Unlike those Seahawks fans unable to let go of the Super Heist in Detroit, I've got nothing against the Steelers.
Sure, the Pittsburgh fans were obnoxious in their overtaking of downtown Detroit’s largest hotel five years ago, but if you can’t stumble down escalators and pass out in the hallway during a February weekend in Detroit, where in the world can you?
And while I’m a little tired of hearing how quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has changed his evil ways – OK, a lot tired – I like the uniform he wears, and respect the tradition it represents.
What I especially admire about the Steelers is their ability to dominate an aspect of football that can’t be taught, coached, or willed.
This is a franchise originally bankrolled by the horse track successes of the late Art Rooney Sr. After buying the team for $2,500 in 1933, Rooney kept it solvent by enjoying a particularly fruitful day at a suburban New York City racetrack in 1936, followed, 24 hours later, by an even more fruitful day at Saratoga.
It was there that Rooney put down $8,000 on 8-1 long shot, which prevailed in a photo finish. Rooney ended up hitting on seven winners in eight races – five of them long shots – leaving the track with a haul estimated haul somewhere between $200,000 and $358,000.
Put it this way: The general manager at Saratoga offered Rooney the use of a Brink’s truck for the trip home.
Rooney’s uncanny hunches as a horseplayer did not immediately translate into competitive teams on the football field. During the 1950s and ’60s, Rooney’s Steelers were the laughingstock of the NFL – the clodhoppers who cut Johnny Unitas, passed on the chance to draft Jim Brown, and traded the 1965 first-round selection Chicago identified as Dick Butkus.
It was after the 1969 season the Steelers’ began their romance with Lady Luck. They’d finished 1-13, with one of the defeats to the Bears, who also finished 1-13.
A Super Bowl week coin flip was arranged for the rights to the No. 1 draft choice, widely anticipated to be Louisiana Tech quarterback Terry Bradshaw. The Bears called heads, the coin turned up tails, and while it’s much too simplistic to point out that the rest is history, the rest, well, is history.
Bradshaw was erratic for a few seasons before revealing himself as the Hall of Famer whose clutch play helped lead the Steelers to four Super Bowl wins in six years.
(The Bears were so bummed out by the coin-flip fiasco, they traded the rights to the No. 2 overall selection to Green Bay for three veterans past their prime, and their second-round selection to Dallas for two more veterans past their prime.)
Bradshaw’s most celebrated pass was off the mark, a desperate throw in the waning moments of a 1972 playoff game that bounced off somebody – either intended target Frenchy Fuqua or Raiders safety Jack Tatum – and into the grasp of the Steelers’ Franco Harris, who turned the near incompletion into a game-winning touchdown renowned in NFL lore as “The Immaculate Reception.”
It was anything but immaculate, and if Fuqua made contact with the ball before Tatum did, it wasn’t even a reception per rules (rescinded in 1978) that prohibited an offensive player from catching any pass first touched by a teammate.
Obvious question: How is the Immaculate Reception of 1972 relevant to the Super Bowl in 2011?
Obvious answer: The Steelers’ stupefying streak of good fortune – almost four decades and counting – was on display in the AFC championship last weekend, when Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was ruled to have fumbled on a play that might’ve been interpreted as an incomplete pass. The fumble was returned for a touchdown, giving Pittsburgh a seemingly commanding 24-0 lead that proved to be insurmountable after the visitors, trailing 24-10 with eight minutes remaining, failed to convert a first-and-goal opportunity on the Steelers’ 2-yard line.
If the Jets appeared out of synch, it was because they were out of synch: Communication from the sideline to the huddle was impeded by a hardware malfunction – faulty headsets – for which the Jets were held accountable.
I’m not suggesting espionage was involved, because that kind of untoward behavior (ahem) is not tolerated in the NFL. Besides, the Jets, whose strength coach was reprimanded for organizing a “fence” designed to impede opposing special teams players from running full speed down the sideline, pretty much exhausted their status as espionage victims.
A better explanation for the Jets’ communication breakdown is luck.
The Steelers still have it, just as they had it against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, when Darrell Jackson’s touchdown catch was nullified by a slight, almost indiscernible push-off ruled offensive interference, and Sean Locklear’s equally obscure holding penalty nullified a deep completion, and ...
Enough. The Seahawks lost to the Steelers fair and square. If the many disputed calls that went Pittsburgh’s way left referee Bill Leavy “with a lot of sleepless nights,” as he admitted a few months ago, Leavy should realize his crew was facing a weird dynamic: officiating a Super Bowl destined to be won by the Steelers.
“My dad,” Art Rooney Jr. said in 2002, “used to tell me: ‘I’ve seen a lot of talented guys who can’t hold a job, and smart guys who all they could do is work for someone else, and hard workers who all they were were hard workers. For some reason, a lucky guy does all right in life, and everybody likes him. Don’t rap good luck.’”
As for Sunday, I’m convinced the Packers have the better team: A better offense behind a better quarterback, with a better defense, as well.
My hunch is Green Bay wins in a second-half shootout – make it 30-24 – but I’d never put a bet on that.
Betting against the Steelers means betting against the spirit of their founder. He went to Saratoga one day in 1936, he and left with enough cash to fill a Brink’s truck.