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An End to Steelers False Starts?

Super Bowl a chance to bury the past

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It wasn't until I was standing on Eighth Avenue, screaming at oncoming traffic, that I realized how badly I want to believe in the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Until now, I've been numbed by years of hearing the "Pittsburgh's Going to the Super Bowl" song, and by the over-the-top Steelers coverage on the TV news. I actually miss the good old days when Channel 11 focused on really important stories, like three-alarm fires in Rankin. Most of all, I've been numbed by disappointment.

Being a Pittsburgh kid in the 1980s was the worst of both worlds. I was old enough to have foggy childhood memories of Steelers greatness, but too young to remember it clearly. I came of age when it seemed Pittsburgh's best days were over. They'd come and gone before I could even enjoy them.

The disillusionment began with the slogan "One for the thumb in '81." They made a song about that too, back when "one for the thumb" didn't sound like a desperate prayer. It sounded like prophecy -- at least to me.

Not to my father. "Pittsburgh isn't getting one for the thumb this year," he muttered.

I thought the old man was an idiot. I thought Super Bowl rings were a civic birthright. But my father spoke with a kind of wry, sad wisdom. And ever since he was proven right, I associate that tone of voice with being an adult in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers didn't even make the playoffs in 1981. Pretty soon, the mills really starting closing. My father, like everyone else's, lost his job for awhile. The Steelers turned in lackluster seasons and occasional abortive playoff runs. By the late '80s, even our nostalgia was at risk, thanks to allegations of steroid use by our Super Bowl squads. We'd naively thought, once, that the mills would never stop running: Had everything about 1970s Pittsburgh been a sham?

Even in the '90s, when the Steelers and their city began to recover, you couldn't help being wary. Pittsburgh did a lot of building, and a lot of bragging about its comeback. It was all constructed on a foundation of debt, though, and the city may yet go bankrupt as a result. And the Steelers? The coach, while good, couldn't win the big game. The QB, while serviceable, wasn't Terry Bradshaw. Even the famed "Blitzburgh" defense wasn't as dominant as we remembered the Steel Curtain being.

Nothing was as good, really, as it had been before. You had a desperate, despairing sense that some jagoff was going to ruin even the most promising season. And that's what happened, every time.

We got used to disappointment. Maybe we came to expect it. Sometimes, we almost seem to relish it: At a home game once, I heard a fan scream, "I paid too much for these tickets" before the first set of downs was over.

But suddenly, here we are: AFC Champions. Hines Ward is, in my book, a better receiver than Swann and Stallworth ever were. Troy Polamalu could have started in a 1970s Pittsburgh secondary. Ben Roethlisberger could be "the next Bradshaw," or something even better.

There's a chance -- a chance -- that two Sundays from now, things can be as good as they ever were. Pittsburgh and the Steelers may yet escape the shadow of their former greatness. I may yet watch a football game without a sense of dread.

This year, I watched the AFC championship game in a Homestead bar, conditioned by reflex to think we were going to blow it somehow. When it was over, the barroom crowd stormed onto Eighth Avenue, stopping traffic coming off the High-Level Bridge. We cheered and got honked at until the police arrived.

"I want to get arrested," a middle-aged woman on the sidewalk said, looking almost nostalgically at the cops. "I've never been arrested before." Then she stepped out into the street.

She and the rest of us have lost more than Super Bowl bids. Just across Eighth Avenue, a pharmacy is being built on the site of Chiodo's Bar -- once the cholesterol-clogged heart of Steelers Nation. Just two blocks away, an outdoor shopping mall sits where the Homestead Works used to be.

But for a few minutes there on Sunday night, I think, we were all 9 years old again. With at least the hope of better days ahead.

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