When I told my sister I wanted a Steelers T-shirt for Christmas this year, she thought I was kidding.
Which makes sense. I used to tell people ― very truthfully ― that if sports ceased to exist, my life would be wholly unchanged. I barely knew a baseball from a basketball. In my world, “tight end” had nothing to do with football. If people started talking about sports, I couldn’t even pretend to participate in the conversation. Most important to point out: I didn’t care, not one bit, the world of sports was not in my vernacular.
All that has changed now. My name is Kristen, and I am a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.
Really, it’s my BFF Eva’s fault. A Pittsburgh native, she is the kind of true die-hard who was kicked out of a “sports bar” in Englewood after the waiter informed Eva her level of foul-mouthed fan play can’t be tolerated in what, apparently, was actually a “family restaurant.” For nearly a decade, Eva tried to cajole me into watching football with her. She’d call me after games, full of beer and chicken wings, and go on and on about interceptions, tackles and the quarterback getting sacked. I’d put her on speaker and set down the phone so I could file my nails or empty the dishwasher. Finally, Eva would take a breath and I’d say to her: “Girl, you do remember that I have no idea what you’re talking about?”
So it seemed quite unlikely that I’d accept an invitation to watch the Steelers vs. Bengals game in early November. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe it was because my 40th birthday was looming. Or because I’d been watching pieces of games with other friends and finding it not altogether disagreeable. But on that day, at the Dayton Racquet Club’s 29th Story Lounge, my conversion happened.
Eva had brought me one of her Steelers shirts to put on, and I joined a host of black and gold-clad fans jumping out of their seats, pumping fist, hollering, high-fiving. This time, when Eva explained forward pass and throwing from the pocket, I was fascinated. Then, of course, were the stories about the players and coaches. The drama! The characters and intrigue! The conflict and tension! The twirling Terrible Towels! The beer! I knew I’d be back for more.
Here we go!!
Yet my conversion wasn’t nearly as dramatic as that of Eva’s husband, George.
Being a Cleveland boy may have been part of what kept him at bay for so many years. George would join his wife to watch games on occasion, but he was no fan.
Until Super Bowl XLIII: the Steelers vs. the Cardinals.
George and Eva, along with fellow fanatics and Steel City natives Jimmy and Theresa, traveled to Pittsburgh to watch the game. At 11 a.m., the day found them paying $10 each for seats in a smoke-filled Strip District bar. If they left, they’d lose those seats. The only option was to start drinking.
George likens the experience to watching the game with 600 of your best manic-depressive friends, and on that day, in that bar, all those friends were on their A game. It was like a Fellini film in black and gold: snake people, midgets and bearded women, as George tells the story. From the second floor ― hidden from view, sounding like the disembodied voice of god ― a DJ spoke to the crowd, keeping them pumped throughout the day and bringing them back from the brink of despair during the nail-biter of a game. Middle-aged men were crying in their beers as Bruce Springsteen played Thunder Road during half-time, and women were dancing on the bar as the DJ played Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing.
Suddenly, toward the end of the game in a bar packed with screaming fans, George can’t hear. But, oh, what he sees! It’s an epic battle between good and evil as the Cardinals morph into Orcs and Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger transforms into Frodo. Aha! George knows exactly who’s going to win this game. He tries telling everyone the Steelers have this thing. They’re good. The Cardinals are evil. But no one will listen.
Then it happens: Roethlisberger throws the ball to Santonio Holmes, whose arms are outstretched like Big Butter Jeebus. Holmes dives and catches the ball, barely keeping his toes in bounds to make the winning score. For a second, the bar is completely quiet. Probably, the Earth stopped. Then the DJ spins Queen ― We Are the Champions! ― and the towels are spinning and the people are screaming and the party really begins.
George saw it. He knew. Sure enough, the next day, the newspaper headline reads: Lords of the Rings.
And another Steelers fan is born. The kind of true die-hard who, the morning of Superbowl XLV, puts conditioner on his toothbrush in the shower because he’s such a nervous wreck.
It’s Superbowl Sunday, and I am gigging out. I wake up early and, while I put toothpaste on my toothbrush, I can’t get back to sleep. This time last year, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know it was Superbowl Sunday. My friend is trash-talking me: “You an inexperienced fan,” he says. “You finally gonna get into football and side with those punks?” I get it: I’m an Ohio girl, and I know plenty of Bengals fans. They may love me, mostly, but right here right now they think I’m a traitor.
Indeed, my conversion has been swift and complete. I am reading the Dayton Daily News’ sports section. I’m at a club for a bachelor-bachelorette party and spend most of the time talking football with some guy in a Troy Polamalu jersey. “Who ARE you?” friends ask. I’m so worked up watching the Steelers vs. Ravens game at my sister’s that, after the opposing team picks up a live ball and literally walks it into the end zone for a touchdown, my brother-in-law has to pour me a drink that’s mostly Red Stag. A co-worker questions me, of all people, about the definition of a blitz.
I’m pre-gaming with George and Eva a couple of hours before kickoff. Eva is putting the final touches on a vision board she’s made: a collage of words and images from that day’s newspaper. We’re listening to a CD of cheesy fight songs George made, singing along, dancing around their condo, bumping fists. Here we go!
We meet Jimmy and Theresa and a crew of fans and friends and head back to the place where, for me, it all started: the Dayton Racquet Club. We scoot tables and chairs right in front of the big screen, and set up a shrine of sorts: Eva’s vision board and a Roethlisberger bobblehead on, of course, a Terrible Towel.
We lose the game, but I’m still proud of our team for making it to the Superbowl. I learn in the elevator, on the ride down from the highest point in the Miami Valley, this isn’t good enough. It’s obvious I’m getting on everyone’s nerves for trying to “look on the bright side.” Shut up! The next morning, a friend says he saw us walking back to George and Eva’s condo, looking as if we’d come from a funeral. We basically had. Now, why did my first football season have to end this way?
Then again, this really is a story about a beginning, about transformation. I admit I’m kind of proud of myself, too, for letting down my guard long enough to allow for a new experience. For a girl who’s long tried way too hard to be “different,” there’s something refreshing about becoming obsessed with America’s Favorite Sport. Seriously: If I can learn to love football, anything is possible. No. Holds. Barred. Me, in a No. 43 jersey, black and gold beads around my neck, unable to eat and bouncing in my seat, eyes glued to the freaking Superbowl of all things. Who would have thought.
This is the lesson I will try to remember during these dim post-season days. Especially when I pull on my Steelers T-shirt ― the one my sister bought me for Christmas.
P.S. We WILL get that seventh ring!