Friday, November 30, 2007

Week 13 Preview - Black Out

Purple Power is so 2006. Fortunately for Ravens fans, this Monday night, in front of the entire (American) football-watching world, Baltimore’s best will be bathed in black for their showdown with the undefeated New England Patriots. The players will all be wearing black uniforms. The cheerleaders will all be wearing black skirts. The night sky – most likely black by kickoff. And this blogger will join the party and put on my Monday’s best for the black out. I recommend you do the same.

In the tradition of the great American White Out (I don’t think it’s ever actually been called that, but from Miami, FL to State College, PA, the art of wearing white has won over sports fans across the country) I propose a black out. Why? First, the blimp shot will look much cooler if everyone is wearing the same color. Second, the show of camaraderie among fans will reflect the ‘one-for-all’ team message/musketeer motto that Brian Billick has preached the last few weeks. And third, with the switch of a letter, a black out may just help us block out the first 11 games of the season. Consider this Week 1 (of 5) in which the Ravens, and their fans, get a chance to show the NFL what we’re made of. With nationally televised games against New England and Indianapolis, coupled with match-ups against two division leaders – Seattle and the Steelers – the Ravens will be relevant the rest of the way. We might as well make a little noise.

Of course the color scheme won’t actually affect the outcome of the game. A game that Samari Rolle has called, “our Superbowl.” And he might be right. Consider that fans of every team will be watching, as well as casual sports fans following the Pats pursuit of perfection. We are playing the best team in the league; a team that John Madden proclaimed to have the best offense he’s ever seen; and a team that Billick described as, “…as good a team as I've seen in this league in a long, long time. They're as advertised."

Speaking of advertising, although commercials during the broadcast cost closer to $300K per 30 seconds, rather than the $3 Million commanded by the penultimate game, the promotion of Monday Night Football has been in full swing since August. Commercials depicting some of the greatest moments in MNF history have been running on the Worldwide Leader, including an upset of Brady and the boys by Nick Saban’s Dolphins last year. I don’t know if that’s proof that the Patriots will perform poorly on Monday night, considering Jabar Gaffney was only the receiver on the field still on the active roster, but it does deliver a message that most NFL fans flock to – don’t underestimate the underdog. Especially under the lights.

Breaking up the black on Monday will be white rally towels, distributed prior to the game, courtesy of Snapple and GMC. Adding a little light to the night, a fireworks display is also scheduled for the pre-game introductions. Both promotions are intended to fire up the crowd and show the audience at home just how passionate Ravens fans can be. After all, our stadium experience is ranked 5th in the NFL and the Ravens Brand is considered the 12th strongest out of all teams in the three major sports and hockey (sorry, eh). The special effects will also be intended to give ESPN, whose broadcast starts around sunrise, a few clips to beam back to bars and living rooms around the country. The footage, known as ‘b-roll’ in the business, will most likely include a few beauty shots of our fair Baltimore, which the camera crews will capture over the weekend. So my plea for wearing your colors on your sleeve is not just for Monday, but break out the black (and purple) this weekend. You never know, you might just wind up on TV. Coffeeonthe50 Tip: If you’ve watched most Monday night games, you’ll notice that the scenic shots usually involve each city’s specific cuisine, so your best bet at stardom may be at the crab houses near the harbor.

The spread (as of this blogging) is at +20. We’re not only favored to lose, Vegas would consider it a victory if we stayed within 3 touchdowns. So what?! If we can’t beat the Patriots at home, than making the playoffs would have been pointless. It’s not as if Bill Belichick gets to adopt Ed Reed if we don’t win. No, the only thing on the line is our pride. Pride in the city. Pride in the Ravens. And on Monday night, our pride for the men in black.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Week 12 - California Games

San Diego, CA -- 11/25/07.

To paraphrase The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, "I wish they all could be California games." That's because a loss on the road doesn't burn as bad when you already have a base tan. And lucky for Lauryn, Matt and I, we found time to soak in the sunshine and sunsets of sunny San Diego during the Ravens west coast road trip.

Even in November, the weather in Southern California lived up to its reputation as we were greeted with a cloudless sky and seventy-degree temperatures on Saturday morning. Our tour guides for what would prove to be a spectacular day were our friends Devin, who was also the best man at my wedding, and Santana, who grew up in Kansas, went to KU and for good reason had another football game on her mind this weekend (more on that in a moment).

Our coastal excursion began with avocado laced Omelets at The Cottage in La Jolla, CA, 20 minutes to the north of our hotel. The eggs were good, but the out-of-towners agreed that we should have followed the local's lead and ordered the stuffed French toast - I'm not sure what exactly they stuffed it with, but it included mascarpone, which might just be the most deadly substance a restaurant is allowed to legally serve. We proceeded to walk off the 'pone and headed down the hill to get our first views of the Pacific. (One fun fact worth noting is that Matt had seen both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean within 36 hours as he spent his Thanksgiving evening in Atlantic City, NJ.)

Within a few minutes we had a view of the coast, the famous coves of La Jolla and even a few seals that have wisely chosen to make San Diego their home. As we watched the seals scurry up the rocks I hoped that there might just be a connection to this week's blog. "Seal the Deal" perhaps, if we had a last second score to put the game out of reach. Or maybe, "Sealed with a Miss", if fate found a way to grant us victory thanks to a missed field goal attempt. Of course neither of those options had a chance of seeing the light of day by halftime, but I thought the slippery little guys still deserved some pub. Before continuing on our tour, Lauryn managed to sneak into a few stores. Unfortunately the beach shops of The Jolla are not your standard variety tourist traps. No hermit crabs or salt-water taffy for sale, rather Louis Vuitton and Coach bags. Sensing danger, Devin, Matt and I not only waited outside the store for the girls, we pulled up in the car with the engine running to limit the damage.

The next stop was a few miles to the south and Mission Beach. We weren't necessarily planning a trip to the ocean but we were in California and for some reason we had a feeling we should make the most of our Saturday. We also learned that in just a few weeks an ordinance was about to pass that would prohibit drinking alcohol on the beach. Clearly something had to be done before it was too late, like having a few drinks on the beach.

Now this is about the time that I decided I would go home smiling no matter what the outcome on Sunday. The landscape featured endless rows of beach volleyball courts, full of physically fit folks who actually knew how to play and how to look cool while doing so - Devin and I were itching to get out there just so that we could recreate the Top Gun round-the-world high-five between Maverick and Goose, but neither of us would have had any clue what to do if the ball came our way. (Fun fact #2 – the bar in Top Gun where Goose plays the piano was actually located right across the street from our hotel – the Kansas City Barbeque.) The California games also included a basketball court on the beach in which Matt and I each won a game of HORSE despite being on Devin's home turf. And then, just over the small sand dunes, a thin sliver of salt water appeared; a reflecting pool painted from pier to pier. The water projected back the mirror images of anyone who walked along the surface, from the surfers heading out to sea to our group getting a taste of what it must be like to live in paradise.

After we had a chance to reflect on just how perfect a place this was, and made sure to send a few pics via text message to friends in cooler climates, we began what would become the most competitive sporting event of the weekend. For Lauryn and I, it was our debut on the bocce ball court and the spouse-to-spouse combat was fierce. For those who either don't know what I'm talking about or think that I just misspelled basketball, bocce is in fact a sport that pre-dates the game played with the pigskin, and you can even buy your very own set at Target.

Team Lauryn jumped out to an early 11-3 lead, led by some veteran leadership (i.e. Devin's friends who joined us in the afternoon and have thrown a ball or two in their day) and Lauryn’s rookie of the day performance. But Team Josh (Matt and Santana were on my team as well, but since I was using the whole spouse theme, Team Josh works well) fought back to tie the score at 12. Then, after trailing 13-12, we had our ball closest to the pallino and proceeded to stick two more shots to earn 3 points and the victory. Scintillating stuff, I know, but if you saw the game on Sunday, you know that the paragraph above contains slightly more drama than any of the fourth quarter drives from Qualcomm Stadium.

The day wasn't quite complete as we headed to the appropriately named Sunset Cliffs to, you guessed it, watch the sunset. Now sunsets are why digital cameras were invented because without them, you would waste rolls upon rolls of film thinking you got the best shot when in fact, the best shot is probably still a few minutes away. Such was the case on the cliffs as Lauryn and I proceeded to take about fifty shots of the sun setting and our silhouettes against the glow. But just when we thought we had the picture nailed, Matt stepped in, right next to me, and Lauryn captured it for all our fans to enjoy. Truly a memorable awkward moment.

By now you're either waiting to hear about the game already, decided to move San Diego, or both. So I'll wrap up our non-football activates with our evening in the Gaslamp District. Again, San Diego doesn't mess around with names as the reason for the area’s title is, you guessed it, the lamps that line the streets are gas powered. We could have been convinced to do some serious celebrating had the Jayhawks pulled it out against the Tigers (is Missouri really going to be in the National Title game? Sportswriters better come to an agreement on how many Z's to put in Mizzou real soon). Instead, we did a little people watching in the outdoor mall - yes their malls are outdoors - and along 5th street. I think everyone would agree that people watching in San Diego could be considered the city’s official sport. Either way, a professional sporting event was still set to take place the following day and we could only wish for a day, and a game, as action packed as our city tour.

As we approached the stadium I was surprised to see a parking lot full of RV's. I suppose the sun of Diego is welcoming to those who live for the outdoors, but I don't get the asphalt attraction. Another tailgate option, at least for the players, appeared to be a breakfast buffet served in the same room in which the visiting team delivers their post game press conference and all photographers download their shots to their Apple’s. (It was quite the scene after the game with thumbnail galleries everywhere you look; of course most shots seemed to feature those with the white helmets.) One advantage we should have looked to exploit was the fact that at least some of the Chargers, including LT, went without their avocado omelets as the catering staff was forced to bare the bad news when the MVP came looking for egg whites prior to the game, no breakfast today, landing an early blow to the stomach.

The introductions were eerily similar to the scene at M&T Bank Stadium, as Shawne Merriman performed his best Ray Lewis impression with a pre-game huddle round-up speech and, excuse the pun, an electric entrance as the last player to emerge from the tunnel. He continued to show Ray what he's learned from No. 52 with a first quarter introduction/collision with Willis McGahee that Jeff and I had a front row seat for. It truly is a unique experience to watch a game from the end zone because you can actually see holes in the o-line open up (and wish you had a Playstation controller in your hand that would allow you to make Willis cut and run up field when you want) and you notice when a blitzing linebacker is not picked up by a blocker. Of course we also had the luxury of watching No. 23 battle over the goal line to score our first points of the game, but the next 20 minutes or so put a damper on his touchdown dance.

Another interesting aspect of the end zone POV is that we get heckled by opposing fans on the road thanks to our Ravens branded attire. But our Wired Raven this week, Jonathan Ogden, correctly pointed out during warm-ups that California fans can’t trash talk, and he should know after spending three years at UCLA. It makes so much sense though. What do you really have to be angry about if you live in a city in which you can have a few drinks and play bocce ball on the beach at the end of November – well I guess that drinking ban may put a damper on things – but bocce and the beach ain't bad.

As the clock began to wind down, an announcement could be heard dictating that fans were not allowed on the field after the game. I thought they were just rubbing salt in our wounds, but it turns out they were talking to a certain intoxicated Charger fan who sprinted past Lauryn and I, weaved through the cheerleaders (who had stunned looks on their faces, not that I was looking at their faces, um, I mean not that I was looking at them) and made it close to the end zone before a security staffer zipped past us in pursuit, tackled and cuffed him. The faint cheer from the fans will hopefully keep him company as he spends a night in jail.

The non-reaction to the runaway could have been in part due to the fact that the Bolt faithful were already consumed and amused by an air show of the paper variety that was taking place. Again proving that the residents of sunny SoCal are of the free spirited type, fans began to make paper airplanes with promotional signs that were given away before the game, courtesy of Chevy and possibly soon to be Southwest if they have their ear to the ground, or a subscription to the blog. Cheers rang down from all corners of the stadium when a plane would make it onto the field, with one majestic flight path that made its way into the grasp of one of the San Diego players. As the paper projectiles made their way to the grass, they became a solemn reminder of the meaning of the loss and the looming trip home; we had been brought back to earth; we were heading back to the east coast; and it would be another three weeks before we were back on the beach. I guess they don’t all have to be California games, Miami ones are okay too.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Week 11 - Rewrite

Baltimore, MD -- 11/18/07.

Where were you when you first heard that Phil Dawson’s last-second game-tying field goal was good?

In your car? (Judging by the empty seats in the upper deck during OT, I’m guessing that at least 10,000 of you fall into this category.) In the locker room? (Where most of the Ravens and some of the coaches sat, taking off their cleats and taking a deep breath after seemingly surviving a scintillating game.) In a corporate suite? (Where I can only assume Hollywood stars Jimmy Fallon and Kevin Connelly were watching as they were in town for the filming of “He's Just Not That Into You” and were VIP guests of the team – more on them later.)

Me? I was running across the field following this week’s Wired Raven, Mark Clayton, through his congratulatory tour of former teammates when Derek Anderson came up to us to tell Clayton that the game wasn’t over – the field goal was good. At first we laughed at his unbridled optimism. Okay Derek, I bet they’re going to make us play overtime too. Good one!

As it turns out, Derek Anderson sucks as a comedian. His exuberance was no joke. And after a 10-minute emotional roller coaster that took all of the energy and some of the fans out of M&T Bank Stadium, the game was back on. The game was back on despite the SmartVision boards reading, “Final Score: Baltimore 30, Cleveland 27”. The game was back on despite the fact that members of both teams had already conducted their post-game prayer session at mid-field. The game was back on despite the impassioned pleas from the men in purple – both Adam Terry and Willis McGahee were standing near me when the refs made the fateful ruling and both were convinced that the game was still over. And who could blame them; technically the game had already come to an end. I didn’t want to be the one to tell them they were wrong so I backed away slowly and let the shower of boos from the stands tell the story.

Throughout the course of overtime a pit in my stomach began to grow. By the time Dawson knocked through the winning field goal, I not only felt feverish, but I couldn’t bring myself to words (Lauryn can confirm). Only once before had I experienced such a devastating loss and when I say experience, I mean as a fan, not as an actual member of a team – professionals tend to deal with these things better, they are, after all, professionals. I, on the other hand, was 13 at the time and other than getting a girl in homeroom to look at you, not much else matters to an 8th grade boy. As previously mentioned in the blog, I was a fan of the Dallas Cowboys at the time and according to tradition, the ‘Boys play on Thanksgiving each year, which conveniently allowed the rest of my family to bare witness to my teenage fanaticism. One particular game galvanized my reputation and resembled the turn of events that took place yesterday.

I am talking, of course, of the Leon Lett Game in which the Miami Dolphins attempted a game winning field goal, had it blocked, and were then given a second chance at victory after The Big Cat attempted to recover the ball, only to slip in the snow and kick it forward, allowing Miami to recover, re-kick and rewrite history. . Now for the worst part, for some reason I felt that I should take my frustration out, in front of my family no less, on my Aunt’s furniture. Adrenaline took control of my foot as I proceeded to kick the couch I had been sitting on, before banishing myself to another part of the house. Not my finest moment, but despite 14 years of supposed maturation, I could have done some serious sofa damage on Sunday had their been a couch in the vicinity.

Before I continue down this path of misery - I do apologize, but seriously, what would you write about - let me return to happier times. They weren’t that long ago. In fact, they were only a few minutes before the Dawson daggers described above.

As I mentioned, Baltimore played host to Hollywood with Fallon (of Saturday Night Live fame) and Connelly (the “E” in Entourage) roaming the sidelines before the game. In person, they are about what you would expect, only shorter. In fact I ran past Connelly while carrying my tripod and had trouble placing his face as I continued my sprint. It took a few moments, but when I finally figured out who it was, Laura Lewis, another one of our RaveTV crewmembers, made sure to point out Fallon standing right behind him. They were easy to miss and despite Lauryn staring at the stars a few seconds longer than I’d like, I was able to exploit one advantage over the two actors.

Kevin Connelly (short guy, black coat) looks on as Antwan Barnes gets ready for the game

Jeff and I took our places on the field during the pre-game introductions to get a shot of Clayton emerging from the tunnel. The Ravens were introduced as a team and all 53 players, not to mention the cheerleaders, smoke and fire whizzed by our position as we watched it all unfold from the best seats in the house. Even better than the sidelines, where Kevin and Jimmy had to stand behind the yellow rope. Of course they get to stand behind their fair share of velvet ropes back west, but for the moment, it felt good to be a Raven.

The game itself was a scoring festival in comparison to previous weeks, with a fourth quarter that should still be recognized as nothing short of remarkable. Trailing by thirteen, having scored just one offensive touchdown all day, it was hard to imagine that we would witness a comeback by Boller and the boys. We were wrong. Kyle completed passes to just about everyone on the team over the course of the next 15 minutes, including a touchdown toss to Devard Darling to tie the game at 27. Jeff and I were camped out in the end zone for most of the period and not only saw Darling’s dazzling catch, but we could have caught Matt Stover’s go-ahead field goal with less than 30 seconds left. The crowd was in a frenzy after we took the lead and I even saw our mascot, Poe, jump from the field into the stands (no easy feat in that costume) to celebrate with the feathered faithful. It was a joyous time aboard the SS Raven, unfortunately, an iceberg was looming.

After Devin Hester, err, Joshua Cribbs returned the kickoff to near mid-field, Derek Anderson proceeded to lead the Browns to the 34-yard line to set up a field goal attempt that has already earned Phil Dawson the nickname, Pinball Wizard, and the play itself, The Immaculate Deflection or if you prefer, Dawson-Gate. The ball hit the upright, followed by what appeared to be the crossbar, but in actuality was the support bar that connects the crossbar to the ground, before bouncing straight in the air and landing in front of the goal posts. The Ravens sprinted on to the field, seemingly claiming victory for the first time in more than a month. Even the broadcasting crew (i.e. me) leaped victoriously to celebrate the salvation of our season. But a strange thing happened on the way to the prayer circle, and the rest, as they say, is history. History that’s been rewritten.

History being rewritten...

Monday, November 12, 2007

Week 10 - Broken

The saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don't fix it.” But what if it is broke?

As an official homeowner for 4 full months, I've had to learn to deal with many of these daily dilemmas. Take this past Saturday, my first weekend at home in more than a month. I fixed a towel rack, a vacuum, a smoke detector and a light bulb. Well I guess you don't actually fix a light bulb, you replace it, but I was rather proud of my man-of-the-house accomplishments and technically, the light wasn’t working (i.e broken) and I took care of it (i.e. fixed it). In any case, the ability to deal with such problems leads me to Sunday’s game and what used to be the AFC North Champion Baltimore Ravens.

The team appears to be broken. Not mentally, not yet at least, but for some reason they just don't seem to be working right. Fumbles, false starts and just plain ugly football have left the team winless since mid-October. Brian Billick, in his press conference following the game, admitted that he was frustrated. Probably because he can’t seem to figure out who broke his 13-3 team from 2006. It was working just fine, that is until the clock struck 2007.

It's not the batteries, as Ray Lewis' motor never seems to stop. It's not the parts, as Pro Bowlers fill the roster on both sides of the ball. And as far as I know, no one has been recalled back to the plant, or in this case, the “U”. So what could it be? According to this week's Wired Raven, Gary Stills, "There's a dark cloud hanging over us."

Although Stills can’t be serious, it would explain a lot. Take, for instance, the pre-game flyover. The C-130J cargo-style planes (I know, usually they’re fighter jets, but Navy apparently used up the entire fleet during their 74 point explosion at North Texas) seemed to cautiously creep along from one side of the stadium to the other, as if they were trying to avoid a storm cloud hanging overhead. The pilots may have also been aware that the stage was not solely theirs on Sunday as a live video feed from Iraq was transmitted into the stadium just moments before kickoff. A Maryland Army National Guard unit that call themselves “Task Force Ravens” pre-empted the singing of the national anthem and then introduced the Ravens, with Derrick Mason carrying the American flag as the lead horse leaving the stable. Some of the soldiers on screen gave shout outs to specific sections of the stands before giving one final salute as the slightly less important battle in Baltimore began.

It’s hard to put into words what followed, but a blogger’s got to do what a blogger’s got to do. So here it goes (courtesy of burst, busted, collapsed, cracked, crippled, crumbled, crushed, damaged, defective, demolished, disintegrated, dismembered, fractured, fragmentary, fragmented, hurt, injured, mangled, mutilated, pulverized, rent, riven, ruptured, separated, severed, shattered, shivered, shredded, slivered, smashed, split. Maybe I should have just stuck with ‘broken’, although ‘riven’ is new to my vocabulary and its similarity to the name of our feathered friends could be useful in the future. But back to being broken.

On a third and goal just before halftime, Steve McNair tried to find Todd Heap in the end zone for a go ahead touchdown. Unfortunately the ball was tipped and caught by a Bengal instead. Under similar circumstances, the same thing happened on opening night when Kyle Boller tried to find Heap for a score but was awarded an INT when a Cincinnati defender wound up with a deflected pass. Well, at least we’ve pinpointed the problem. Although the fortuitous bounce did seem to break the spirit of the sold-out crowd and the scant few following the game from the sidelines. (A clear indication of where the Ravens rank in the NFL was that the media presence on the field seemed to be limited to one NFL Films cameraman and the CBS crew covering the game, although they only lasted into the third quarter – see below.)

The team wasn’t the only defective part on the field on Sunday. Apparently unwilling to continue recording sub-standard football, the camera cart that drives along the sidelines broke down near the south end zone in the third quarter. The crew tried to fix it and at one point I actually saw them taking a rubber hammer to the side of the cart. Now I’m still limited to towel racks and light bulbs, but that can’t work, could it? Maybe if there was a dent that they were trying to bang out, but when a vehicle ceases the ability to move, a rubber hammer cannot be the answer. It was unfortunate for the network, because all of the action during the next 15 minutes seemed to take place on the other side of the field.

Four fumbles followed by four field goals without ever crossing the fifty seemed to put the game out of reach. At that point, the crowd began showing signs that they too were shattered, or maybe shivered, perhaps riven? Okay, that was forced, but the hometown fans did begin to boo during the second half. After being on the road for the last two games, we’ve become used to the boo birds, but I didn’t realize they had flown in for the weekend. A cheer did rise up from those still left in the building when Kyle Boller hit Mark Clayton for a 48-yard pass late in the fourth quarter. Thus proving that the way to fix the quarterback, just like a light bulb, is to replace rather than repair. Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch as Kyle added an interception of his own to the six total turnovers, but his near-scoring strike at least seemed to fix the fans for a moment.

After the game came to a close, the press conference was eerily silent as even the microphones at the podium appeared to be, well, broken. Billick’s words to the press were barely audible and none of the Ravens players even made it into the interview room. So where does that leave us? How do we fix this? What do we do now, Trip?! (Meatballs reference for those scrolling back up looking to see who ‘Trip’ was.)

The answer isn’t easy. It’s not as simple as a change of batteries. There are no replacement parts available. Will Ferrell has moved on to basketball season (see below). And I’m pretty sure the rubber hammer won’t work on these guys. All we can do to salvage the season is reboot, regroup and return to the stadium next Sunday for a date with Derek Anderson and the Cleveland Browns. The season is on the line; it's time to get sweaty (again, see below); it’s time to go for broke.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Week 9 – Coming Home

Pittsburgh, PA -- 11/5/07.

Crab cakes. Coburn’s. My very own couch. These are the things I covet after spending close to five days on the road in four cities and two time zones (not to mention daylight savings throwing me completely off kilter somewhere near the Alabama/Georgia border). So thankfully, despite losing all but my wallet on Monday Night Football, I’m finally coming home.

My football double-dip began in Auburn, Ala. as Exit10, in order to promote rail-safety for our client, CSX, traveled to SEC country and the most charming college town in the country. It was homecoming weekend for the Tigers and the 48 hours spent in the grasp of Southern hospitality helped confirm a story in the November issue of Men’s Journal, as they listed 64 reasons we still love sports. The 65th entry could read something like this:

65. College football in the Southeast. Fans show up days in advance (thanks to all that training on the NASCAR circuit) and line the campus parking lots with RV’s and officially licensed tailgate tools. Entire families share in the joy of not just winning, but their excitement seems to rely solely on the opportunity to attend a game. The rivalries, however, are as real as they come. Case in point – during Saturday Night’s LSU-Alabama game, all of the patrons at the Mellow Mushroom (the best little college eatery in the East) kept their hands on their pies and their eyes on the TV’s as they cheered for their Tiger brethren (also a rival most weekends) to take out their in-state siblings from Tuscaloosa. And don’t forget about the traditions. I’m sure all schools have some sort of celebratory song and dance, but the orange and blue do their best imitation of their color counterparts in Syracuse and ‘make it snow’ at Toomers Square after every victory. The act of toilet-papering the trees, bushes and buildings only adds to the feeling that you are indeed inside some sort of sports wonderland.

Our time in the Dixie State concluded Sunday morning and my co-workers and I parted ways as they flew home to Baltimore while I boarded a flight to Pittsburgh. Upon arrival, my euphoria immediately began to deflate. Pittsburgh is gray and cold – not a surprise I suppose for a Steel City – and the warm feelings I had for football faded as soon as I reached baggage claim. A life-size Franco Harris figurine greeted me at the door and Steelers fans flanked in gold and black seemed to be eyeing me up from all angles (the only fleece I brought was obviously purple).

After waiting for the rest of the Ravens and the RaveTV crew to arrive, Lauryn and I looked to find some fine dining downtown. You would think it would be a tough task to in such a blue-collar corner of Pennsylvania. However, the tasting menu alone at our eventual restaurant choice, Eleven, was enough to make you mistake the three rivers for the River Seine. Smoked salmon puree, ahi tuna salads, caramel fudge squares – and those were just the compliments of the chef. Of course as soon as we walked back into the night we were reminded of our whereabouts as an arctic blast greeting us at the door. When we arrived back at the hotel for one last drink, Steeler Country had already started a tab and were serenading Ravens GM, Ozzie Newsome, with a catchy little tune that goes something like this, “Here we go Steelers. Here we go.” Not quite War Eagle, but still effective in confined spaces.

Despite a police escort on Monday night, the busses to the stadium got stuck in traffic. It was as if all of Pittsburgh decided to delay the Ravens from getting to Heinz Field so they announced on the radio for all vehicles to clog the interstate just as we were making our way across the river. As we waited to move, I was talking to MASN’s Amber Theoharris and we both had the same hopeful thought - we saw a patch of clear skies ahead and wondered (hoped) that it was a sign of better weather to come as the rain was already knocking on the roof. We were both proven to be poor meteorologists as the precipitation only intensified in the hours leading up to kickoff.

As we prepared the camera equipment in the hallway adjacent to the Steelers locker room, we were given a sneak preview of the evening’s festivities. The Steelers were honoring their All-Franchise Team to commemorate their 75th Anniversary and former stars such as Franco Harris, Joe Greene and Jerome Bettis lingered near our staging area. Eventually the entire honorary team would walk by and the chill in the air was no longer the effect of the dropping barometric pressure, rather, the pressure of playing under the gaze of these giants of the game.

The action continued to unfold under the safety of the underground concourse as the stadium issued a warning to stay out of the stands as a lightning storm passed. With the added electricity in the air, and the field still covered by a tarp, players began to warm up inside with Mark Clayton catching passes from special teams coach John Fassell before Ben Roethlisberger practiced his throws for the ESPN crew to cover. Sal Paolantonio was on hand for the Worldwide Leader and with a television tuned to the pre-game broadcast we received word from Sal Pal that Todd Heap was not going to be active. Paolantonio also revealed that the Ravens team captains for the game would not include Ray Lewis, rather, the trio of young starting defensive backs would be given the honor as David Pittman, Corey Ivy and Derrick Martin walked to mid-field for the coin-flip. Unfortunately, this gesture hurt my chances at a second straight trip to the fifty as we had Ray Lewis wired for the evening, but thankfully for us and all of Ravens Nation, he gave us plenty to work with.

Photo courtesy of

We were not the only ones zeroing in on No. 52 as both ESPN and NFL Films crews converged on Ray after the traditional team huddle. During the warm-up session, Ray seemed to be auditioning for a role in the next season of Flight of the Concords as he displayed such dance moves as The Eagle (flapping his arms a la TO on Sunday Night Football in Philly), The Conductor (a variation on The Eagle, but with arms bent at the elbows as if to lead a symphony orchestra), and The Stover (an inexplicable display of emotion involving a powerful kick of the ground and the launching of dirt below his feet).

After the pre-game stretch was complete, our cameraman for the night, Tim Matkosky, and I headed to the tunnel to track Lewis into the locker room. Tim was replacing Coffeeonthe50 regular Jeff Atkinson who was on location in China with Cal Ripken Jr., spreading baseball to a billion Chinese. Back in Pittsburgh, Tim and I back peddled the length of the field as the locker rooms were located well beyond the tunnel entrance. On our journey we were able to catch Ray give encouraging words to fellow linebackers, to Willis McGahee, and as always, to himself in an emotional display of self-motivation.

Unfortunately, no amount of emotion was going to stop neither the Steelers nor the sleeting rain. As kickoff approached, the wind and wet seemed to pick up steam and for a brief moment, became hardened hail just as Pittsburgh’s first possession was starting. Hail? Oh Really?!?! What else could possibly go wrong? Oh wait, there’s more.

I tried covering Tim up as best I could but I can’t imagine his shot was very good. I have to believe it would be similar to being sprayed by a fire hose and trying to see who was firing at you. The rain wasn’t kind to the crew or the Ravens, who fumbled three times in the first half and gave the Steelers an insurmountable lead before the first quarter came to an end. As one Steelers fan in the crowd concluded at the first two-minute warning, “Thanks Billick. Now I can get out of the rain and go home after halftime.”

Despite the 35 points posted by Pittsburgh in the first 30 minutes, the real stars of the night were to be introduced in between quarters. The All-Franchise team members returned home as heroes and were announced one-by-one. Each player was greeted with a terrible towel salute, except for Joey Porter, who seemed to receive a mixed reaction after being dismissed from the team last spring. The loudest ovation was for four-time Super Bowl quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, who must have received some solace despite Big Ben passing him on a few franchise lists by the end of the night.

The game appeared out of reach in the second half, but the ugliness continued. Players were covered in mud, jerseys were ripped and the only heat left in the building was on the field as you got the sense that every play could end up in a personal foul on either team. The carnage made me long for a seat on the couch at my friend’s house where I typically spend Monday Nights and partake in a little tradition of our own called power hour. I wont get into the details, but lets just say it makes games like this a little easier to swallow.

Tim, Lauryn and Jay (his sign reads "Rain Man") bundle up for the game

As the rain turned to an annoying mist, the wind stepped up its efforts to knife through the soaked fleece I was wearing. Unfortunately I hadn’t packed any rain gear as I prepared for the road trip way back on Thursday. My travels took me to homecoming in Auburn and the return home to Pittsburgh for some of the greatest men to ever play the game. But after playing just once in Baltimore over the course of six weeks, not to mention becoming quite adept at making coffee using those hotel room single serve coffee makers, I find myself thankful for my neighborhood Starbucks, a seat on my couch and the comforts of home.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Immaculate Lives Here

Before I could even make it out of the airport in Pittsburgh I was greeted with a reminder of the storied Steeler tradition. Borrowing from the ESPN College Gameday campaign, "Immaculate Lives Here", and Harris is scheduled to be on hand tonight, along with more than a dozen All-Franchise Team members. It should be a memorable night in Blitzburgh, we also have Ray Wired, so be sure to look out for a new post tomorrow, hopefully with another Emmitt sighting.