“We tried everything to give that game away, but they darn well wouldn’t take it”

Things I lost at the Steelers game against the Jets last night:
1. My Terrible Towel
2. My voice
3. My sense of the inevitability of Steeler wins

The towel was no big loss. I bought it at the Pittsburgh airport in January 1996, when I was traveling around the country with my grad school program, touring manufacturing plants. The Steelers, you may recall, had certain troubles in the Super Bowl that year, a noticable pile of bad luck. So ever since I’ve wondered if it carried some kind of bad karma, or maybe loser cooties. I rarely brought it out — in fact, I had to search for a half hour Friday to find it.

Even with the potential of poor karma on it, I had to bring it to the game, as it was my first in-person Steeler game (indeed, my first in-person pro football game anywhere) and having a Terrible Towel was absolutely required. I worried the whole way to the stadium and all the way to my seat about losing it, and in fact nearly dropped it many times.

At halftime I took a potty break, sought out a fresh $5.75 beer, walked around a bit in the massive crowd, and suddenly realized that I was towelless. I gave a cursory look about at places I’d been, but I knew the towel was gone. And I felt free: freed of the responsibility of carrying it, free of its potential loser cooties, free at last.

I missed having it in the second half and overtime, when I had nothing to wave in support of the team. But I made up for its absence by screaming at the top of my lungs to help rattle the Jets. I like to think I contributed in my small way to the win. (This is my personal favorite yell: YI-YI-YI-YI-YI-YI-YI!!!)

And thus it was that I lost my voice. It hurt to laugh for the rest of the night — not that I had much energy for laughing, having screamed and shouted and shivered through nearly five quarters of football. I was completely wiped out, and completely thrilled to have been in the stadium to see all the drama. I would have seen much more of the game sitting at home — from our sky-high seats near the non-riverside endzone I barely spotted the ball’s flight on any of the kicks, although I did watch and enjoy the Jets kick that bounced on the goalpost — but I couldn’t have enjoyed it more.

As for that sense of inevitability: This season has been strange for me in that, from the third game on, I’ve felt fully confident each game that the Steelers would prevail. This has never happened before; usually I’m a nervous wreck during games and have to sedate myself or even leave the room when things get tense. But this year, even when they fell behind, even when they seemed to have lost rhythm and taken to making too many mistakes, I’ve caught myself calmly thinking, “And how will they pull it together this week?” I’ve never been really nervous.

Then last night, with seconds left in the fourth quarter, when Doug Brien was setting up to kick the winning field goal for the Jets, I felt the first stab of doubt. The playoffs are the worst: sudden death, one and done, no next week. Maybe the Steelers wouldn’t win. This could be it.

And then the kick went. I didn’t see it fly. I didn’t see it land. And before I could search the field for some gesture from the officials that would tell me what the hell was going on, the stadium erupted.

From then on, my confidence returned. Even when the Jets won the coin toss for overtime, I felt in my core that the Steelers defense would hold, the offense would get the ball, and the team would march down the field and score. Which is exactly what happened.

Even so, that crack in my certainty remains. The title to this post is something that my friend Natalae overheard: Two older ladies were talking in the stands after the game, shaking their heads in amazement that the Steelers won in the end. Whichever team the Steelers play next week will be good, very good. From now on, it’s anyone’s game.

That’s OK though, because it’s all football, it’s all good. I can’t wait for the next game.

Things that I gained at the game last night:
1. Memories of a fantastic, hard-won playoff game
2. A new Troy Polamalu (#43) jersey
3. An invitation to go back next Sunday for the AFC Championship