You may remember my friend, Rob Tringali, from past guest blogs written from the 2007 ALCS or from a blimp high above the 2008 MLB All-Star game. This time, Rob reports from the Jets-Steelers AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh. Rob took his good friend and longtime Jets fan, Bob, to the game as his photo assistant. Five years ago, Rob did the same for me when the Steelers went to Denver for the AFC Championship. Of all the games I’ve been to, including two Steelers Super Bowls, that was the most special. I stood on the sidelines the entire game, watching my childhood team play the most solid game of football I’d ever seen. That whole weekend was really special. In the end, I believe, so was this one. But you’d have to ask Bob to be sure.
Let me start off by saying I enjoy shooting football. It’s what got me into photography. When I started out, it was football first, photography second. Walking into RFK stadium as a teenager on my first assistant job, I was hooked. I had to do this. Throughout my career, many things stand out. But the highlight of my year is usually the NFL conference championship games. Real fans, real football weather. This is how the game was meant to be played, not in some bullshit domed field turf stadium.
NO DOME HERE: IT WAS 8 DEGREES WHEN THE GAME STARTED … (Photo: Rob Tringali – This is my new screen saver.)
This year was set up perfectly with two classic host cities, Chicago and Pittsburgh. Grass. Cold. The only thing that could have been better is if I was able to shoot both games. But since I don’t have a private jet at my disposal, I had to pick one. I chose to spend my weekend in Steelers country. And believe me, you know you’re in Steelers country because every establishment is reminding you of that fact. I like shooting in Pittsburgh. What’s not to like? Great tradition, classic uniforms, cool stadium—honestly, it’s as good as it gets. But this year, there was another reason I decided to shoot this game. This was the year my childhood team was going to make it to the Super Bowl. The J. E. T. S., Jets, Jets, Jets!
That’s right. I like the Jets. My dad liked the Jets. I remember going to Shea Stadium and seeming my lousy Jets lose constantly. Who could forget the greats like Richard Todd, Johnny Lam Jones, Scott Dierking, Bruce Harper? These were my guys and I was proud of it. I don’t have to rehash the Jets history. We all know it’s pretty bleak. The greatest thing we did is win Super Bowl III and most Jets fans today weren’t even born yet. But this was the year. We got close last year, but nothing was going to stop us now.
Let me also make it clear that after years of working in professional sports, my days of being a hard-core fan are behind me. I usually root for the team I have better pictures of at the time. But no matter where I am on a Sunday; I usually have an eye on the scoreboard, checking the Jets score. If they’re winning, that makes me happy.
The other thing I do on most Sunday evenings during the season is check in with my buddy Bob about the Jets game and get his take on the outcome. Although my fanatic fan days are over, it’s still fun to live vicariously through someone else. Bob is one of many long-suffering jets fans. He’s been a season ticket holder for 33 years and has missed maybe four games in that span. Talk about dedication. So when the Jets defeated the Patriots last week, the scene was set: Bob was going to be my assistant for the game. I was going to witness a lifelong fan watch his team, from the sidelines, make it to the Promised Land.
We attempted this same mission 12 years ago in Denver and failed miserably. But this year felt different. I was confident. We had close calls throughout my lifetime, but something told me this year was the time. Bob was with me on Monday night this year in Foxboro to witness an embarrassing 49-3 Jets loss, but after getting back at the Pats last week, we knew nothing was getting in the way of our Super Bowl season. What team ever has responded like that? Seriously, isn’t the joke over? The Jets are due. Bob is due. No more suffering. This has to end and it’s going to end in Pittsburgh. We beat them here a few weeks back. They’re not as good as some of the Steelers teams of the past 10 years. They’re banged up. They’re spoiled with Super Bowls. Bob was booking his ticket to Dallas.
THINK HE’S WON BACK THE LOVE OF HIS TEAM’S HOMETOWN CROWD? (Photo: Rob Tringali)
We embarked on our road trip Saturday morning and drove the 360 or so miles through the long state of Pennsylvania. We had some beers at a German beer hall and had some fun with Steelers fans who were riding Bob about his NY Jets sweatshirt. Everyone was enjoying the fan-to-fan banter and very much looking forward to the game. I’ve been to Pittsburgh many times and have always enjoyed their fans. They obviously love their team, but this time I got the sense that this one time they wouldn’t mind getting beat. They have six rings, and maybe just this once they would let the poor old Jets win. Like a wealthy business tycoon giving something back to a community in dire need, maybe the Steelers would give this one to New York. We ended the evening at the Church Brew Works, which is just what it sounds like: a church converted into a brewpub. Pretty cool and yet somewhat strange: every other person was wearing a Steelers jersey, and my guess is that most Steelers fans have in their closets what they would call their “special occasion jerseys.”
The temperature Sunday Morning was 8 degrees, but my experience around football told me that without any wind, the weather wouldn’t be a factor. We arrived at the stadium at 3:30 for a 6:30 kick. The Steelers fans seemed angrier now. Were they just playing around with us last night? It was like every Steelers fan woke up Sunday morning and realized, “We can’t let the Jets beat us today. This is what we do. We win big football games.” Was the team thinking the same thing?
The Steelers franchise wins as well as any team in the league and, without question, is the model for success. At the start of the game, 66,000 terrible towels were being waved and the voice of late legendary announcer Myron Cope echoed in the air. (Sunday would have been Cope’s 82nd birthday.) The fans were ready and the players were ready. Heck, I wanted to hit someone!
WOODLEY WANTED TO HIT SOMEONE, TOO. NAMELY, LT … (Photo: Rob Tringali)
So then why were the Jets walking around like zombies in the first half? Was sleeping gas being pumped into their locker room? I will never understand why they were so flat in such an important game. I looked at Bob during that first half and we both knew this wasn’t going to be the day.
In the second half, the Jets put up a fight, but the challenge was too great. So instead of capturing iconic images of the Jets returning to the Super Bowl after 40-plus years, I was shootings more of the same. Roethlisberger scoring touchdowns, yellow-and-black-clad fans celebrating, Polamalu standing on the bench raising seven fingers in the air: Every Steelers fan, and most football fans, know what that symbolizes. I’ve seen these photos before. I think I have an entire hard drive dedicated to Steelers celebration images. Now I was just adding to it. Bob took the loss well. He’s had a lot of practice coming to terms with yet another Jets season coming to an early end.
WARD HAD A LOT TO CELEBRATE, LIKE HIS THIRD TRIP TO THE SUPER BOWL … (Photo: Rob Tringali)
As the team celebrated and I snapped shots of Hines Ward celebrating with fans and the Rooneys excepting yet another trophy, the team’s Super Bowl anthem started pumping through the Stadium. “Here we go … Pittsburgh’s going to the Super Bowl!” Yes, they have their own Super Bowl song. And it’s not like the Bears Super Bowl Shuffle of 1985: That lasted a year. This one has endured for decades.
We left on Monday for the much longer drive home. We had some laughs along the way, dreaming that one day we would have the opportunity to feel what Steelers fans have experienced throughout generations. No matter how hard we tried, neither of us could get that stupid beat out of our heads, “Here we go! Pittsburgh’s going to the Super Bowl!”
It was one last powerful reminder that we’d just spent a weekend in Steelers country.
“ONE FOR THE POINTER FINGER” JUST DOESN’T HAVE THE SAME RING TO IT … (Photo: Rob Tringali)