with apologies to Ted Lasso
The morning of Ryan’s first Pittsburgh Steelers game started in darkness. I awoke in our room at the North Hills Comfort Inn to realize through the groggy fugue of predawn that the Woog was already sitting up in his bed, quietly waiting for me to wake up.
“You’re up early,” I mumbled, then I yawned wide enough to fit a car in my mouth.
“I want to watch NFL Network,” Ryan said. He was absently rubbing his hands together like a miser in a cartoon.
I turned on the bedside lamp and was immediately impaled through my eyeballs by a lance of light. I clamped my eyes shut and thought, “Well, at least I know I’m not blind.”
“What time is it, Woogie?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “There isn’t a clock in this room.”
There weren’t any towels either when we arrived. Had to go down to the desk and request those. And soap. And coffee pods. A lot of coffee pods.
I picked up my phone from the bedside table and peeked through the crack of one eyelid.
“Holy shit.” It was 6:37 AM.
“Can we turn on the TV?” Ryan asked.
“Sure.” I clicked the remote and turned it to the NFL Network. A gaggle of young hipsters who apparently had been awake all night doing whippits were jabbering about the upcoming games.
As I prepared breakfast for us out of the room’s mini fridge (emphasis on “mini”), as I showered, as I laid out Ryan’s clothes and mine, as I brushed my teeth, and got dressed, and started the car, and headed down McKnight Road to the stadium, Ryan chattered ceaselessly about all of the various games coming up that day.
The Raiders actually have an impressive team even though everybody says they keep finding a way to win. Can anyone believe how bad the Jets are again this year? Definitely need to see the Packers-49ers game that night, especially since we’re playing the Packers the following week. Ryan had already started to scout Aaron Rodgers and crew.
“Look, Dada! There’s a Steelers flag!”
We were in the car line off of 279 descending into the area on the North Side surrounding the stadium.
“Yeah, well, we’ll see a lot more of ‘em, Woogie. You’re in Steelers Country.”
We were beginning to glimpse the army of tailgaters and weekend drunks that stake out every home game. Hardly an experience unique to Pittsburgh, but these were our people. Ahead of us rippled an ocean of black and gold.
“That sign says ‘Steeler Nation,’ ” Ryan said.
A short pause while he crunched its possible meaning. He gave up. “What does that mean?”
It was a broad question. Rather, it was a narrow question with a broad answer. Since we were inching toward to the stadium parking lot at funeral procession speed, however, we had some time.
- A port in southwestern Pennsylvania, at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, which form the Ohio River: settled around Fort Pitt in 1758; developed rapidly with the discovery of iron deposits and one of the world’s richest coalfields; the largest river port in the US and an important industrial center, formerly with large steel mills.
- A drinking town with a football problem.
I won’t claim that Pittsburgh, or western Pennsylvania, has a singular affinity for football, since it is arguably America’s true national pastime (sorry, baseball fans: the numbers here are overbearing).
But there is a unique orientation to football in western Pennsylvania I’ve only seen in one other part of the country: eastern Ohio (too bad for them this hasn’t translated into championships). Football seems to come out of the earth in these parts, like the iron ore and coking coal needed to make steel.
I lived in central Florida during my adolescent and teen years. Football was big. Florida was a football factory. But it didn’t seem to permeate life there.
When I was a kid growing up in western Pennsylvania, we were obsessed with football. Every boy played football every day unless we were sick enough to be hospitalized. We played football like the postal service used to deliver mail: in hail, sleet, snow, rain. We played football at recess, at lunch, on the school bus, in the street, in yards, in basements, at the supermarket. The cops in our neighborhood used to hand out Steelers playing cards to all the kids. Unlike kids in some neighborhoods, when one of us called out, “Police!” all the kids ran toward the cops.
When my brother was 2 years old he nearly broke his nose on the family room floor trying to tackle me from behind during a game of “poo-ball,” which was basically me carrying the ball on my knees toward some end zone marker while he climbed all over me like I was a jungle gym.
I wanted to be one of two people when I grew up: Neil Diamond or Jack Lambert — with a strong preference for the latter. After sandlot games, I used to interview myself about the contest on the walk home.
My father and I had what therapists might call a “contentious relationship.” (Our kids call him G-Pa; when I was their age, I called him other, less endearing things). Until I had my own children, I assumed this sorry state of affairs was his fault. But, as they say, your parents’ IQ goes up every year you get older.
Anyway, over the course of my life a few people who have heard me describe the relationship I had with my father when I was a kid have asked, gravely, or curiously, or flatly, some permutation of: “Did you love your dad growing up?”
What a strange question. He’s my father. Of course I loved him. I didn’t like him is the point. I dreaded his presence. (Since I have two boys who ape my less fetching characteristics, I imagine the feeling might very well have been mutual). It often seemed to me that my dad and I had nothing in common except accidental DNA.
Football elided the whole ugly dynamic of (from my unarticulated point of view), “I resent you for leaning on me because you’re afraid I won’t be able to survive on my own.”
With football, it seemed to me we were different people. We were our true selves. We had no expectations of one another, no fear, no loathing — hence, we really, actually liked loafing together.
My dad had nerdy appellations for the players, like “Grossy Grossman” for Steelers tight end Randy Grossman, and the “S-Patrol,” because at one point in the late 70s all of the Steelers’ starting wide receivers had names that started with ’S.’ (Swann, Stallworth, Sweeney, and — shit, come on … Smith!)
No matter how on it we were with one another in our normal lives, football was the one bridge I remember being fire-proof.
My dad worked a lot. Or he wasn’t home a lot, which I assumed was because he was working a lot. That was fine by me. When he was home, our interactions were frequently obnoxious.
So, a family therapist insisted that we set up something called “Special Time.” I like to think this therapist (who really should get a professional trade group award, in my opinion, for Startlingly Obvious Therapy Calls) steered my dad toward football-oriented special time activities.
I helped my dad pick winners in the weekly NFL pool at work. I don’t think we ever won. That was in spite of the fact that every Thursday night he and I watched Inside the NFL with Nick Buoniconti and Len Dawson on HBO. No matter what, we had to be home at 8:00 to watch “Nick and Len.”
He took me to training camp in Latrobe, Pennsylvania every summer. One summer, I almost got run over by Lynn Swann in the parking lot at St. Vincent College. I couldn’t wait to tell my cronies back home (“Cool!”).
My dad frequently got Steelers tickets from work, and we went to quite a few games. I remember the excitement of attending an NFL game as a kid, when everything is already huge: the anticipation, the exaltation, the grandeur and scale of walking up the rampart into the stands and seeing real live professional football players on the field. Not on TV; right in front of you. They are playing the game right in front of you.
Middle of the fourth quarter. We had been losing all day, but at some point in every loss there’s the moment you realize they’re going to lose. If you’re lucky, that moment happens eight seconds before the game ends, not eight minutes.
With 8:09 left in the 4th quarter, the Steelers kicked a field goal to make the score 10-24. (Steelers kicker Chris Boswell had missed a 41-yard field goal earlier in the game — one week after he had drilled a 56-yarder, the longest in Heinz Field history).
I won’t preface by saying, “Pittsburgh fans will forgive a lot of things,” because we won’t. In fact, I can’t think of a single thing Pittsburgh Steelers fans will forgive. Maybe if a ball-carrier dropped dead of a heart attack five yards from the end zone, allowances would be made. Maybe. It’s just as likely he’d be dragged for not taking care of himself and letting down the team.
You’ve heard of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief. Pittsburgh fans have two: anger and depression.
Right now, it was anger.
No sooner than Boswell’s kick had cleared the uprights, a vicious cacophony of boos filled the stadium.
I turned to the Steelers fan behind me I’d been commiserating with off and on throughout the game and said, with curious pride, “Only in Pittsburgh could three points get you booed.”
She chuckled and shook her head. “They’ve earned it.”
I wholeheartedly agreed. All afternoon the Steelers had played like some half-assed high school team on cough syrup. Just getting into field goal range on this drive — against an average Bengals squad, mind you, not the ‘85 Bears — had been an excruciating slog, a Sisyphean chore, like trying to bale out the Ohio River with a spoon. I turned back toward the field, cupped my hands into a megaphone and booed lustily along with the enraged crowd.
When the booing finally ended, I glared at the scoreboard as Heinz Field subsided into a pen of wrathful murmuring punctuated by intermittent shouts of profanity.
I started doing the math in my head. Eight minutes and two timeouts left, plus the two minute warning. We needed 14 points just to tie. If this porous Pittsburgh defense somehow managed two successive three-and-out stops, that would leave our fumbling and flaccid offense roughly four minutes total to score two touchdowns and two extra points. With very little, if any, margin for error.
I let out a deep sigh. “I don’t know, Woogie. Looking steep.”
No reply. Instead I heard sniffling. It dawned on me that Ryan had been uncharacteristically quiet for the past minute or two.
I turned to him. His eyes were watery and pink-rimmed. He was staring at the field, obviously engaged in a focused effort not to burst into tears.
“Oh, Woogie,” I said, putting my hand on his knee. “Are you upset?”
That did it. He dropped his head as tears rolled down his contorted, reddened face. He nodded.
I put my arm around him. “I’m sorry, bud.” I kissed the top of his head. As the kicking team lumbered back onto the field, for a split second I almost stood up and bellowed at them, “GET YOUR ASSES IN GEAR! YOU’RE MAKING MY KID CRY AT HIS FIRST FUCKING GAME!”
“Why are you upset, Woogie?” I remembered reading that asking empathetic — i.e., stupid — questions was the cornerstone of being a good listener.
“They’re not going to win,” he whimpered. “It’s my first game and they’re going to lose.”
In retrospect, this display of classic Pittsburgh fatalism on Ryan’s part is notable because he spent the entirety of last season checking my own hopeless pronouncements.
“Dada, you don’t know they can’t win,” he’d say as I railed at the television. “It’s not impossible.”
“Look at the secondary, Woogie! They’re nothing but an assemblage of … of … goddamn valets.”
“Language, Dada,” Mommy would say.
“Dada said bad word,” Jack would say.
Now the roles had switched. Now I was obliged to be the radical empiricist in order to help Ryan feel better.
But football is life, and life is everything: the pain, the joy, and the monotony in between. Foremost, life is the truth. You can lie (sometimes you should lie), but ultimately life will tell the truth.
This is why professional football in particular has such profound meaning for Pittsburghers. Professional football is a hard game. An entire season of pro football is honest in its supreme rigor and its demands for fortitude. It’s no accident that professional football was invented in Pittsburgh (go look it up, Browns fans). Before the rival poobahs of the Pittsburgh Athletic Club and the Allegheny Athletic Association began hiring football players, football was a casual, almost pastoral endeavor. They turned it into a profession.
And that’s one thing that has always defined Pittsburgh’s orientation toward football: Yes, professional football is a game, a glorious and complex and simple and fun game, but it’s also a job. Just like life is a game, and a job.
So I told Ryan the truth as I saw it. “That’s probably true, Woogie.”
The Steelers were probably going to lose, I told him, not because it was impossible for them to win. They were probably going to lose because they were playing like losers. This was hardly an oracular pronouncement on my part. That much was palpable, like the bright blue sky that day, the smell of roasted peanuts in the stands, my beautiful son sitting next to me swathed in black and gold, taking it all in.
“But listen,” I said. “No matter what happens, believe me: you are a great football fan. I’m so proud of you.”
That made him cry again. He rested his head against my chest and we sat back with my arm around him, basking in the probable.
The next day, as we’re driving home through the green-flecked rolling hills of central Pennsylvania, I check in with the Woog.
“You were pretty upset yesterday, Woogie. How are you feeling now?”
“Well, I’m still upset because our offensive line stinks,” Ryan says.
I’m beaming with pride, of course. I ask Ryan if he’s heard the story about the zen master and the boy. The story, masterfully enacted by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson’s War, is one of my favorites.
“No, he says. “What’s that?”
“So,” I begin, “there was a boy and on his fourteenth birthday he gets a horse, and everyone in his village says “Oh, how wonderful! The boy got a horse.” And the zen master says, “We’ll see.” Two years later the boy falls off the horse and breaks his leg and everybody in the village says, “How terrible!” and the zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then a war breaks out and all the young men have to go and fight except for the boy whose leg is broken. Everyone in the village says, “How wonderful!” And the zen master says, “We’ll see.”
I look in the rear-view mirror. Ryan is gazing ahead at the road.
“Whaddya think?” I ask him.
“It’s all right, I guess?”
“Do you see what that has to do with football?”
I nod. “Well, I think what it has to do with football is that, if you really care about football, if you really love the game, the optimal state when you come to football is to come to it without any expectations. Just like the zen master.”
He looks at me. “Oh.”
I shrug. “It’s kind of a paradox.”
This optimal state is similar to what I learned from the old-timers in AA, guys who had been sober longer than I’d been alive: Never get mad enough, sad enough, or glad enough to take a drink.
“So, for example,” I tell Ryan, “in 2004 the Steelers were 15-1. They were a juggernaut, the number one seed. They had a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But they lost badly to the Patriots” (cough, cheaters, cough, cough) “in the AFC Championship Game.”
“The next season, the Steelers limped into the playoffs as the number six seed. They had no bye, and they never had a chance to play a single home game during the post-season. No sixth seed team had ever gone to the Super Bowl. But the Steelers went to the Super Bowl, and won it.”
I look back at Ryan. “Whaddya think of that, Woogie?”
He turns his head to watch a herd of cows as we whip past them on the turnpike. “I think we have a chance to beat the Packers,” he says.
“But we’re probably going to lose.”
I laugh. “We’ll see.”