(This Sportsball! chapter is, in most ways, even worse than the first. Sorry. If for some reason you don’t skip this, at least you’ll know the names of the teams, instead of reading about the Calvert Senecas [yes, I know – “Senecas” – ugh].)
In both The Demon Haunted World (another book you should read instead of this one) and Billions and Billions (chapter three, “Quantification”) Carl Sagan, a person you would think of as leading only a life of the mind, wrote about how he can get caught up in rooting for sports teams. They tap into our primal tribalism, even when we can rationally realize that they are (generally) just conglomerations of rich men who will go wherever they are paid the most.
In his case, living a life mostly of the mind but with some sports was irresistible to the ladies. Uncle Carl married like millions and millions of women, including to the brilliant biologist Lynn Margulis, who developed the theory of symbiosis to explain how simple cells became complex. If you’re not in the mood for yet another book recommendation, check out the 2017 movie Symbiotic Life.
Sagan’s last wife, Ann Druyan, wrote the epilogue to Billions and Billions, his last book. In it, she tells the story of their love affair. Although I knew the general story, reading her telling, after Carl died, brought tears to my eyes. I was close to sobbing. It is so incredibly beautiful and moving. It saddened me deeply to know that it lasted so short a time.
Back to Sportsball!
I have followed a number of teams with great interest over the years. The Detroit Tigers have been the most frustrating. I have probably listened to close to a thousand of their games on the radio, WJR. (One hundred and sixty five games a year, and I probably tuned in to most for a number of years growing up.) I listened to Ernie Harwell and Paul Casey narrate the games while I did all sorts of things, like mowing the lawn, holding a transistor radio (Google it) in one hand and pushing a lawnmower with another. In 2006, well after retirement, Ernie narrated an opening to Game Two of the World Series, talking about what the Tigers meant to Detroit, a city whose residents deserve something to root for. It was incredibly moving. They won that game against St. Louis, but it was their only victory the entire Series – another heartbreak from a string of heartbreaks around that time.
The only year my devotion paid off was 1984 [natch] and boy howdy did it. They started the year winning nine of their first ten games, and 35 of their first 40, still a record. They swept the first round of the playoffs, and won the World Series in five games. It was absolutely thrilling, and I think I read every book about that season. I can even tell you who had the game winning RBI in the last game of the world series: Rusty Kuntz – a little sacrifice fly that the second baseman caught running away from the infield. Rusty was not a star, not even anyone you would ever know from a baseball book, but he technically won the Series. (They would have won without his RBI.)
The first holiday season we ever spent in Arizona was in 2000, at a rental house outside of Phoenix. (Sunshine! Sweet, sweet sunshine!) On the television, dad came across a replay of game five of that 1984 Series. I was able to watch Rusty’s sac fly again. It was great.
(If you want to watch something amazing, Google “Kirk Gibson 1988 home run.” Watch the full at bat, not just the final pitch. Gibson was a star with the ‘84 Tigers and then went on to this, one of the most incredible at bats ever.)
I have also been a fan of the Georgetown Hoyas, LA Lakers, and the UConn Lady Huskies. The latter is because of a donor who has supported the work of my nonprofits for over a quarter century. I came into it when they won everything, so the past five seasons – when they’ve made the Final Four but not won it all – have been rough.
Also Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods is, of course, a disappointment as a human being, but quite an incredible story in terms of golf + race, and just pure mastery of a sport. Think about it: From 2004-2010, he won one-third of the tournaments he played. From 1997-2002, he won eight of twenty-four majors. Him against every single one of the best golfers from all around the world, he won thirty-three percent of the time. Holy chicken!
Other than Tiger, who has won over 80 times on the PGA tour, the fandom that has had the greatest payoff for me has been the Pittsburgh Steelers. Football was the sport specifically singled out by Uncle Carl as tapping into our deep tribal nature: “Football is a thinly disguised re-enactment of hunting; we played it before we were human.”
(The chapter gets even more tedious here. You’ve been warned.)
We lived in Toledo Ohio when the Steelers went to their first Super Bowl in ‘75. My dad, who tended to be contrarian, took the anti-Steelers side of things. (He was also not a fan of the Cincinnati Reds during the Big Red machine days. He didn't like Pete Rose, being able to tell that he was not a good human being. But the manager of the Reds those years, Sparky Anderson, would go on to lead our Tigers to only their second World Series victory of my lifetime, the first being the very year I was born.)
I was only seven years old when the Steelers won Super Bowl IX. Luckily, I was able to watch the game because it was played during the day, rather than late at night after forty hours of pre-game show. We called dad at work to tease him every time the Steelers scored. (He worked every other Sunday; starting in 1979, he worked thirteen hour days every other Sunday, driving a half hour each way.)
For the Steelers’ next Super Bowl, we had to have Ardyth call dad, because he would know it was us before we could make some joke about the Terrible Towel.
We lived in Pittsburgh for the 2005-06 season. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
Pittsburgh lives for the Steelers. The hockey team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, has had a great deal of success. They had some of the greatest teams in the ‘90s, with Lemieux and then Jagr. But relative to what Pittsburgh feels about the Steelers, the Penguins might not as well even exist. Anne’s brother in Michigan is the only Penguins’ fan I know. But everyone I knew in the ‘Burgh is a Steelers fan.
Each year, Pittsburgh follows the draft closely. The local news teams report from summer training camp. Every twist and turn, every injury, every locker room rumor – it is discussed with immense interest.
That 2005-06 season started out like every other: with high hopes of another Super Bowl victory. The still-new quarterback, Ben Roethlisberg, was coming off a great season. We still had Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, and some amazing receivers, including Heinz Ward and Heath Miller. The amazing Troy Polamalu was a human highlight reel at safety. The coach, Bill Cowher, seemed to have been building to this year. The offensive line wasn’t the best, yet everyone still expected victory.
The season didn’t go so well at first. The low point was a loss to Baltimore about halfway through the season. (<spoilers>I know this because after the season, in addition to the hat I still have, I had a Super Bowl Championship shirt with the scores of every game on the back.</spoilers>) Anne was at a conference with other German teachers from the area. The woman who had driven them to the conference drove back at eighty miles per hour to be able to watch the game. And it was an ugly loss. The town was awash with despair.
The Stillers, as “Steelers” is pronounced in Pittsburghese, did come back to make the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. They were the lowest seed in the AFC and would have to play their wild card game on the road. If they won that, they would continue to play every game on the road. No lowest seed had ever won the Super Bowl, and no team had won three straight road games to even make the Super Bowl.
The Steelers won the first game at Cincinnati. Things were looking up!
The next game was at Indianapolis. Many people expected the Colts to win everything that year. They had beat the shit out of the Steelers during the regular season. I don't remember what the betting line was for the playoff game, but the Steelers were expected to get crushed again.
But the Steelers were winning the game by three late in the fourth quarter. With only just over a minute left in the game, the Colts’ quarterback was sacked on 4th down at the Colts' two-yard line. Everyone knew the Stillers wouldn't risk a pass with such a young quarterback. They would give the ball to Jerome Bettis, who would just tuck the ball in and bulldoze straight ahead. He wouldn't do anything fancy, he would just plow. (That's why they called him “The Bus.” Researching this chapter to augment my memory, I learned he went back to Notre Dame and finished his college degree, almost two decades later!)
But anyone who has read this deep knows the story of what happened next. Bettis took a hit right on the ball … and the ball popped out.
If you doubt that people in Pittsburgh lived for the Steelers, a fan literally (not figuratively) had a heart attack when Bettis fumbled the ball. (He lived. Both the fan and Bettis.)
A Colt picked up the ball and was running to the opposite end zone for what would have been the winning score. Somehow, in one of his two best plays ever, Roethlisberger was able to trip him up.
That is generally considered the end of the game in retellings. (You should watch it on YouTube.) But it wasn’t the end. The Colts still had the ball at midfield. They just needed a field goal. They advanced to the Steelers’ twenty-eight – easily within field-goal range – and then, in front of a stadium of Indianapolis fans who had never won a championship – their surefooted kicker … missed.
The Steelers win over the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship was almost anticlimactic.
The city was in a frenzy. There are fully two weeks between the divisional championships and the big game. And it was all anyone talked about in town. And I’m not saying just at bars or grocery shops. But even among the faculty of the modern languages department at Carnegie Mellon University. At Fairview Elementary, where EK was in fifth grade, I don’t know if the kids there learned anything except football those two weeks.
I was a regular at the local Post Office those years, mailing animal advocacy booklets around the country. One of the guys there drove from Pittsburgh to Detroit, where the Super Bowl was being played. He didn’t have tickets, he just wanted to be there. When I was next at the post office, he eagerly showed me all the pictures from his trip, with detailed stories.
The game itself, against the Seattle Seahawks, was not a beautiful affair. There was a record-setting run by Willie Parker, and a cool trick play that you will often see on highlight reels where receiver Antwaan Randle El threw a touchdown pass to Heinz Ward. The Steelers were never in danger of losing, so the town was not about to have another heart attack.
After the victory, all the news stations covered the parties all through the night and into the morning. (I know, ‘cuz I sat there watching, a stupid grin still plastered to my face.) A quarter million frenzied people mobbed the victory parade to celebrate “one for the thumb” (a fifth Super Bowl ring) completely shutting down downtown. (For comparison: When Indianapolis won the next year – their first ever major sports championship – only forty thousand people came to the parade.) Many kids skipped school; classrooms put the celebration on TV.
I have nothing particularly interesting or insightful or even entertaining to say about this, other than it was truly striking. Uncle Carl is right: sports can touch something deep, something fundamental.
But the Pittsburgh and the Stillers – that is another level. I was in Cincinnati when they won the World Series and also when they made the Super Bowl. There was happiness, but no feeling of delirium, and certainly not for as long. Months after the Steelers won one for the thumb, the three generations of Yinzers across the street came over for a party to celebrate. They were still delirious.
I’m under the impression there might be similar situations in Europe for certain soccer teams, but I’m not sure. It was crazy.
PS: We were living in Arizona when the Arizona Cardinals made their first Super Bowl in 2009. Against the Steelers. And there were clearly more Steelers flags and fans than Cardinals. (The Steelers won, on Roethlisberger’s other great play.)