One of the highlights of doing what I do -- which I’m not even sure how you can categorize what I do -- is meeting and greeting Steelers fans wherever the Steelers happen to be traveling to.
On this particular jaunt to “Opryland,” I had the pleasure of meeting a Steelers fan who had bought an old fire engine, painted it Black and Gold, and then drove it to Nashville and parked it downtown.
Well, it seems the Nashville parking patrol wasn’t in a festive pre-game mood when it came to welcoming Steelers fans and fanatics to Nashville. The parking police ticketed the poor guy, and left it under the windshield wiper on his windshield. Steelers fans decided to act in a charitable fashion and proceeded to put dollar bills under the windshield wiper directly on the parking ticket to help pay the fine. True died-in-the-wool Steelers fans never cease to amaze me!
* Pre-game in Tennessee was highlighted by the return of “The Freak,” that being former Titans DE Jevon Kearse, a former first-round pick. During a ceremony prior to the coin toss, Kearse took up the Titan “Sword,” raised it overhead, and drove it down into the ground. Watching from the sidelines, the Big Ragu, Ramon Foster, a noted zone-walker (one who is totally locked into full battle mode in body and mind) muttered, “He’s just aerating the lawn.”
* Another pre-game highlight was watching the flight of “Challenger,” a bald eagle who tours around and flies from atop the stadium to a handler on the field. He is impressive in every way. According to Wikipedia, “In a storm in 1989, Challenger was blown from his nest as an eaglet and hand raised by humans. During this time, he experienced too much human contact and was 'imprinted.' He believes he is a human and is unable to survive in the wild. Two unsuccessful release attempts resulted in Challenger almost dying and eventually being handed over to the federal authorities. They gave Challenger to the American Eagle Foundation for care and educational programs."
Well, I’ve never met a bald eagle who thought he was human, but I have met a couple bald humans who thought they were eagles. They thought wrong. But that is for another story altogether.
* After six straight Le'Veon Bell rushes netted some 37-yards, and a Kicking Canuck field goal for a 3-0 lead, I thought the Steelers had just sent a message to Whizzer (Ken Whisenhunt) and the crew of former Steelers players and coaches on the opposite sidelines:
-- Welcome to an AFC North Head Bangers Ball
-- We’ll be back with more
-- P.S. Munch sends his regards
* William Gay clamped on a Zach Mettenberger late delivery out-cut to his WR. It was a pick-six, Willie’s second of the year and it jumpstarted the defense. I love the energy and testosterone that floats on the sideline in the aftermath of a big play. People get fired up, the intensity ratchets up a notch or two, and the buzz sweeping the sidelines even enervates an old warhorse like me. As I took in the fire now kindling to a hotter temp from Willie’s pick, the “Bearded One,” Brett Keisel growled menacingly, “Let’s get right back at 'em!” The Diesel had me ready to run under a kickoff right then and there, until I bent over to tie my shoelace and nearly pulled my hammy. Yep, you read it right. Just tying my shoe.
* Ben Roethlisberger alley-ooped his way to Martavis Bryant on a high, arching throw into the end zone that was a tad short but showed that Martavis has a ways to go in becoming more than a home run hitter. From the sideline, as I stood behind Ike Taylor, Ike had both hands high over his head and was screaming for Bryant to high point the ball. That’s part of the trust factor that QBs talk about. To put a throw like that up in the air, it also has to go with the understanding that the WR has to do his part, and that's if he (the WR) doesn’t get the ball, no one gets it. Martavis has to battle for the ball, which, no doubt he will learn in the future. This young man is going to be a player someday.
* Cameron Heyward is a tough guy. He’s got some strong ligaments as well. On a Bishop Sankey run in the second quarter that got pig-piled on the Steelers' 2-yard line, Cam came as close as possible to exploding some of those steel tendons in his knees and ankles as you can come and still walk. His one leg was caught in the melee of the pig-pile and his other leg was turned sideways enough that my knees were screaming for relief just watching it from 30 yards away. In the martial arts they refer to it as doing the “chines splits.” Glad he’s OK.
* Further along in the second quarter, Antonio Brown was interfered with by Titans safety Michael Griffin. I mean this was blatant pass interference. No flag came forth, though. The crowd started screaming (there was a huge continent from Steelers Nation in attendance) and the replay came up on the huge twin Jumbotrons that bookend LP Stadium. Mike Tomlin saw it, made sure the head linesman noticed, only to have the video cut off a split second before Griffin made illegal contact with Brown. How convenient.
* The third quarter rolled around and the Steelers had another of those temporary blitz pick-up meltdowns and Ben hit the deck twice in a row. The offensive line confabbed on the sideline; Todd Haley joined them, and so did RB coach James Saxon. Both engaged with Mike Munchak, who had the electronic tablet in hand and was energetically discussing the pass play, its subsequent failure, and whose responsibility it was. Coach Sax was role-playing for a second, then Todd joined in and there was collectively a determination over what happened, how it wasn’t picked up, and I’m sure what will be done about it on the next passing venture. Coach Sax left with Todd, and Munch proceeded to give a “Stink-eye” look out of the corner of his eye to Maurkice Pouncey, who was looking to his right (David DeCastro) and his left (Big Ragu) for support of a point he’d made. Roll the clock back 25-30 years and it’s me sitting with Mike Webster and Tunch Ilkin while “The Big Kahuna,” offensive line coach Ron Blackledge was giving one of us the stink-eye while one of us was trying to rally support. Faces and places change, but not job description. O-line work is grunt work.
* When an offensive line can “take the air out of the ball,” and ruck the rock (rucking, or ruck marching, is a military term for hiking with a weighted pack, let’s say for our purpose here, a football in this case) to put the game away, it's truly something to behold. So in honor of three-time Afghanistan-tour Army Ranger veteran Alejandro Villanueva (who is on the practice squad), whom Tomlin sent out with the team captains for the coin toss to honor “Big Al” and our nation’s finest and bravest everywhere, the Steelers capped off the night with a 12-play drive that featured Lev Bell rucking the rock to bring home the victory. As the final gun sounded, somewhere off in the recesses of my mind, I could hear Jackie Gleason roar “How sweet it is!” one more time. That’s how you finish off a ground and pound.