eating taquitos before turing in after a long night at the bars. I would only be gone for 24 hours, but my suitcase had four layers of clothes and insulated boots so I had to check a duffle bag. I did however put my jersey and Terrible Towel in my backpack just in case the bag was lost. Anything else I could find upon arrival. I wore a black t-shirt that just said Steelers with an older NFL logo. There was at least one other woman on the flight going to the game.

I had a connection in Memphis, and stopped at the Starbucks across from the departure gate. The two women declined to serve me with smile, swearing allegiance to the Tennessee Titans. I smiled and played along, and then they served me an iced coffee. The gate started to fill up with more Pittsburgh fans. Then they announced that the flight would be delayed by half an hour. That’s not a lot of time, but everyone waiting looked around as if to suggest that we’d better make to Pittsburgh before kickoff or there would hell to pay.

As we approached Pittsburgh, I could see the white countryside out the airplane’s window. It was fairly cloudy so it was hard to see monuments, but during one break in the clouds I spotted Pitt as we turned towards the airport. The airport was Steelers central with waves of Jets fans parading through. They had set up a make shift Steelers merchandise store next to the information desk. Everyone stopped to take pictures with the Franco Harris statue in the center hub. The T-Rex was waving a giant Terrible Towel. I was meeting a friend of mine so I got my bag, rental car, and the day’s newspapers and read while I waited.

When I first walked outside, the first breath of cold air stung a little. It was dry and sharp. Then the steam of my exhale seemed to drop as if newly frozen it had succumbed to gravity. We drove straight to our hotel downtown, double parked on the curb, threw the keys to the valet and said, “We’re just changing and going to the game, don’t bother parking it.” We went upstairs and put on as many layers as we could, packed a bag of hand warmers, and returned to find out car still waiting. I then went down to my favorite spot near the now closed and dilapidated 222 Bar. There I found a warm trash can providing heat to a huddled few who had come out early. It was 2PM. The game started at 6:30PM. Time for a beer which had just been sitting in a bucket. No need for ice today.

John is from New Orleans and had never been to a Steelers game before. For full disclosure, he was rooting for the Saints on Halloween, but he had also been something of a Steelers fan for a few years because of me. This was his first full-on experience with tailgating. Too bad it was 15º. He soaked it up and fit in just fine. He said he would bring his Louisiana gris-gris to help the Steelers win this one against the Jets. We kept warm by the fire for several hours, just chewing the fat and meeting new people. I took a few photographs, but not many because my hands were so cold. There was a pink gorilla tormenting Jets fans as they unloaded from the Fairmont Hotel buses. None of them were appropriately attired for the chill. Later they launched a model jet down a string into a fire barrel to the cheers of the crowd.

After our clothes had fully absorbed the odors of the trash can fire, the time came to head to the stadium. I led John through the parking lots where the last minute shots and beer funnels were taking place. “Drink up yinz bithces, the game’s bout to start,” was probably playing somewhere in the background. We came across several groups hitting a crescendo. One was just giving away beer to anyone who walked by (at least offering it). We stopped to talk and partake for a few moments, then on the the big show.

I love the playoffs. There’s nothing quite like the energy at a playoff game. The towels, the video montages, the national anthem all combine to pull up the hairs on my neck. And then the kickoff. My voice was out of practice since the my last game against the Jets. But the offense took the ball and ran it down the field, so I had a brief reprieve.

It was cold enough that beer was turning to slush. Then my camera batteries started to fail. It was probably 15º before the wind chill of 7-10 mph winds. I had to take my gloves off for a few minutes to place a hand warmer under the battery compartment of the camera so the film would advance. I had the same problem before in the 2004 season AFC championship game against the Patriots so I came prepared. But my fingers needed some recovery time after that. All in all I wasn’t chilled to the bone with so many layers of clothing, but my face burned. We didn’t sit much which helped keep us warm.

At halftime I went all the way up to the top of section 528 so I could get a good view of the whole stadium for kickoff. I was up there for only a few minutes when Santonio Holmes caught a touchdown pass. I decided I had better get back to my seat and help out the defense. When we got back to our seats, I reminded John that the Terrible Towel only works its miracle during the playoffs, and I started twirling, gnawing, and whipping it based on the situation. I was nervous that the Steelers wouldn’t pull it out, but they played a physical game and it was enough to win.

When time ticked down, the stadium turned into  a big party. No one left their seats. Everyone was dancing on the seats, chanting, “Pittsburgh’s going to the Super Bowl, Here we go!” John asked where the song came from and how everyone knew it. I didn’t know the exact origins of the song, but I had heard it many times before. I marked yet another Super Bowl berth. This one was heading to Dallas Texas, back in my neck of the woods.

I had a 7 AM flight the next morning. As much as I wanted to hit the South Side, like years past, I couldn’t make my body do it this time. I got home to Austin around noon, after starting new banter with all the Packers fans I ran into along the way home. “See you in Dallas.” They’d say. I sure will, but only after I sleep for a few days and get my voice back.

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