I parked the blue Chevy Lumina by West Park at around 7:45 am, nearly 5 full hours before kickoff. Outside the car, on the curbside, I helped Dylmeister dress for the day. It was cold out but not frigid for January and there was virtually no wind nor was there any forecast of anything but clear and sunny skies all day. What more could you expect from an AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh?
Nevertheless, I carefully layered Dylmeister’s attire and bundled the 6-year-old with winter coat, hat, scarf, and gloves. Then one more radical layer – on top of it all, I slipped over my non-authentic 1986 orange #7 Broncos jersey that I had bought when a short-lived sporting goods store opened in West Hazleton and specialized in selling unauthorized NFL attire. It was only the second “Broncos” jersey I had ever owned (I briefly owned a white Craig Morton jersey when I was 10, but my mother accidentally donated that to the Salvation Army). Surprisingly, the jersey fit pretty well over the bulk of his winter coat stopping just above the knees and avoiding the “dress” effect. Little did I know, but as we locked up the car and headed down the hill (through what I would later refer to as the “corridor of death” in the song Eleven Years to the Day) that very jersey would be a lightning rod.
The walk to the stadium was about a mile from where we parked. I had strategically plotted this parking plan on Saturday, the day before the game, when the Meister and I spent the day “doing” Pittsburgh. Our weekend actually began at around 3 am on Saturday, after I had a Friday night DJ gig at The Blarney Stone in Hazleton. I made an agreement with Dylan’s grandmother to pick him up at her place and she graciously had him packed and ready to go at such an odd hour. We drove straight through to Pittsburgh (I drove, he slept) and arrived in the city right at dawn. It would be a great weekend together, just Dad and Dylan, like the “old days” before his twin brothers (2 months prior) and step-sister & step-mother (a year and a half back) had arrived to form this instantly large family. This was also my first ever visit to Pittsburgh, save a drive-by on my first trip out west in ’93. It is a beautiful city, but disappointing in it’s attitude.
The Steelers were the team when I first became a football fanatic in the late 70’s, while in elementary school. They won back-to-back Super Bowls twice, the first two while I was in 1st and 2nd grade. In each of those years (’74 and ’75) they beat the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship game, with the ’75 game being played on a pure sheet of ice at Three Rivers Stadium. In ’76, the Raiders got their revenge by beating the Steelers in Oakland and moving on to win their first Super Bowl. Then in 1977, this strange orange team with these strange fans from this strange place that I had never heard about finished the season with the best record in the AFC. On Christmas Eve, in an exciting back-and-forth contest, the Broncos pulled away in the 4th quarter to defeat the Steelers 34-21. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the Broncos first ever playoff game (after 17 years of mediocrity) but at 9, I was more than happy to jump on the bandwagon and the Broncos moved on to the Super Bowl (which they lost) after defeating the Raiders the next week. The following season, when I was in 5th grade, the Steelers were back to championship form as they finished with the AFC’s best record. In a turn-about, the Broncos had to travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers in that year’s playoffs where they were soundly trounced. It was the first time that I was truly heartbroken by a sporting event and the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl that year and the next, making it four for the ‘70s.
With their legendary success, I really expected more of a champion’s type of classiness from their fans but, unfortunately, this was not the case. On Saturday, we got some hints of what was to come Sunday, while driving around, listening to local radio. We heard a live broadcast from a specific Chevy dealership, where fans were invited down to help destroy a brand new Bronco by taking a free swing with a sledge hammer. Other local talk programs filled with fans bitching about the national media’s focus on Elway.
John Elway came to the Broncos in 1983, in a trade after the much-sought-after first round pick refused to play for the team he was drafted by, the Baltimore Colts. He started his first game as a rookie against the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium and had a horrendous game. Luckily, the Denver defense bailed the team out and the Broncos were able to squeak out a victory 14-10. Finally revenge for the ’78 playoff loss! But as a die-hard Bronco fan, it took a few years for me to accept this overrated, cocky Stanford kid. In his second season (1984), he led us to the playoffs but then choked in the game at home against – the Steelers (heartbreak again!). Two years after that the Broncos were in the playoffs again and after a narrow win at home against the Patriots, they had to travel to Cleveland to face the Browns in the 1986 AFC Championship Game (actually played 01/11/87). On this rainy, muddy day, Elway would gain the respect of me (and the rest of the football world) as he led the Broncos on a 98-yard, late fourth quarter comeback that became simply know as “The Drive”. This led the Broncos back to the Super Bowl, a place that would be familiar as they made it there under Elway in 3 out of 4 seasons at the close of the 1980s. Unfortunately, they lost in all 3 of those contests and often by embarrassing margins.
Meanwhile, the Steelers had less success throughout the 1980’s, with the exception of a feisty Wildcard team in 1989 that played the then-heavily favored Broncos tough at Mile High Stadium in the playoffs, with Denver winning 24-23. Bill Cowher arrived in 1992 and revitalized the team. By 1997, the Steelers had made it to another Super Bowl (albeit a loss) and were headed to their 3rd AFC Championship Game of the decade, as they prepared to host the Broncos. Being that Super Bowls are always played in neutral places chosen well in advance, to host a Championship Game is as big as it gets for a partisan NFL city. I expected a more festive atmosphere in Pittsburgh, which seemed to be sorely missing on Saturday.
But nothing prepared me for the classless, profane verbal assaults hurled at my 6-year-old and me on Sunday morning as we navigated our way towards Three Rivers. As we briskly walked down from the park commons, under several overpasses, and through the outer parking lot, past the earliest (and most die-hard) of tailgaters, our enemy attire attracted more and more juvenile harassment that soon devolved into profane and hostile verbal assault towards both of us. In my experience, children were moderators of such lewd comments, gestures, and behaviors, but not in Pittsburgh on game day. Most shocking of all, aside from all the colorful new terms that Dylan was learning (he looked up at me several times prepared to ask “Dad, what’s —?”, but thankfully refrained as somehow he knew this or that was a bad word) was the underlying lack of confidence that these fans in their own team, masked by these harsh words. I mean, these were the PITTSBURGH STEELERS for Christ’s sake.
Our pre-game experience was not all bad, however. As we got within the outer-circular bands of the perfectly circular stadium (and away from the tailgaters), we came across many interesting sites and people. On our first pass around the stadium (we virtually walked the entire morning to minimize any chance of getting cold), I looked up and saw Joe Gibbs, former (and future) head coach of the Washington Redskins right in front of me. I reflexively blurted out “Hey, Joe Gibbs. How ya doin’?” to which he gave me a weak nod in acknowledgement and hurried along on his way. Gibbs was now part of NBC’s pre-game show and he was already clad in his black leather jacket with the NBC peacock insignia on the right breast plate (NOTE: In the song, this was the inspiration for the “leather-clad rock hero standing in the street and later lies bleeding in the street. It’s meaning is not Joe Gibbs but instead the Pittsburgh Steelers, their mystique, et all). On another pass around, we arrived just in time to watch the Broncos get dropped off by their short convey of buses and I was able to snap good pictures of Mike Shanahan and Shannon Sharpe. As we passed by the media section, Dylan orange-clad attire attracted some positive attention and we were interviewed by Colorado’s major newspapers, The Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post. Dylan also did a solo, live on-camera interview for a local Denver TV station (the name escapes me – but I’d love to get a hold of that footage). The common fascination in all interviews was that there were ACTUAL Bronco fans in Pennsylvania!
Later on the ramp that led up to the entrance gate, while awaiting it’s opening, we encountered more abuse, mixed in with a few more civil conversations and even the rare, whispered, “listen, man these drunkin’ assholes don’t speak for all the Steeler nation – I just don’t want them to give us all a bad name”, which was always appreciated.
Inside the stadium it was much more pleasant as the sun rose and the day warmed to a balmy 48 degrees. Dylan and I were able to “sneak” down into the lower level and watch the players warm up from nearby and finally come in contact with other Bronco fans. We even got to meet and talk to the famous “Barrel Man” Tim McKerran. Our actual seats were about as far away from the action as you can get – top deck, second row from the very top, corner of the end zone – but we were fortunate to be on the sunny, northwest corner of the stadium that also gave a nice view of the Olympia Park crest that overlooked downtown Pittsburgh.
Behind us sat a group of Cleveland Browns fans, dressed in regular civilian clothes, who quietly confided that they were also rooting for the Broncos. This was during the short period between 1996 and 1999 when the Browns were out of existence after Art Model moved the his team to Baltimore only to subsequently have the city of Cleveland sue to keep the nickname, colors, and heritage in Cleveland and the NFL later promised to restore the team after a couple of years. These die-hard fans told me that they frequently traveled to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh just to root against their once and future rivals, but admitted that they weren’t quite brave enough to wear another team’s colors even if that team wasn’t competing against the Steelers on that day.
The game kicked-off under bright and sunny skies at 12:30 and was very suspenseful for the first quarter-and-a-half. The Broncos went ahead 7-0 in the first quarter, but the Steelers threw together two sustained drives, both resulting in touchdowns and a 14-7 lead midway through the second quarter. It was during these drives that a particularly obnoxious drunk, two rows in front, noticed us and made it his mission to get in our faces after every successful Jerome Bettis run, Kordell Stewart pass and/or Steeler first down. In fact, this jackass was soon spending more time turned around harassing us than he was spending actually watching the game. Luckily, simpletons like this are easily distracted, and when his buddy suggested they should get another beer to celebrate the Steelers second touchdown, the jackass followed him enthusiastically and apparently either got lost or arrested, for he did not return to his seat for the rest of the game.
It was about this time, down 14-7, when I was struck by ugly thought that we might actually lose this game. I turned to the Browns fans during the commercial break and mumbled something to the affect of “well, whatever happens, I’m still glad we came. Besides, it’s extremely rare that the visiting team wins one of these Championship games. In fact, we haven’t won any except for…” “The Drive”, one of the Brown’s fans finished my thought as I suddenly realized that this is probably a sore spot with my newly found comrades. “That was 11 years ago today” he continued. “Really?” I question “I didn’t realize.” “Yeah, January 11, 1987, we remember it well.” Suddenly, I was re-invigorated by the shear importance of the event laid out before me. This situation was on the same level as the legendary “drive” game and there is no bigger situation, save for the Super Bowl. And here we were, Dylan and I in the flesh to witness it all in person. I put my arm around Dylan as he gave off a yawn and said; “Don’t worry Dylmeister, the Broncos will surely win!”
Then, as if a cosmic switch was hit, the Broncos came to life during the latter part of the 2nd quarter, rattling off 17 consecutive points – a field goal and 2 touchdowns – in that short period before halftime. Further, all that action took place in the end zone right underneath us (great seats, eh buddy?). Denver held a 24-14 halftime lead and inversely, as my excitement level rose, much of the home-field energy and momentum deflated. I was so taken by this change of fortune that I didn’t even realize that Dylan had fallen into a cat-nap throughout all the excitement. As I took Dylan for a bathroom and soda break at halftime, I found that a 10-point lead was enough to dissipate much of the cocky belligerence towards those of us dressed in orange.
The 3rd quarter, while suspenseful, was equally as satisfying for me. The Steelers put together a few drives deep into Bronco territory, which was now our side of the field, but both drives ended in Kordell Stewart interceptions, further deflating the crowd. It was about this time when I was struck by how much movement the Bronco defense made – showing blitzes and such – which I had never noticed before (it was after this game that I realized television skewed all action to the offensive side of the ball). The Bronco defense would be very instrumental in their back-to-back Super Bowl victories, something that the press has regrettably never given them full credit. I began clock-watching as the 3rd quarter morphed into the 4th and the Broncos maintained their 24-14 lead.
Then, with about 3 and a half minutes left in the game and the Steelers again driving (now towards the far end zone), Stewart threw a desperation 3rd-down pass off his back foot that was snagged high in the high by Charles Johnson for a 30-yard TD. It was a most unfortunate stroke of bad luck for the defense that had played so brilliantly over the past 90 minutes or so, but it was worth 7 points for the Steelers nonetheless. The stadium absolutely exploded like a powder-keg as the “terrible towels” came out in full force (where exactly were they keeping those, anyway?) and the noise level rose beyond any earlier level. Momentum is so vital in pro football and can sustain a team for a long period of time, but the slightest opening can shift momentum drastically to the opposite team and so often it is that team which has momentum at the very end that will squeeze out a victory in a close game. Now down only 24-21, the Pittsburgh Steelers truly had momentum. Scared as I was for my beloved Broncos, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the spectacle as I looked down at some 50,000 yellow rotors beneath my feet – it was a fitting site for the majestic Pittsburgh Steelers crowd that I had expected earlier, but now dreaded so close to the end.
The Broncos got the ball back as the crowd remained in a fevered visual and audio pitch. The Steelers had two time-outs left as the Broncos lined up on first down – a run to the right side. The crowd explodes, Pittsburgh calls time-out. 2nd and 10 – another run, this time for just a mere yard. Again the crowd explodes, again the Steelers call time-out. Running is smart in this situation as it keeps the clock moving or, as in this case, forces a time to exhaust their remaining time-outs. But the downside, is if they can stop you with little or no gain, they not only force a punt and gain possession, but also compound to the already strong momentum as their beloved defense does “their part”. But we did have #7 on our side. With a crucial 3rd and 9, Elway dropped back, avoided a frantic blitz, and threw a perfect crossing pass, threading the needle between two Steeler defenders to Shannon Sharpe. The crowd initially launched into another celebratory explosion as they were sure that the pass was defended by the two linebackers, but then big #84, lumbered forward for another 7 or 8 yards as those linebackers struggled to bring him to the ground. This all but ended the contest right there as the Broncos had a fresh set of downs and the Steelers had no time-outs with just two minutes remaining. Like the earlier explosion following Kordell’s mini Hail Mary, the sudden and surreal “implosion” with the collapse of all those terrible towels and that noise within a second or two, was equally striking. It was also suddenly easy to spot all the sparse and disparate Bronco fans as we were now the only ones left making any noise.
Like cheese on a tilted, freshly-baked pizza, the packed, partisan crowd seemed to “melt” off the upper deck as they made their way en masse towards the exit tunnels near the bottom of the deck while the final minute ticked away. The PA announcer echoed an announcement, asking the fans to “please remain for the presentation of the Lamar Hunt trophy following the conclusion of today’s contest”, seemingly oblivious that most of the fans had, in fact, already left their seats and had absolutely no interest in witnessing the visiting team receive this honor. I, however, was very interested in seeing this from as close as possible, so after thanking the Browns’ fans for their support and wishing them good luck with the new team, I quickly bundled Dylan back up in his hat, gloves, and scarf, grabbed his hand, and led him down the concrete stairs.
I wanted to get down to the lower deck, where we had earlier watched the warm-ups but was quickly discouraged when I peaked into the tunnel and saw the log-jam of Steeler fans trying to leave the stadium. I didn’t think we could make it down in time and worried that we might be turned away by security if we did, so instead Dylan and I move laterally – around the upper deck to a spot directly in front of the make-shift stage and right at the edge of the upper deck, as close to the field as possible to watch the trophy presentation. At this point it had only been about 10 or 15 minutes since that 3rd down play when Elway hit Sharpe but now the stands were nearly empty, with just a few scattered Steeler fans – mostly with shocked looks of disbelief – that had remained in their seats to watch the presentation. While Dylan and I were virtually alone in the upper deck, directly below us in the lower deck right in front of the stage, was just about every other of the few hundred or so Bronco fans, cheering ecstatically. Don Shula presented the trophy to Bronco owner Pat Bowlen & co. and assured “this is the year the AFC wins one”. At that point, it had been 13 straight Super Bowl victories for the NFC, which I still regard as one of the most astonishing phenomena in sports history, and the Broncos had unfortunately contributed three of those (it was this history that would make the Broncos ridiculously large underdogs going into Super Bowl XXXII).
After the much expected words from head coach, quarterback, star running back, etc., the young receiver Rod Smith made the unexpected move of running off the field and diving into the stands and the crowd of euphoric Bronco fans. With all the fun below and us helplessly stuck on the edge of the upper deck unable to participate, Dylan turned to me and stated the obvious; “Dad, we should of went down there with those guys.” Good point, son. As a consolation, I brought him back to the west end zone so we could watch the players leave the field and give them one last cheer as they entered the locker room. The last man off, having done oodles of live interviews, was John Elway – the only Bronco that Dylan truly knew and loved. As we both yelled our appreciation from the upper deck – just the two of us as he slowly jogged off, Elway took a moment to pause, look up at us and point in appreciation.
Two weeks later in my living room, Dylan and I watched Super Bowl XXXII. During a segment of NBC’s pre-game show, Joe Gibbs interviewed John Elway. And as he spoke about getting one more opportunity at winning that elusive Super Bowl, they showed slow-motion footage of Elway jogging off the field Pittsburgh, pausing, looking up, and pointing to the sky.