Raise your hand if you’re a sports fan who’s been told, “Why are you so obsessed with the (insert name of that team you just can’t get enough of here), it’s just a game!” Since I can’t see any of you, but you’re taking the time out of your busy day to read this article, I’m going to assume your hand is firmly and fervently in the air. Well mine is too, and has been for most of my life. For me, my drug of choice has been Pittsburgh sports, and let me tell you folks I. AM. AN. ADDICT. And that addiction started squarely in the middle of my 5th grade year. But as bad as an 11-year-old addict sounds, I’m convinced it’s one of the best qualities about me, and I have an inkling it might be one of the best qualities about you too. Want to know why? Well, let me set the scene.
Tick tick tick tick
A puck glides down the length of ice, propelled from the stick of a long haired blonde lanky Swedish man. Seconds before, a slightly older Swedish man has just scored an improbable goal to give his team the lead. Now, that same team is 200 feet and a four by six opening away from solidifying its glory. The eyes of thousands are glued to the screens in pubs, in homes, on smart phones hiding in closets at their friends’ weddings. They wear the colors of their team, yes even the guy at the wedding, though his are in the form of his lucky jet black and Pittsburgh gold boxers. Their collective breath is held. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, the puck’s journey ends in the netting of the empty net 200 feet away from where it was shot. The watchers rejoice, and as that clock ticks down to zero, they ARE Pittsburgh.
Tick tick tick tick
A football arcs through the air, almost lazily, up and over a field surrounded by mustard yellow seats. The men, women, and children in those seats, bundled to the nose in jet black and Pittsburgh gold winter gear, know from the moment the ball leaves the Jacksonville kicker’s foot that his aim is true. One by one they hang their head. There is still a minute and fifty seconds left to play, but the home fans can do the math. The clock on their season has run out, and in spectacular devastating fashion no less. This was not how the storybook season that had been building for months was supposed to end. And as the ball sails through the uprights, the face of a 25-year-old middle linebacker and the wheelchair he now sits in flashes across all of their minds. There would be no winning a Super Bowl in his honor. There would be no parade celebrating the memory of beloved late NFL and Pittsburgh icon Dan Rooney. And in that moment of defeat as well as coming to terms with everyone’s mortality, they are all Pittsburgh.
I hated sports growing up. As a shy short kid who’d rather joke with the teachers than the other kids, sports seemed like a recipe for disaster. I told everyone (parents and teachers mostly) that the reason I didn’t want to play was that I wasn’t interested, but really I just wanted to avoid the embarrassment of sucking, and not being friends with the kids I was sucking in front of. So from kindergarten through fifth grade, that was the party line. I hate sports. I. Told. EVERYONE. It became a position of spite so as to not have to admit my own social insecurity. Then fifth grade rolled around (2004) and our math teacher gave us a project.
Together as a class, we would be following the record of the Steelers for the duration of the season. It was to help us learn ratios or something. My SAT math scores would indicate it didn’t help much. But as the season wore on, I noticed something. The Steelers were doing pretty good. Even eleven-year-old me knew that 15 wins and 1 loss was lopsided. And as the wins piled up, our class got more and more excited. We would talk about it every week. And I was a part of that conversation. Suddenly I wasn’t a scrawny weird kid that no one felt like including. I felt like I was part of something, part of the group. It was glorious, and I wanted more.
So one night I went home and demanded my dad teach me everything he could about football. Everything and anything he could think of so that I could hang with even the most knowledgeable of my classmates. And being my mother’s son, I demanded he teach me it all in one night. And he did. He taught me positions, diagramed plays, listed me the names of every player on the field. I learned about Troy Polamalu, and Jerome Bettis, and Joey Porter and what made each of them so beloved. I probably did more homework that night than I did for math class the entire year. Now that I was a part of the group, I was going to stay there.
The regular season ended. The Steelers made the playoffs (obviously), and after a close win over the Jets, they played the hated New England Patriots. And that was where my magical first season as a young Steelers fan came to a crushing end. I could go into the history of this heavy weight AFC Championship bout, the dominant records of the two teams, the rookie QB against the man who would arguably become the greatest QB of all time, the eventual controversy surrounding whether or not the Patriots cheated. But to eleven-year-old me, it simply meant that the joyride was over. And I cried. Not because it was sad the team lost, but because I had found a home, and eleven old me thought it was over.
Sports are a funny thing. They mean absolutely nothing to the grand scheme of the world. They don’t prop up economies, or cure diseases, or feed the poor. They don’t advance technology or bring us artistic culture. Some people might say the only things they do is distract us from more productive ways to spend our time and fulfil our base violent tendencies. But they do something else. They give us a home. They give us a place to feel we belong. A community of people to which we know, no matter what else may happen in our lives, we will always be a part of. I now live in New York City, a place pretty darn polar extreme from the blue collar hills of Pittsburgh. And there are times I go months without seeing my family or my childhood home, which to a hot blooded Italian boy like me feels like an eternity. But just like those Penguins fans watching our boys of winter count down the seconds until they hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup, just like those Steelers fans hanging their heads in despair and failure, any time I sit down to watch a team draped in jet black and Pittsburgh gold play, the world drops away, and I am home.