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The Pittsburgh Steelers, Mean Joe Greene and Me: How a 7 year old boy’s dream came true one night in Pittsburgh.

November 5, 2014

Touring Heinz Field, the smoke and lights guy was testing his equipment and let us run onto the field just like the Steelers on game day. Now THAT was really awesome!

Very few times in life do you get to do something you’ve been dreaming about for 35 years.

Even more rarely does it turn out as good as you expected.

One time in a million, the experience is more amazing than you dared to dream.

This is the story of how a little boy in Oklahoma became a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, dreamed of seeing his team play in their home stadium for the next 35 years, and actually got to do it on a night when history was made in spectacular fashion, and on a night when all his boyhood greats were on hand to celebrate a legend:  Mean Joe Greene.

It was Fall of 1977.  Or ’78 or ’79…somewhere in there.  I have a very clear memory of the day I became a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  My mother had gotten me a jacket on sale at JC Penney’s because it matched the colors of my school, the Walker Wildcats:  Black and Gold.  It just happened to have the logo of a NFL team as well. Guess who?  But that wasn’t when it happened.  It was shortly after that, while riding horses with my older brother Coy, who was a fan of the Dallas Cowboys.  As was his usual routine, he was finding ways to make me feel stupid, and on this day he was telling me how dumb my jacket was.  “Everyone hates the Pittsburgh Steelers” he assured me. “Why?” I questioned allowed.  Were they known to be a band of child murdering, kitten drowning, mother hating criminals?  What could make them so putrid that absolutely EVERYONE hated them?  “Because they’re so good”, he said.  “They beat EVERYBODY”.

Done.  From that moment on I was a jacket-wearing member of the amazing Steelers who were the undisputed “beaters of all other teams”.  And for the next several years, it turned out to be true.  “My team” seemed to be in contention for a Super Bowl victory every year, and in a still-unmatched four times under one coach, they did win the sport’s biggest game.  It was a team of legends:  Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swan, John Stallworth, Franco Harris, and the leader among leaders who is recognized by the other legends as the dominating presence who started it all and changed everything:  Mean Joe Greene who, in an age when defense won championships,  anchored what became known as The Steel Curtain for nearly a decade.  It was a great time to be a Steelers fan.

Over the next few years – as with every football dynasty – the glory ebbed and flowed.  But most years the Steelers were always at least decent, and I stuck with them through thick and thin.  And even though I got the chance to see them play live a few times – including the AFC Championship Game during Jerome Bettis’ last year which they won on their way to winning their 5th Super Bowl – I always wanted to see them play in Pittsburgh, where I would join the fraternity of the faithful, Steeler Nation, the greatest and most loyal group of fans in professional sports.  Someday…

Eventually I landed in Portland, OR, running coffee shops and being a Steeler Fan about as far away from Pittsburgh as you could possibly get.  But as our two children got older we decided we needed to relocate closer to our family.  It was October of 2010 when I first articulated the idea to my wife Carissa, and we slowly started a long process of selling our shops and moving to Colorado.  It took years to do this, during which time we intensified our interest in minimalism and tiny house living by moving into a small RV.  We reasoned that when our shops sold we would be ready to go, and began planning an extended road trip where we would visit old friends, find the nation’s best coffee houses, and put a few check marks next to some items on the bucket list.  The Grand Canyon.  Washington, DC.  Yellowstone.  And while we’re at it, let’s see the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Baltimore Ravens in one of the greatest rivalries the NFL has ever known.  And, of course, we’ll see the game in Pittsburgh.  So when the shops sold and we were ready to leave town, we plopped down the cash for four tickets to the game, and marked it on our calendar:  November 2, 2014.

Over the next several months we did indeed check off those bucket list items.  And as Nov 2 neared, it seemed like the icing on the cake.  We were actually going to pull this off.  There was one little unfortunate item, however:  The Steelers were playing awfully.  They had squeaked out a couple wins over inferior teams, but had also lost a few they should have won.  And they had already played the Ravens earlier in the season in Baltimore, which was an absolute embarrassment, losing the game 26 to 6.  It was looking like our game might be ugly.  But hey, at least we’d see them in person and experience the stadium.  Then if they won, even better.  But I wasn’t getting my hopes too high.

We rolled into Pittsburgh with the goal of finding a suitable spot to park the RV.  We discovered a short stretch near the stadium with no meters (read:  FREE PARKING) and no time limit.  Out our window you could see the stadium, and it was just a short two block walk.  We set up shop there and on Friday morning went to take a tour of the Stadium.  On the tour we got to see Joe Greene and others’ original lockers, visit the Steelers’ locker room, see all 6 of the Super Bowl trophies (more than any other NFL team!) and on our way out to see the field the smoke and lights guy was testing his equipment by letting us run onto the field just like the Steelers on game day.  Even if the boys lost on Sunday, this helped make it worth it.  But by this point I was actually feeling hopeful they could pull it off.  The previous week they had played the Colts and were heavy underdogs, but had actually won impressively, with Ben Roethlisberger becoming the first player in NFL history to throw for over 500 yards on two different games (only 15 QB’s have ever done it once) and the first Steeler to throw for 6 TD’s in one game.  The offense was clicking, and if they could hold up this pattern they just might have a shot on Sunday.

Then as the week in Pittsburgh went on, I learned another amazing piece of information:  The Steelers were retiring Joe Greene’s jersey during a special halftime ceremony, where Mean Joe himself, as well as several of the legends from his team, would be there in person to celebrate the occasion.  It was looking like this might turn out to be a pretty special evening after all.

Well, the day of the game came, and with our Steeler gear (much of which had been procured by thrift store shopping) and buckets of excitement, we marched off to the stadium.  We suspended our usual thrift and went full on, getting $5 pretzels and $9 sandwiches.  We even accidentally bought a $6 bottle of water (they didn’t have the price tag on them before we ordered – sneaky!) and after watching some live music and making a poster at the provided table, we headed on up to our seats.  It was literally freezing out there (about 30 degrees) but we were bundled well, and although our seats were on the highest row, it turned out perfect because we were next to a little booth which blocked the wind, and there was no one behind us so the girls could stand on the seat and see everything without bothering any one.  Everything was going great.  Then came the kickoff.

The Steelers looked OK for the first defensive possession, keeping the Ravens from scoring.  But when we got the ball it was just ugly.  Ben was missing passes, receivers were running bad routes.  Maybe that roll we were on had come to an end.  And just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, the Ratbirds threw a beautiful long pass for a touchdown and we were headed towards the end of the first quarter down 7-0.  This could be a long night.  We got the ball back, but Ben got sacked 3 times in a row.  Bam!  Bam!  Bam!  Now we weren’t jut getting beat, we were getting OWNED.  We kicked the ball to them and they started marching for another score.  And that’s when it happened:  FUMBLE.  The Ratbirds coughed up the ball and we recovered.  Seconds later Ben hit rookie Martavis Bryant for a beautiful touchdown, and from then on it seemed like we could do no wrong.  Our defense stepped up and harassed their QB all night, sacking him 4 times and forcing another interception.  Ben started throwing the ball perfectly, hitting receiver after receiver for TD after TD.  We even converted a preposterous botched extra point into a two point conversion, an unheard of feat.  I got a text message from my dad that summed it up:  When you’re hot you’re hot.

In what seemed like seconds, it was already half time, and we were up 22-10.  They cleared the field and began the ceremony to celebrate Joe Greene’s career, culminating in the retirement of his jersey, #75.  There were video presentations.  There were speeches.  And there were deafening cheers from Steeler Nation, all of us just so excited to be in the stadium to see this historic occasion.  Joe Greene had led the Steelers to 4 Super Bowl championships as a player, then joined the coaching staff and later the scouting team, resulting in two more.  Stallworth, Swan and Harris were there too, giving a resounding thumbs up to the fabulous career of this gentle giant.  He was a monster on the field, but in life he was just a great person, faithful friend, and community leader.  It was awesome. Then it was time for the game to get back underway.  Here we go Steelers, here we go!  Let’s finish this!

As the second half got under way, it became clear that the pattern would continue.  The Steelers continued their dominance of the Ravens, and somewhere in the 3rd quarter I realized Ben had thrown for 4 TD’s already.  That was the first time it crossed my mind – although I didn’t dare dream it would happen – that he could possibly repeat his record breaking performance again tonight.  As the fourth quarter got under way he found Antonio Brown for a 53 yard catch-and-run TD, making it 5 on the evening.  One more and he would do something no one had ever done in the history of the NFL:  Throw 6 TD’s in back-to-back games.

Well, we did get the ball back and made it to the 23 when the drive stalled.  It was 4th down and 2, and they were certainly going to kick a field goal, right?  Wrong!  Ben lines up and starts a play.  This was it!  Now or never!  And as luck would have it, Tight End Matt Spaeth got some separation on his man and was headed to the end zone.  Ben dropped a beautiful pass right into his arms, and he lumbered down towards that 6th touchdown until he was tripped up by the defender, falling down right at the goal line.  The official on the field ruled that he had scored, but it had to be reviewed.  If his knee hit the ground before the ball crossed the line the TD would be reversed.  As the ref came out from under the hood and walked back on the field, the crowd grew silent.  Everyone there knew what was on the line.  “After reviewing the play, the call on the field stands.  TOUCHDOWN!”

Needless to say, Steeler Nation lost their minds!  Not only had we watched our team move ahead of the Ravens in our division, it had been in spectacular fashion, beating them by 20 points, with ol’ Mean Joe Greene watching on, and making history in the process.  I’m sure Mean Joe’s presence got them fired up.  And I have to believe they played with just a little more intensity after getting beaten by the Ravens so badly earlier this year.  But I have to wonder what happened in that huddle right before Ben hit Spaeth for that last TD.  In my mind’s eye he called Matt’s number, made sure everyone else was on board, and then said “OK fellas, there’s a guy in those stands with his family that his driven a long way, and waited a long time to see this.  He’s dreamed of being here since he was in the second grade, so let’s go get this one for Don Niemyer!”

Yeah.  It felt just about like that.

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  1. Kathy permalink

    Fabulous story, a keeper

  2. Few things. You guys seem like an awesome family, that I our family would love to meet someday. We are in PA… and I was looking for more posts after reading your entire blog for the past 4 hours… when I realized this is it! no more updates? I would love to hear more about your families adventures… The story of how I found your blog is “rialta” “winnibago” searchwords on youtube… found your tour and was so inspired by your beautiful family. Updates? pleeeease? I feel I just read the “story without end”… I would love to hear more tips on RV living… we recently were given/sold the same type of Motorhome you guys have and I am so inspired to live with less… Thank you and hopefully I’ll hear more from you (I understand how privacy is necessary in the internet with living that is non-traditional). Please emailed me if that is better! L.

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