Commentary

Steelers fan's big wish came true

Updated: August 11, 2009, 6:20 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

It's simple, really.

We as sports fans rely on three groups to pull us up off the ground and help keep us marching through the ups and downs of life: our friends, our family and our favorite team.

There are rare moments, however, when the paper-thin barriers that separate those three groups suddenly vanish. Perhaps it's a moment when the favorite team reaches out and becomes one of the friends, the friends are welcomed into the family and the end result is a whole new favorite team -- a group where Pro Bowlers and Hall of Famers stand side by side with fraternity brothers and total strangers, sliding their shoulders beneath someone to help carry him out of darkness.

Sounds like a dream, doesn't it? Like a miracle. Miracles are funny things. And they tend to materialize only when people need them most.

On Jan. 12, 2009, Bob Zinski -- "BZ" to his friends and family -- needed a miracle. For the fourth time in less than 11 months, the Philadelphia-based software project manager listened to yet another doctor tell him that yet another spot of cancer had been found in his onetime specimen of a 42-year-old body. He had endured vein-searing chemotherapy, radiation and an invasive chemoembolization procedure that delivers anticancer medicine directly to the tumor. Yet the cancer continued to grow and spread.

[+] EnlargeBob Zinski
Photo courtesy Bob ZinskiBefore meeting his wife, Janine, and being diagnosed with cancer, Zinski was a self-professed professional bachelor and gym devotee.

In the fall of 2007, he'd gone to his doctors seeking help for what had become debilitating pain in his right side. He'd walked it off for a while, but at the urging of his new love, Janine Cocker, he went in to have it checked out. They'd met online that spring, a fact they still laugh about, and BZ was already thinking about how and when to propose.

Their first Valentine's Day together was spent going over an MRI aimed at locating gallstones. What the scan uncovered was a 22-centimeter tumor inside his liver. Four days later, it was identified as cancerous, stage 4, incurable. The time frame he was given to live the remainder of his life was 12 to 18 months. Maybe.

"It's devastating," he says now. "Your whole world changes. You never expect it to happen to you, you know. I can't even put it into words … not knowing what was ahead, not knowing what the treatment plan was, not knowing if there was a cure. Just very, very scary."

His friends, particularly his Chi Phi fraternity brothers from Penn State, came to his aid the best they could. His family, including a cousin who was stuck in his own cancer fight, did the same. They called him every week as he sat in his recliner at Fox Chase Cancer Center's "Camp Chemo." Some stopped by to play cards with him, trying to keep his mind occupied as he impatiently watched bags of medicine empty into his body. And they all stood by his side on July 5, when he and Janine were married. There was no honeymoon. The ceaseless schedule of treatments wouldn't allow it.

Then, as the leaves throughout Pennsylvania began to change, the third member of Zinski's support group reassembled on the banks of the Ohio River, just as it had every fall of his life. The Pittsburgh Steelers were starting their 76th NFL season.

"What I have with the Steelers, what anyone born in Pittsburgh has, is a relationship," Zinski says. "We grew up together you know, and it continues on. We celebrated the '70s and suffered through the '80s together. We came out looking good in the '90s, and now here we are again with another tremendous team, so you've got to be with them when there's good times and also suffer with them through the bad times."

Zinski was born on July 20, 1966, the younger of two Terrible Towel-wielding boys. His timing was perfect. When he was 3, Steelers owner Art Rooney hired coach Chuck Noll. And when Bob was 6, Pittsburgh won the AFC divisional title via Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception, the franchise's first championship of any kind.

[+] EnlargeBob Zinski
Bob Zinski for ESPN.comBob Zinski met Steelers great Rocky Bleier at a dinner before Super Bowl XLIII.

The Zinskis -- Bob, mother Rose Marie, father Joe and brother Danny -- sat together in front of the TV watching every historic moment of the Steel Curtain dynasty. On Jan. 20, 1980, Pittsburgh won its fourth championship in six seasons. Later that year, Joe died of lung cancer at the age of 52. The family he left behind found that the Steelers provided a source of reconnection with Joe every fall. When Danny died of brain cancer in April 1993 at the age of 32, Bob and his mother again endured by clinging to Sunday afternoons with the Steelers.

Throughout the emotional and physical battering of 2008, the Steelers were there again. Bob became so enveloped in the team's march toward the postseason that he was able to escape his own battle, even if for only three hours each weekend. But a series of debilitating setbacks during the holiday season finally broke Zinski's trademark spirit. He fell into depression and landed on the couch. Though no one would say it aloud, that sofa seemed likely to be his deathbed. "This is what we must do," he wrote in his online journal at CaringBridge.org. "Manage the cancer."

As his team prepared to play the archrival Baltimore Ravens for a trip to the Super Bowl, he used his diary to quietly spell out what sounded like the last wish of a dying man: "I definitely want to enjoy some things I always wanted to do such as go to a Super Bowl that the Steelers play in. If anybody has connections to Super Bowl tickets please let me know, Janine and I would gladly pay to go for sure if the Steelers make it."

What he didn't know was that his Chi Phi brothers were already on the hunt.

Joe Sosnowski, a college buddy and next door neighbor; Bob Martin, aka Bobby O; Jim Curcio, whom he'd known since high school; J.B. Morris, a senior editor at ESPN The Magazine; and longtime friend Ed Slevin already had started searching. As the final seconds ticked off the clock of Pittsburgh's 27-23 win they told BZ that he'd better start booking a flight.

At the top of his Facebook page Morris posted simply: "Looking for two."

Slevin called his father, who'd once played golf with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. When Goodell's office learned of the story, two tickets were shipped to the Zinski house, in Slevin's words, "without hesitation." Word of the search also reached Pittsburgh. Bobby O's brother-in-law, a priest, used Zinski's story in a sermon. More tickets appeared, which allowed some of the friends who'd made BZ's trip possible to make the pilgrimage with him.

Bob and Janine arrived in Tampa, Fla., the Thursday before the Super Bowl and were told that they were being taken to dinner. They didn't know who had invited them.

It was Franco Harris.

When Zinski walked into the dining room, Harris rose to his feet and welcomed him into a room of football legends that included Steelers greats Rocky Bleier and Mel Blount. They gave him a Super Bowl watch and called him a brother. He felt like he was 6 again.

"You fight with everything you have for what you want and for that next day and for that next experience," Bleier recalls telling BZ. "Rather than the next day you take it to the next hour. You never give up. It may be a miracle. You may be the one. That hope is what drives us."

[+] EnlargeZinski
Courtesy Bob ZinskiZinski was inspired by his meeting with Pittsburgh stars, including Franco Harris.

The next day, BZ was told to report to the lobby of the Steelers' team hotel. There he was taken into a curtained-off area because someone wanted to talk with him.

It was Troy Polamalu.

Like the Steelers of the past, the current face of the franchise told Zinski that he was a member of the family and to keep fighting, no matter what the doctors said or the numbers told him.

As word spread about Bob's trip he was invited to lunches, autograph sessions and parties. He met former Steelers greats such as Merril Hoge, and rivals such as Jerry Rice, Donovan McNabb, Tony Gonzalez, and danced the night away to Wyclef Jean.

When BZ finally arrived at Raymond James Stadium for the big game, he did so in his No. 86 Hines Ward jersey. Walking to his seat he heard, "Hey, BZ!" and waved back to soon-to-be New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. The Zinskis took their seats, surrounded by the family of the NFL commissioner, all of whom wished Janine a happy 39th birthday.

For 3 hours and 38 minutes, Bob and Janine lived the ups and downs of game that felt like a microcosm of their short life together. Every high of a Steelers score was followed by a low of an Arizona Cardinals counterpunch. When Larry Fitzgerald broke free for a 64-yard go-ahead touchdown with 2:37 remaining, Janine and BZ's friends all had the same thought: Well it was a magical weekend even if the Steelers lose. BZ's mind was focused on a comeback. He knew what head coach Mike Tomlin was telling his team on the sideline.

"Steelers play for 60 minutes."

The Drive, fittingly, started with a setback, a holding penalty that left the team with 88 yards to cover in 2 minutes. It marched by the Zinskis' seats at the 50-yeard line and ended with the most remarkable game-winning touchdown catch in Super Bowl history, Santonio Holmes' 6-yard, toe-tapping sideline grab with 35 seconds remaining.

In an instant, Bob was a changed man. He looked heavenward and thanked God for the moment. He turned to Janine and declared, "Anything is possible, no matter what!"

"That's what our life is about, right?!" she screamed back. "Miracles?!"

"What a miracle the Steelers just pulled off," BZ said to his wife. "Cancer is nothing. We can pull this off too."

That night he gathered with the friends at the home of another fraternity brother, Andy Schultz. He swore to them that the death march was being curbed in Tampa. Managing the cancer wasn't good enough. "Steelers," he told them, "play for 60 minutes."

Three days later, he was back in his chair at Camp Chemo, bracing for a more aggressive treatment, ready for his own version of The Drive. Then his phone rang. It was Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. He'd heard Bob's story and wanted to make sure he was back at it. And he wanted to make sure Bob knew that his team had his back. Throughout spring LeBeau continued to call, always waiting for Wednesdays, the day of the treatments.

In the six months since Super Bowl XLIII, Bob and Janine have played golf at Pebble Beach and they finally took a European honeymoon. Shortly after their Tampa trip, he surpassed the originally predicted death milestone of one year, and in July he blew past the 18-month mark. They both have no doubts that the momentum of the Super Bowl experience is a huge reason he is still here.

However, recent weeks have brought more bad news. The second tumor on his liver has thickened in the face of the more aggressive treatments, and as the Steelers prepared for the season at training camp, BZ prepared for a second chemoembolization procedure on Aug. 18.

No one would blame Bob Zinski if he simply went back to the couch and gave up. Honestly, it would be the easiest path. But he can't do that. They won't let him do that -- his friends, his family and his favorite team. At one time, they were separate groups. Thanks to one dream weekend in Tampa, they are now one and the same.

"We have a purpose here," Janine says. "We want Bob's story to help others if we can, inspire them, empower them, let them know that they're not the only ones that are going through what they might be going through in terms of suffering. We have a purpose and I want to be able to share our story and our news for a very, very, very long time."

It is the kind of story that you share with people during those times when they need it most.

In other words, a miracle.

Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

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