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 BaltimoreRavens.com

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.

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