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Less than an hour before kickoff of the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh, I stepped toward an elevator inside an empty lobby of Heinz Field. In front of me was an older man with silver hair, matching glasses frames and a long black overcoat. Right away, I thought it was Steelers owner Dan Rooney but how could that be, I wondered? Just a few minutes before the players took the field for the most important game of the year, the owner of one of the most successful sports franchises in the world was standing quietly by himself in the back corner of a public elevator? No security detail? No private elevator? No entourage? No cameras?
But it was him, all right. And while I nodded hello we were joined by a family of fans that included a toddler dressed up in a Steelers cheerleader outfit. And despite the parents' pleading and prodding -- as well as some cute grandfatherly encouragement from Rooney himself -- the shy little girl refused to acknowledge the Steelers owner with so much as a wink or a wave.
You have to know the Steelers and football's first family a little bit to understand this, but the snub actually seemed to delight Rooney.
At a black-tie dinner two nights later at a Hilton in Washington, D.C., Rooney had a little better luck when he handed over a game ball from the AFC Championship Game to the newest member of a now-rapidly expanding Steelers Nation: the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama.
"He's a Bears fan first, he admits that," Rooney told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "But he's a Steelers fan. He said it, and all his staff, they're rooting for us [in the Super Bowl]."
The thought first popped into my head while watching Rooney leave that elevator and disappear down a hallway of Heinz Field, the picture of quiet, dignified strength. Then I actually wrote it in my notebook after the Steelers beat up the Ravens for a trip to Super Bowl XLIII and the chance to become the first NFL team to win six Lombardi trophies. But now that the most popular man on the planet and the leader of the free world has acknowledged his allegiance to the black and gold, I feel a lot more comfortable asking this question out loud:
Are the Steelers the best sports franchise ever?
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Purchased by Art Rooney Sr. in 1933, with $2,500 he supposedly won at the track (love that), the Steelers initially struggled for decades. But since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 (something Art Sr. helped orchestrate), no one's been better. No one. And now, after seven Super Bowls, 30 postseason wins, seven championship games in the past 14 years, 19 Hall of Famers and the dynasty of the 1970s that includes probably the greatest, baddest football team ever assembled if you factor in the popularity of the NFL and the quaint but sturdy Midwestern soul of this franchise, it's hard to argue against what the Steelers have built.
Yes, of course, I know the Montreal Canadiens have won 24 Stanley Cups. But if we're talking about the best-run, most successful franchise in our lifetime, the Habs are disqualified for winning only two Cups in the past 30 years. There are the defending NBA champs in Boston, of course, who have collected 17 titles, but they too were largely a non-factor for the past two decades. The Cowboys? America's Team? Please. They haven't won a playoff game in a dozen years.
The stats definitely favor the Yankees, I know. In fact, the numbers are nearly impossible to argue: They've got a gazillion titles (26) in 109 years, but nothing since 2000. The Steelers could have six in the past 43, giving them 14 percent of their sport's titles as compared to 24 percent for the Yanks. I could go on with this, but the truth is math gives me a headache. So let me say this: You can't buy titles in football the way you can on the diamond. Therefore extreme parity in the NFL, plus the economic constraints of a hard salary cap, make it (at least) twice as hard to win Lombardi trophies.
"I see the personal sacrifice that people from our team make on a daily basis for this to happen," coach Mike Tomlin said Sunday night. "That is not just the players; the players are special, but the support staff, training, equipment, medical team, etc. It is a lot of sacrifice by a lot of people. I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that this is the Steelers' story and not my story."
Indeed, as Tomlin spoke it was impossible not to feel the profound impact of the Rooney Rule. In 2003 Dan Rooney chaired a committee that opened doors and changed the face of our national pastime by requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching jobs. Rooney, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000 and has had a major impact on labor negotiations and realignment in the NFL, has always said the best part of his Rooney Rule is that, hopefully, the NFL won't need it much longer. (Maybe the NFL can loan it to the NCAA.)
That kind of social responsibility and impact, however, is one reason why during the past five years the Steelers have compiled an average ranking of 12 in ESPN The Magazine's exhaustive and comprehensive evaluation of all 122 sports franchises. The Yanks' rank? No. 33. In a sports world drowning in drama, the Steelers are the picture of continuity: They've had one philosophy (defense wins championships) and three coaches in the past four decades. The Lions, meanwhile, are on their fourth coach in the past four years.
And finally, let's not forget the little fact that the Steelers aren't currently constructing a new stadium that destroys inner-city playgrounds and green space while costing taxpayers a billion bucks.
Sorry, Yanks; it's the Terrible Towel.
Realizing that the argument for the Steelers as the best sports franchise would still be a pretty tough sell (I mean, none of their players are, like, dating Madonna, duh), late Sunday inside the Pittsburgh locker room I asked Dan's son, Steelers President Art Rooney II, what the team's secret was.
"Our secret?" he said, almost embarrassed by the question. "We try to put a team on the field every year that can win a championship "
Then he stopped for a split second.
And I swear, that artful pause somehow perfectly captured the essence of this franchise, a team that has remained grounded in its Steeltown roots while simultaneously soaring over the rest of the sports landscape.
We try to put a team on the field every year that can win a championship.
"And," Rooney said, "we never take a year off."
PITTSBURGH STEELERS OBSERVATION NO. 1: Just a few months after the Steelers' 21-10 win over Seattle in Super Bowl XL, Ben Roethlisberger and his family sat on a Swiss train, tilted nearly vertical, as it clacked and lurched 14,000 feet to Junfraujoch -- the mountain peak known as the "Top of Europe" -- and one of the most spectacular views in the world, which spans a glacier and three countries.
We stopped once to switch trains, and Ben and his family immediately began a snowball fight. Later we would hit golf balls down into the glacier, throw a football around almost five miles into the sky and run around inside a castle carved out of ice. But first, as the train made its way into the stratosphere, Ben reflected for a moment on becoming, at 23, the youngest starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Other quarterbacks who had played in the game told him to take a moment before kickoff to soak it all in before it washed away in a blink beneath the hype and pressure of the game. So before kickoff Ben closed his eyes for a moment standing on the sidelines of Ford Field and, months later, he could still remember the fireworks display of flashbulbs that was so strong it penetrated his eyelids.
But without prompting, I was struck by the fact that Roethlisberger immediately mentioned how he was already itching to get back to the Super Bowl and a second chance at playing better in the world's biggest football game. I didn't argue. Against Seattle he was 9-of-21 for 123 yards, no TDs and two picks: a huge letdown for a kid who, in big games, still occasionally crouches under center while daydreaming how the highlights will look on NFL Films.
A few weeks later the entire trip -- and the subsequent story -- were rendered meaningless when Roethlisberger was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident in Pittsburgh. He recovered from that, battled back from several injuries, the pressure of a monster contract and even the heartbreak of losing his college coach and mentor, Terry Hoeppner, to brain cancer in 2007, all to get to where he was Sunday night: a hard-earned trip back to the doorstep of Super Bowl immortality.
It's rare, these days, to still get a kick out of a professional athlete's display of pure joy. But that was Ben on Sunday night. Hugging his linemen. Hugging trainers. Hugging photographers. Bear-hugging coach Mike Tomlin. Telling linebackers he loved them. Graciously shaking Dan Rooney's hand. Giggling to himself. Calling guys "Sunshine." Working the brim of his new "AFC Champs" hat. Looking like he didn't want to change out of his grass-stained uniform. Talking about the Steelers heading to Tampa as a "band of brothers" and celebrating one of life's rare gifts: a second chance.
PSON2: Looking for a signature moment from the AFC title game? How about this: LaMarr Woodley, the next in a seemingly endless line of great Steeltown linebackers, blood streaming down his left biceps, Supermanning himself over a crouched blocker to get to Joe Flacco by any means necessary. He didn't get a sack, but Woodley produced something far more valuable: a freaked-out look on a rookie quarterback's face that said "Holy shnikes, these guys are f-in crazy, man." I swear, as he realized what he was up against, you could see Flacco's passer rating drop by 75 points.
PSON3: Woodley, by the way, wore a Tapout T-shirt after the game. "Each new group of linebackers brings the next group of young guys along, and that's what makes us feel like we're part of a family," he said.
PSON4: Remember how I once said you can never look tough drinking from a juice box or while wearing Crocs? After seeing NFL DPOY James Harrison in a pair of black-and-gold Steelers Crocs after the game, I take that back.
PSON5: Loved this: After beating the Rangers on Sunday afternoon inside Mellon Arena, when the Penguins' three stars were announced they came out waving Terrible Towels.
PSON6: Heinz Field sign: "Our Willie is bigger than yours."
PSON7: I spent some time with the Steelers' defense earlier in the season and marveled at the time about how loose and close this group was. But what I didn't fully connect until Sunday was the way that tightness manifests itself on the field, and that's what makes this unit so special. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is like a chess master the way he makes three and four moves to disguise, or set up, his checkmate blitz call. I don't know how many times I saw a linebacker like James Farrior selflessly shoot the edge (and wind up double-teamed or chipped at the knees or face-first into the mud) to force Flacco to step up into the pocket and into the waiting, vein-bulging arms of Woodley or Aaron Smith. "It looks like chaos, but it's all a coordinated effort where it wouldn't work if anyone cared about individual credit," says corner Deshea Townsend.
PSON8: The first thing Townsend said to me after the game was "I guess there's no jinx being on your cover -- what's the opposite of a cover jinx?" And when I asked him where this year's No. 1-ranked defense stands in the history of the franchise, he didn't hesitate to put it among the best. "I have loved football since I was a little kid. I was a Cowboys fan. Roger Craig ruined my running style because I tried to imitate him. I was a football fan from the first time I started watching sports. The Cowboys? The Steel Curtain? The 1985 Bears? I know that victories [in the Super Bowl] are what count, but our numbers and stats, across the board, you can't find many defenses anywhere that can match that."
PSON9: Pretty strong red Tigers cap worn after the game by Detroit native and linebacker Larry Foote.
PSON10: In light of the scary hit on Willis McGahee, I thought it was poignant that the Steelers' DBs gathered in a circle after their first series of the game to pray as a group. We block out the violence and the physical ramifications of this sport because we don't want to feel culpable for the damage inflicted for our entertainment. But these kinds of moments make it hard to ignore.
PSON11: Walking outside the stadium before the game, a band of Steelers fans were teasing one of their buddies for overdressing for the game. "It's 30 degrees, Mary, not negative 20! It feels like freakin' summer out here!" one guy shouted.
PSON12: Exciting news about the upcoming and potentially groundbreaking U2 album due out the beginning of March. And what really has me excited are the comparisons I keep reading to the band's experimental, less popular and far less commercially successful "Zooropa"/"Pop" phase.
PSON13: This next game isn't a Super Bowl as much as it's a philosophical football challenge between an explosive offense and a legendary defense. Do defenses win championships, or have video-game offenses taken over? We'll see. But the bigger the game, the more likely finesse yields to physical.
PSON14: After the game, Hines Ward was quick to defend rookie receiver Limas Sweed's stone fingers on a sure touchdown pass, saying the rook came back and de-cleated Corey Ivy with a vicious downfield block, and he also earned back three of those six points when he batted away a sure interception in the end zone, allowing the Steelers to keep the ball and kick a field goal to make it 16-7.
PSON15: Favorite TV sportscaster line from last week: "For it to happen twice, now that's an anomaly!"
PSON16: He was so good a few months ago talking about how the Steelers' defense would attack Piedmont High's A-11 offense for a cover story in The Mag, I wanted to talk to Pittsburgh defensive end Aaron Smith about the Cardinals' attack, but the entire right side of his face looked swollen and painfully disfigured, so I just let him be. I mean, there will be 48 chances to talk to him between now and the Super Bowl.
PSON17: Would it be small of me to remind people that before the AFC title game I said Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was every bit as good as the Ravens' Ed Reed? Yes, it would. But Polamalu, who crosses himself after every single play, was everywhere Sunday like a spirit more than a safety, and honestly, I don't recall hearing Reed's name or number being called once. A big reason for that was the savvy of Roethlisberger, who really has developed an amazing field vision similar to that of a great point guard; not a sense of where everyone is, but where they're headed or leaning. There were several times during the game -- including a throw-away before the Steelers' second field goal -- when Reed was baiting Roethlisberger (purposely playing soft on a deep route only to pounce once the ball was in the air), and Ben never fell for it.
PSON18: So I guess there's no need to rename Reedsdale Street, which runs in front of Heinz Field.
PSON19: The way 325-pound defensive tackle Casey Hampton wears his helmet way up on the top of his melon makes him look a little like Gazoo from the Flintstones.
PSON20: Wondering if we were about to see a repeat of the Titans handing over the game like a kid gives his lunch money up to a bully, in the second half Sunday night I started counting up the plays the Steelers would regret: (1) Sweed's dropped TD, (2) the late ball spike at the end of the first half, (3) the personal foul that kick-started the Ravens' scoring drive, (4) three interceptions that went through the hands of Steelers defenders. That's a difference of a possible 28 points, which is OK if you're playing the Ravens and a rookie quarterback but not the opportunistic, fast-strike Cards and the superhero duo of Fitz and Whiz.
PSON21: After the hit on McGahee, both teams emptied onto the field and nervously encircled the injured player. (The hit, by the way, was a clean one. Clark turned his body to lead with his shoulder, but momentum and trajectory caused their heads to collide first. It was a good non-fine by the NFL.) However, the violence of the hit and the emotions of the game, coupled with the proximity of the players, created a very intense, delicate situation on the field that could have turned ugly fast. I'm talking about an all-out, bench-clearing, "Slap Shot"-like mega-brawl. But right away Mike Tomlin made contact with John Harbaugh, who signaled with his hand up and palm forward that "We're OK, it's OK, everything's OK." A moment later the teams separated and started leaking back to their benches. Disaster averted. You want leadership, class and professionalism? That was it.
PSON22: I loved the fact that while the television cameras recorded the fancy made-for-TV trophy ceremony at the 50-yard line, Farrior and other members of Steel Curtain II were dressed in their new gray championship T-shirts and climbing into the stands to celebrate with freezing-cold fans, while the DBs were across the field at the 40 dancing and clowning by themselves.
PSON23: I know Dan Rooney was going to D.C. for the inauguration where he was going to give President Obama the game ball from the AFC Championship Game. And somehow, amid all the talk about history and greatness this week, that felt exactly right.
T. Rex, an original member of the Cretaceous Curtain, says Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has mellowed considerably during the last 65 million seasons.
THIS COLUMN WRITTEN WHILE LISTENING TO: Echo and the Bunnymen.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship," which has been optioned as a movie. The Flem File will run each Wednesday during the NFL season.
SUPER BOWL XLIII
In one of the best Super Bowls ever, the Steelers blew a 13-point lead before they delivered their own comeback to beat Arizona, 27-23. Super Central
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