It's football, not life and death

A man nearly died of a heart attack Sunday while sitting at his favorite bar stool chiefly because of his intense, overwrought reaction to Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis' nearly costly fumble. Only a day later, an NFL referee's family was terrified in the middle of the night by a rock crashing through their living room window. Perhaps it was a grossly unfair consequence of a controversial call.

These two life-altering events were both connected to the thrilling AFC divisional playoff game between the Steelers and the Indianapolis Colts. Both represent alarming warning signs that there's a glaring need for a touch of perspective.

It's just a football game. It's not life and death, even if it might feel that way to you at the time.

Football is a game blessed with passion, intensity and high drama. We love the blocking, tackling and touchdowns. We hate it when our favorite team loses.

Regardless of what transpires, the vast majority of us move on with our lives as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers and sons and daughters. It's the out-of-control minority, though, that reminds us that overreacting to a game's outcome can be extremely dangerous.

Especially for Pittsburgh fan Terry O'Neill, and referee Pete Morelli's family.

O'Neill was watching his beloved 'Stillers' at Cupka's Bar on the Southside with his buddies, pounding the Iron City beer when he had a heart attack seconds after Bettis fumbled late in the fourth quarter.

Bettis is O'Neill's hero. The fear that Bettis, who's expected to retire after a storied, bruising career, might bow out in a moment of failure overwhelmed O'Neill's emotions and heart and nearly killed the 50-year-old.

"I wasn't upset that the Steelers might lose," O'Neill told Pittsburgh reporters from his hospital bed days after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's touchdown-saving tackle and Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt's missed field goal. "I was upset because I didn't want to see him end his career like that. A guy like that deserves better. It was more than my heart could bear."

The first thing he asked the doctor after regaining consciousness was predictable.

"Doc, did we win?," O'Neill recalled.

Yes, your Steelers won, but you almost lost something much more precious.

The aftermath for O'Neill includes having a pacemaker implanted to control his irregular heartbeat and medication for hypertension. The literally die-hard fan plans to watch the AFC title game pitting his Steelers against the Denver Broncos. He'll be right back at Cupka's, but does plan to take it easy on the brewskis.

It sounds like he's still learning the lesson about striking a balance between his love for football and his health.

Meanwhile, some sick individuals in Stockton, Calif., need to be thrown in a jail cell with no television privileges.

Morelli made probably the most controversial call in his career by overturning Steelers safety Troy Polamalu's diving interception. He blew it, NFL officials later acknowledged.

Fine, it happens. Referees are human. Nobody deserves to have their house vandalized because of an unintentional error.

Police officers emphasized that they don't have a suspect or motive and declined to speculate whether the incident stemmed from Sunday's bad call. Morelli is the principal at St. Mary's High School in Stockton, so maybe it was misguided kids.

If it wasn't a random act, if it was some moronic fool targeting Morelli because of his interpretation of an instant replay, then something's terribly, unforgivably wrong with them.

By the way, Steelers linebacker Joey Porter's vehement reaction only exacerbated the situation. He actually accused Morelli of trying to gift-wrap a win for the Colts.

"Now, I know they wanted Indy to win this game," Porter vented. "The whole world loves Peyton Manning, but come on man don't take the game away from us like that. The whole world wanted Indy to win so bad, they were going to do whatever they had to do."

Postscript: Porter wasn't fined by the league, although it was refreshing to hear Bill Cowher stick up for the refs and appropriately label Porter's comments as ridiculous. Could some Steelers fan in California have been emboldened by Porter's anger?

Nobody deserves to feel unsafe in their sanctuary because of their actions in the workplace.

Just as Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox never should have had garbage dumped on his lawn earlier this year after a horrible outing. Just as NFL coaches' children and wives shouldn't be ridiculed and threatened at school or in the grocery store after a loss.

A mere football game, even a seemingly ultra-crucial playoff encounter, shouldn't incite hate, anger and fear. We love football, but it shouldn't take a heart attack or a frightened family to remind us that it's only a game.

Sports offer an escape from reality, a welcome distraction from a cruel world with too many real fears. When we lose that perspective, lives and dignity can be put at risk.


In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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