My life began on December 23, 1972.
This wasn’t the date of my birth. It was the date of my first memory. Of anything.
We were living in the San Francisco Bay Area and my parents were Raiders fans. Everyone in Northern California back then was a Raider fan. The 49ers sucked. Joe Montana was still in high school. “The Juice” was sports vernacular for only one thing: Orenthal James Simpson (the 49ers eventual starting tailback).
It was the last play of the ’72 AFC playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders, when the image of a bearded man in black and gold scooping up a deflected ball and running it down the sidelines for the most improbable of game-winning touchdown was etched in my young mind forever. My life’s first ever memory was the Immaculate Reception.
I remember stumbling around the house in pajamas with feet, so excited I couldn’t stay upright for more than a few seconds. Not so much because I understand what has just happened—I’m not sure I even had any teeth yet. But I simply had never seen my parents react so emphatically towards anything. Not pacifiers thrown on the floor, uneaten mashed potatoes (we were Irish, so mashed potatoes counted as baby food), or any bit of strategic wailing through the night had ever caught my parents’ attention like this. It was at that moment I became a life-long Steelers fan in a land of Raider faithful – many of whom also didn’t have any teeth.
Now, nearly three decades later, I’m looking forward to replaying my life’s first recorded event, but with a twist. I haven’t yet had my own great moment in the sun. In fact my doctor has told me to stay out of the sun. More luck of the Irish. But I’m now plotting how I’ll handle the droves of fans that catch a glimpse of my unbelievable all-access ESPN reporter pass as I stride into the locker room, and interview my new-generation Steeler heroes at their most talkative and wittiest. I’ll turn in to the magazine all kinds of great quotes and antidotes relayed to me by guys who couldn’t wait to read what I had written about them. The Steelers are such heavy favorites they won’t need a miracle of their own to beat the Raiders this time. No, this is to be my day. The day that, as an ESPN reporter, I’ll be receiving my own immaculate reception from all with whom I came in contact. It all sounds perfect. Until…
The night before the game, my laptop’s hard-drive crashes. I’m half expecting someone to helicopter into my hotel room and furnish me with the latest technology to ensure facilitation of my communication of valuable insight to the world. But the next morning, I awaken to a still-crashed hard drive. That’s OK, I tell myself. This is just a test. Nothing the likes of which MacGyver or anyone who has ever won Survivor hasn’t had to overcome. So I’m writing everything, from this point forward, on Hampton Inn Post-its.
Game day starts with a free shuttle to Heinz Field. I soon learn why it’s free—because it doesn’t exist. At least my reservation doesn’t. I swear to God I’ve been standing in front of the hotel waiting for the bus they tell me has already come and gone. After I supposedly miss the second bus, too, I tell them, “this is completely unacceptable. I’m covering the game for ESPN.” They ask, “well don’t you already have a ride to the game, then?” Touché. But I’m unfazed. Because this is my day. “I prefer to travel with the people,” I say. Which is true. Any person in fact. Just get me the hell out of here. “Oh, wait, a new batch of pancakes.” OK, I guess I can wait for the third shuttle.
Once I arrive at the stadium I expect to be greeted by the team’s PR department and several other “oohs and aahs.” But instead, I’m met by what seems to be just plain, ordinary folk. Just doing their jobs. My thoughts quickly swing the other direction. After I get my badge, I half-expect to be stopped by somebody. Revealed as the imposter I am. My stomach clenches as I approach the last security check before entering the field. My mouth turns dry. They stop me. Take a close look and wave me through. Yes! This is the kind of treatment I’ve been expecting. And it’s ridiculously cool. I make a beeline for the field and over the next half hour stand beside over 20 people I’d only ever seen on TV. I asked Lynn Swann what he thought the new players are feeling about this decades-long rivalry. Lynn said, “I don’t think any of them are old enough to remember it.” And walked away. Lynn Swann spoke to me!! I wonder if later he’ll remember our discussion. I think he will.
Suddenly, the loudspeakers pump up the Kanye and the Steeler players burst through the tunnel onto the field. I jump up and down. A reporter leers at me. “Chilly today, right?” I ask.
I pull out my almighty pen, a fresh pad of Post-its, and set forth to make sports reporting history. I astutely observe that …
• Each guy warms up in his own unique way. In general, the starters have an air about them physically and mentally that the reserves don’t. But so far the reserves are proving to be much better dancers.
• I can’t tell if Limas Sweed is counting the blades of grass underneath him or rapping? One of the coaches comes by and Limas quickly starts warming up his bench muscles. And, looks like he tweaked one.
• Here comes Big Ben rolling through, encouraging each dedicated soldier with a high-five and the kind of inspiration only a team leader can deliver. Harrison, Timmons and Woodley seem unimpressed. But luckily for the team, Matt Spaeth is excited and on board.
• The stadium seats are starting to fill. I notice many of the Steeler men have bigger boobs than the Steeler women. And nearly all the Steeler women have bigger forearms than me. I make a special note that brawling in this town is to be explicitly avoided. Especially with the women.
• Speaking o f… me being an all-access ESPN reporter, I envisioned propositions from the most beautiful girls in the city from the time I touched ground. I could almost feel the sadness in their eyes when I would have to tell them my heart was already captured by my girl back home. But the most immaculate reception I’ve gotten so far is from a local camera-man who keeps telling me how big his facility is.
The game is getting ready to start so I make my way to the press box. This is where I’m planning to kick it up a notch. I expect we’ll all swap war stories. Debate Texas’s overturned call against Nebraska last night, or Jake Locker’s draft status, or Matt Schaub’s injury-free year. My fantasy football team had drafted him early in a two-QB league and I think they’ll be impressed with that pick.
But when I get inside, no one seems impressed with anything. In fact, they’re talking about the same s**t everyone talks about at work: What is the team serving for lunch? Are there any hot chicks here? And what job openings has anyone heard of?
What other jobs? Are these guys crazy?
So I force the issue, (which I’m sure makes me extremely popular). And lo and behold, I get a lot of great insider tips: (1) Get to the shuttles early or they won’t wait. Got it. (2) Don’t cheer in the press box. Sure, I’ve already been grilled on that one. (3) Pittsburgh is all about the strip-clubs. Ah. Ok.
When I get to my press box seat, I spend 30 seconds there only to realize I want back on the frozen tundra. I spend 30 seconds back on the frozen tundra only to realize my Blackberry wants back in the hotel. More technical malfunctions. More Post-its.
The Steeler’s first half is as underwhelming as my reception thus far. The Raiders are playing everything very close to the vest, not giving the Steeler’s outside pass rush enough time to disrupt things. Luckily the inside blitz is working. Suddenly, the shade devours the Steeler sideline, dropping my body temperature an extra ten degrees. The whistle blows, mercifully ending the first half.
Time to take inventory of the game so far:
• Bruce Gradkowski is looking soooo much better than JaMarcus Russell. (And, while we’re at it, Ben Roethlisberger.)
• Steeler O-line has already been stood up more times than Jessica Simpson.
• One can start to smell fear in the Heinz stands.
Hmmm, I think. I should have a lot more by now. That’s okay. The second half is where it will all come together—for me and for the black and gold.
But the third quarter begins the way the first two did. The Steelers can’t get into any kind of rhythm on offense. Their secondary is making Higgins, Schilens and Miller look like Branch, Biletnikoff and Casper. And the Raiders are starting to have success picking up the inside blitz. At least that last observation’s good, I think. I can almost feel scouts around the league shaking a little in their boots. Oh, wait. That’s me. I can no longer feel my toes.
It’s the fourth quarter now and everything has turned to ice. The stadium. The players. The fans. And as soon as I say that, touchdown Raiders!
Here come the “boos.” Could the black-and-gold even possibly consider losing a game that would most assuredly end their repeat chances?
But just as I say that, the Steeler offense gets serious. Ben’s signals grow louder than they have all game and his tone of voice suddenly has distinct purpose. Even the way guys are lining up, this looks like a whole new offense. And it is. In just over a minute, the Steelers retake the lead. “Whew.” Is that all we needed? If we could just muster that kind of focus in the playoffs… No! The Raiders take it back! This can’t be happening. The season can’t be… Wait, the Steelers retake the lead again! Oakland couldn’t possibly have enough time to reach the end zone. The Steeler D needs just one big play to stop…
A Raider touchdown. It happens mere feet from me. With nine seconds left in the game. No one can believe it. For the first time today I feel completely numb – and it’s not from the cold. It’s from the acknowledgement that, if the Steelers are to have any chance of a vaunted playoff run this year, they’ll need an Immaculate Reception 2.
But it is not to be.
In a flash the game is over. I feel like I’m actually holding back tears. Or the five hot dogs I had for lunch. It’s a tossup. I think Tomlin’s coming over to give me a hug. I sure need it. And I think he does too.
But that isn’t meant to be either.
Still stunned, I sit before him at the post-game press conference. I know I was supposed to have questions ready to go. But for some reason my mind is a blank. As I hear questions fired out from other reporters, I notice, first, they’re not shouting. Second, they all call him “Mike”—not coach or Mr. Tomlin. Third, everyone in the room seems emotionless, as if this is just another day at the office. Even Mike, who’s had but a mere 10 minutes to digest what’s probably the end of his team’s season.
Finally I know what I want to ask, but can’t tell if it will come out of my mouth the way it sounds in my head. The conference is winding down and think I’m gonna regret it if I don’t ask at least this one question. A Steeler rep asks if there are any more questions for Mike. He looks around the room as if to say, “going once, going twice…” OK, last chance.
“Uh, Mike!” I yell. Oops. All eyes turn to me. Even the 8-year-old in the room. (How he got in here, I have no idea.) I ask what the offense can start doing earlier in games to muster the same kind of urgency and increased focus they showed once they got behind in this one. (Oh, s**t. Did that make any sense?) Tomlin says, “I don’t know. “Mmm Hmm,” I say, nodding in deep revelation. I write his response with purpose. Even though my pen has now run out of ink.
In the locker room, I half-expect Mike Tomlin to pull a Mike Singletary. And hope he doesn’t. In fact, I’ve heard that the losing locker room is typically more naked than Penthouse. Not good naked. Very bad naked. But as guys start coming out of the showers, they’re either wearing towels or holding their valuables. I guess that’s one way to avoid ending up on the internet.
Okay, here’s where I plan to put the pedal to the metal. I expect that my job as a reporter is to get someone to say something the whole industry could buzz about for weeks to come.
And how hard can it be? These guys are mostly 20-somethings. Rich 20-somethings. But kids, nonetheless. And since half of them graduated with a degree in “sports nutrition” from schools that were about as hard to get into as Paris Hilton, I expect to have them eating from the palm of my formerly pre-law hand.
But I find just the opposite. No matter what I or any other reporter poked them with over the 45 minutes or so that we were in the locker room, the most controversial thing I heard a player say was in regard to Big Ben’s concussion from the week before. “You’re not going to make football safe,” Hines Ward said. “It’s football.”
Wow. Stop the presses!! We have a new cover story.
Okay, so maybe trying to get players to say things they don’t want to isn’t all that cool anyway. The game is over. The Steelers lost. Time to move on. Big Ben tells me, “hey, we’re six and six. Next week is a new week. We’ve just got to be ready to go. And that’s it.” Sounds like a CEO, not a QB.
But he’s right. The game is over. And now, I figure, is when the real fun begins. Now everyone can stop concentrating on work and start focusing on the real reason we’re all here: My destiny.
I walk out of the locker-room to a bevy of camera flashes and players’ families. I can finally feel my energies swell. I’m part of the team. I’m part of something and everyone can see it. But as we near the awaiting masses, there’s no one I know and no one who pretends to know me.
As I arrive next to a woman with her two kids, she says, “are you OK, baby?” I think I’ve never seen her before. But lumbering up from behind me is, Max Starks, all 6’8”, 350-plus pounds of soft depression. She gives him a hug. And all I can think about is… That’s one large baby.
The lobby of the first floor is now deserted. Maybe my welcoming party is waiting outside. I exit the stadium into the gorgeous sunset. It’s f*****g freezing. I’ve forgotten about my lower body now because my upper body is an icicle, too.
That’s fine. Only a few more steps and I’ll be at the shuttle pick up, where I can finally tell somebody who’s impressed with my credentials about the experience I had. Alas, the shuttle back to the hotel has already left. (But the joke’s on them, I resolve. I used up all their Post-its).
My last resort. I text my girlfriend back home that I’ve had a full day of reporting and I’m just gonna cab it back to my room and watch some SportsCenter. “So far, no one’s recommended I see anything downtown except for the strip clubs anyway,” I say. She tells me, just for the record, she doesn’t really mind me going to those, and has faith nothing would happen. That’s the shot of confidence I was looking for. The person who knows me best has faith nothing would happen to me at a strip club. Hmph.
Okay, so maybe I’m not quite the hot shot I thought I was going to be. And for the first time today, I lose a little hope. I think, “there isn’t going to be any immaculate reception, is there?” Not for the Steelers. And not for me.
As I watch the last outside vendor stuff terrible towels and foam fingers into the back of his station wagon, I think, no immaculate reception for him either. In fact, there wasn’t one for anybody. Not even he of the $100+ million contract, Big Ben. I start to play back in my head everyone I met from the time I reached the stadium until this very moment. Heck, throw in the shuttle driver, too. It isn’t about an immaculate reception for these folks. This is their reality. They’ve all just been doing their jobs. From the guys on the field to the guys hawking hot dogs (who are really persuasive, btw). No matter who it was or what their profile, they were at work. We were at work. There was nothing immaculate about it. It was work. And you know what? I got to be a part of it.
So when I think back to that day now, I remember not the reception I didn’t receive, but the work that was done. By everybody. And what wonderful work it was.