As the last shades of daylight gave way to darkness and the cold to even more bitter cold, the Monangahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers faded into the black, although the emptiness running down either side of the Pittsburgh skyline reminded you of their presence. Mount Washington peeked out from behind the upper decks, no doubt wondering why the crowd of more than 65,000 fans, so loud only moments before, had inhaled anxiously and gone silent.
On the preceding play, New York Jets linebacker Bryan Thomas had come flying through the gap, only to be met by Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Flozell Adams. Without incurring a holding penalty - a rare feat for Flozell - Adams blew Thomas back off the line and away from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was scuttling away from the blitz, his eyes downfield.
But nothing ever goes exactly according to plan when Flozell Adams is on your offensive line, and Thomas collapsed back into the now dissipating scrum that had congealed along the line of scrimmage and onto the left ankle of Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey.
After the play, Pouncey remained prone on the grass, clutching his lower leg. He was down for a while, long enough that it steadily became clear the precocious rookie from the University of Florida wasn't gonna shake this one off.
As trainers, teammates, and referees bent at the waist or took a knee, forming a circle around Pouncey, a chant began to build in the crowd. Some drunk but supportive soul wanted Pouncey to know he cared, probably a bit too much, so he started repeating the downed lineman's name. Someone nearby joined in. Then someone else. It wasn't long before the entire stadium was chanting "Poun-cey!"
In the imperious and insufferable pre-Super Bowl media vacuum through which the American people are heroically persevering, Pouncey has emerged as a popular subject. According to both anonymous reports and Steelers guard Chris Keomeatu, Pouncey is out for the Super Bowl. According to Coach Mike Tomlin and Pouncey himself, that decision has yet to be made. According to the media, this story has developed enough over the last week to merit several dozen reports. The he-said/she-said fretting has reached a degree of mindlessness that would make a cable news pundit stand and applaud.
With all the white noise that's been manufactured about Pouncey since the AFC title game, it's hard to remember that he's just an offensive lineman. I don't mean to dismiss the role of the offensive lineman - there may not be a position in all of team sports that is as critical to a team's success yet receives such little credit. Maybe I'm underestimating the intelligence of the American public, but I don't think most football fans are sophisticated enough to appreciate the nuances of the offensive line, much less take the time to learn their names. Like oxen on the Oregon Trail, linemen trample the grass in front of the gunslingers, poised to fire from behind a wall of wide derrieres. (In the late 90s, former Steelers center Dermontti Dawson took this simile a bit too far when he nearly died while trying to ford the Ohio River.)
Nothing about Steelers fans made be believe we would be the ones to transcend my cynicism. No one would doubt the intensity of our passion. We love the Steelers with the brutal affection of a parent who's lost every child but one. Pittsburghers, however, don't come off as an especially enlightened fanbase.
That's not to say Steelers fans, and the organization itself, lack characteristics that are both distinct and refreshing. I'll never take for granted the Rooney family and the unwavering benevolence with which they've overseen the franchise. I'll always appreciate the enthusiasm the fanbase has for the defense - so often overlooked by fans of nearly every team in almost any sport - and the franchise's unashamed willingness to respond by featuring the defensive players over and above the offense. (The Steelers are one of the few teams that introduce the offense as a collective unit, but the defensive starters individually.)
However, that does not mean that Steelers fans are better, more devoted, or more thoughtful than any other. The most diehard fans of the Carolina Panthers or the Arizona Cardinals care just as much their equivalents in Pittsburgh or Green Bay or Dallas, even though the franchises that call the latter cities home receive far more attention.
So I was surprised when I found myself standing among tens of thousands of Steelers fans who not only knew Pouncey's name, but cared enough to chant it as he was helped off the field. Plenty of players limp off the field any given game; most of them get some applause, often briefly, but not a sustained chant.
That more sportswriters, scrambling for pre-Super Bowl content, haven't keyed in on this moment is amazing. It seems ripe for hyperbole. Listen for the voice of John Facenda descending from the clouds, spinning tales about the steel-clad will to win that was forged in the now-defunct factories of Western Pennsylvania. A will that still animates both the people of the city of bridges and the team they hold so dear. Yeomen recognize yeomen.
No team, with the possible exception of the Green Bay Packers, has fallen victim to this prefab bombast as often as the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's astounding how heavenly the mud and sweat can seem when viewed from ten thousand feet.
But the 65,000 men, women, and children at Heinz Field that evening weren't watching Maurkice Pouncey limp off the field from ten thousand feet. They were, at most, a couple hundred yards away, a much better distance from which to show genuine concern. Huddled among the 65,000, I found myself at an equally good distance to admit that I had underestimated them.
[Graydon Gordian is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He is the founder of 48 Minutes of Hell, a San Antonio Spurs blog. His work has been published by Hardwood Paroxysm, TrueHoop, the Rumble, the Huffington Post, Politics Daily, the Military Times, and UPI. To read more by Graydon, check out his profile.]
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