SUPER BOWL XL: Preview from a Steely Fan

Adam Underhill


When the Pittsburgh Steelers play in the Super Bowl, America pays attention. At least it should (or did). The championship teams of the 1970s still reside in our collective memories of the “Me Decade,” alongside Donna Summer, Jimmy Carter, and Star Wars. I was born in 1976, the year of Pittsburgh’s second Super Bowl win, and by the age of four I was wearing Steelers jackets and winter hats––idiosyncratic for a boy growing up in Wisconsin, where, even when the Packers are bad (and they were awful then), they are still followed feverishly. Indeed, my first memory of any pro football player was Mean Joe Greene. Not of him sacking Fran Tarkenton or stuffing Earl Campbell, but slamming a Coke. That should tell you that the Steelers were a great team – and also a lucky one, for they ascended to prominence as the Super Bowl, and the NFL itself, was doing much the same.

In 1972, the Gallup Poll recorded that America’s favorite spectator sport was football, usurping baseball for the first time. Baseball had long been America’s pastime, but as television became the dominant medium in the ‘60s, football’s horizontal grid proved itself the ultimate televised game. It was late in 1972 that Pittsburgh’s Franco Harris caught the Immaculate Reception, propelling the Steelers into its run of playoff success. That game, a victory over Oakland, was followed by a loss to Miami in the AFC Championship game, as the Dolphins made their own history with their now-infamous undefeated season. But Pittsburgh would go on to win Super Bowls, IX, X, XIII, and XIV. That’s nine, ten, thirteen, and fourteen.

Photographer Dave Fulmer notes about that sandwhich on the left "Ate seven dollar sandwich, The Roethlisburger – created by Peppi’s in downtown Pittsburgh. Made with ground beef, hot sausage, fried onions, scrambled egg and American cheese on Italian bread. Very, very delicious."

It’s not just titles and TV that made those Steelers so lovable, however. The team’s bond with its city cannot be understated, especially considering that its dynasty coincided with Pittsburgh’s (and the Rust Belt’s) ignominious decline. No NFL team, with the exception of the Green Bay Packers and the Baltimore Colts in their heyday, can claim a stronger association between franchise and city. Obviously, the nickname is a nod to what was long Pittsburgh’s dominant industry, and even the logo on the team helmet belonged to the American Iron and Steel Institute and was created by U.S. Steel. (This, along with the Packers’ naming themselves for a meat packing sponsor in 1919, makes a curious counter-argument to the ‘recent’ phenomenon of corporate sponsorship in sports.) In any case, it cannot be denied that as Pittsburgh’s job base and population declined, the Steelers gave the old city a pleasant distraction. And so it was that a theretofore horrible franchise in a city of dwindling disposable income rose to four-time champions just as the NFL and the Super Bowl were wresting away sports fandom from baseball.

With all of that backstory, what about the 2005 edition? And whither the poor Seattle Seahawks, trapped in an inlet just south of British Columbia, for God’s sake? And will the Rolling Stones play “Satisfaction” for the umpteenth time, or one of the tunes from their latest release?

Like me, the Seahawks were born in 1976 (the comparisons end there.) While the team was competitive in the 80s, it is only now playing in its first Super Bowl. And these Seahawks are nothing to scoff at. Their quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, has thrown 24 touchdowns against only nine interceptions in the regular season. Running back Shaun Alexander, the NFL’s MVP, racked up over 1,800 yards on the ground (for a 5.1 average) and scored 28 touchdowns. The defense amassed fifty quarterback sacks, and was led in tackles by feisty rookie linebacker Lofa Tatupu with 105. Head coach Mike Holmgren, went to two Super Bowls with Green Bay, winning one. Seattle went 13-3 in 2005, with their final loss a meaningless one in which Holmgren rested his starters for the playoffs. True, Seattle plays in the terrible NFC West, but it can be said that besides the meaningless loss in Green Bay, the team fell only to Washington and Jacksonville, both playoff teams. The Seahawks won when they were supposed to.

So the Seahawks make a worthy opponent to the current sports media darlings, the Steelers. In addition to the Steelers’ glorious history, the team is chock full of media week-ready stories. To wit: Running back Jerome Bettis’ 13-year, Hall of Fame career will likely come to an end in his home town of Detroit. Bettis’ gaffe at the end of the divisional playoff game in Indianapolis simultaneously nearly blew the game and cemented his name in the pantheon of impossible big-game choke artists. It’s tempting to imagine the vilification Bettis would have suffered had the Colts gone on to win, but my guess is that Pittsburgh’s fans are forgiving enough, and Bettis beloved enough, that he would not have been ridden out of town on a rail. We’ll never know, and now Bettis’ reprieve gives him a shot at a championship, and a chance to go out on top.

On the other end of the spectrum is the man who hands off the ball to the Bus, “Big” Ben Roethlisberger. (That is the first and last time I will use his nickname, as it shows complete lack of originality.) Roethlisberger is only in his second year as a pro, and yet he has already earned a place among the Bradshaws, Lamberts, and, yes, Harrises in Steelers history. After all, it was Roethlisberger whose awkward, backpedaling tackle of Nick Harper saved a touchdown and the divisional playoff game for the Steelers after Bettis’ fumble. That game might have emotionally drained any other 23-year-old quarterback, resulting in a huge letdown at Denver, but Roethlisberger rose brilliantly to the occasion in the AFC title game, completing 21 of 29 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns in hostile Invesco at Mile High. (He rushed for another touchdown.) It’s the height of sports cliché-dom to use the term “heart and soul,” but let’s just say it: Roethlisberger and Bettis are the heart and soul of this team.

It seems unfair that the Steelers can enjoy not only sentimental favoritism but actual favoritism as well (early lines had them at 3 to 4 point favorites). The Seahawks’ location in Seattle could hardly be described as misfortune, as it is a beautiful city. Even in our well-connected world, they are stunted by their geographic location, tucked away in a foggy inlet hundreds of miles away from the next NFL market. The Seahawks are also handicapped by a lack of history, especially when compared to the Steelers. The names Jim Zorn, Dave Krieg, and Steve Largent do not bring to mind any classic NFL Films or, likely, intimidate any opponents. No, these Seahawks will have to do it on their own, and with their Super Bowl-tested coach, MVP running back, and casually confident quarterback, they have a chance to “upset” the sixth-seeded Steelers and make history.

I’m no X’s and O’s guy, just a writer. That doesn’t disqualify me from making a prediction, however. I’ve thought about these teams and this game as objectively as possible, but emotion plays a big role in football, so I’m going with the old school and saying Pittsburgh will win a close game – and the MVP will be safety Troy Polamalu, who gets to the football so quickly it frightens me. I’ll be wearing my Mean Joe Greene jersey.