We stayed in the grand GM Renaissance Hotel downtown -- Johnstown sports editor Eric Knopsnyder and me. He was new to covering the Steelers and appreciated having someone older and less mature around to show him the ropes. So at this point I was showing him how to get out of Dodge.
We beat most of the revelers to the check-out desk and we beat most of the revelers to valet parking and we beat most of the revelers out of Detroit. And then we hit the massive traffic jam in Toledo and learned then that we had not beaten anyone.
We sat in traffic and reflected, and I wondered whether this whole scene was worth getting depressed over. Not the traffic, but the entire excess of the Super Bowl. I thought to myself that this is only a game, and I wondered why the whole world took pause for it.
Anyway, we talked this through, decided the world deserved to take a break for no real good reason other than the playing of a game, and put the opportunists and profiteers in our rearview mirror as the bottleneck eased.
When we reached the Ohio Turnpike our mood brightened. Here were the real fans driving home, and the road was flooded with them. Most of the vehicles had Pennsylvania plates and most of them had either Steelers flags or something celebratory written in soap on their windows. The most impressive sight was the truck parked on an overpass that had a mechanical device strapped to a big Steelers flag. It was moving back and forth over the Ohio Turnpike -- a flag marking its territory.
The Steelers reign right now, and as we drove we wondered what would become of the players. Would we lose them to the pimps and the dealers in the media? The sharks in advertising? The suits in every corporation that wanted a piece of them right now? As I noted in the previous day's column, Ben Roethlisberger is safe from the snakes right now. He played poorly so there's no reason to go over the top of what's already an outrageous thirst for him. In that regard, I believe Roethlisberger's safe. Hines Ward will never change, but what about Willie Parker? Ike Taylor? Max Starks? What about those young guys? Antwaan Randle El? What will become of their attitudes? Their wants and needs? Can Troy Polamalu continue being Jesus-of-Football in the face of it all?
I pondered these questions as I walked, head-down, through the fan-packed rest stop near Hiram, Ohio. Then I heard my name and looked up. There was Aaron Smith standing there with a wide grin on his face.
I had been on such a tight deadline that I couldn't get down to the locker room after the game. I told Aaron that I regretted not being able to congratulate him after the game. There are so many low-key guys I consider friends in that locker room, and I wanted to shake their hands. I told Aaron it was probably best that I hadn't been able to, that I might've appeared unprofessional.
He said that couldn't happen, and then he shook my hand, gave me a hug and introduced us to his beautiful wife and children. He was driving them home instead of flying with the team. He wanted to take the long cut, talk to his family, soak it in without one cell phone going off.
Funny, in a rest stop packed with Steelers fans, Aaron went unnoticed. I felt kind of bad that he wasn't being mobbed with congratulations, but then I realized his humbleness, his basic humanity, was what I liked most about him, and that Steelers fans won't lose guys like him no matter how hard the profiteers and the sharks and the snakes try.
We wished each other a safe second half of the journey home and got back on the road. As Eric and I approached the last gate in Ohio, we found ourselves in another traffic jam. We noticed the helicopters up above and figured we were in the middle of yet another six o'clock live shot, and could just hear the pronouncement: PITTSBURGH STEELERS FANS MAKE LIFE MISERABLE NEAR CLEVELAND, or something like that. We also wondered what kind of important news was being pushed back in the telecast in order to show a traffic jam of football fans.
It's a great game, and a lot of good guys have achieved the top level of that great game, but the world has not changed. It's time to get back to it.