I flew back to Columbus on Tuesday and after a “day of rest,” I was on the road again Thursday to catch the Thursday night game in Pittsburgh between the Steelers and Ravens. Being a Browns fan, I was torn between who I wanted to root for less, but since I was visiting Heinz Field, I rolled with the home team. They do have a few Buckeyes on the team, so I rationalized to myself that I was cheering for them. Plus the Ravens stole a championship from Cleveland, so that’s unforgivable. It’s going to be tough to wear their colors when I visit them later this season. Anyways I drove the three hours to the city and hit a bit of construction and rush hour traffic. Google maps took me on a little detour and coming from Columbus, where it’s mostly flat, I can’t imagine living someplace so hilly and with roads that twist and turn. It made me a bit nervous, but I made it to the area around the stadium without hitting anyone or getting hit.
Parking around the stadium was insane and even in the residential area south of the stadium parking was still $30-40. The Pirates were playing that night too, so maybe the high demand for parking caused the high rates. I ended up finding some street parking near a large park. The area didn’t look great (there was a sign that warned people not to sell drugs), but I figured I’d be fine as there were other fans parking there. To avoid walking by myself later that night, I planned on sticking with groups of people also returning to their cars. The walk to the stadium was only 20 minutes and definitely not scenic unless you like train tracks and freeways.
There wasn’t much going on in the tailgate lots on the west side towards the casino. I noticed the long lines to get into the stadium at this gate and continued my loop around the stadium. I laughed a little to myself that Heinz Field was next door to the city’s science center. Cleveland’s is too and it further solidified in my mind that rival teams have a lot in common. When I rounded the stadium by the river, I saw that Michael Vick was being protested. I had completely forgotten the Steelers had signed him and in passing, thought it was a lot of protest for a backup quarterback. As a dog lover, he’s a person I’ll never be a fan of, but at the same time, he served his jail sentence. I’d like to believe he realizes what he did was wrong and doesn’t participate in dog fighting anymore. Let the man earn a paycheck in his profession.
The tailgate lots on the east side were more to my expectations. The party was in full swing and Pittsburgh renditions of “Empire State of Mind” and “Bad Romance” were being blasted as I weaved through the large groups of tailgaters. The vibe of the fans was definitely blue collar, again reminding me of my hometown. I also noticed there weren’t very many Baltimore fans walking around and the two fan bases weren’t socializing. Division game = people weren’t playin’. With just over an hour to kickoff, I headed back to the stadium and entered through the southwest gate (A). Upon entering, I was handed a pink Terrible Towel and took it reluctantly.
I headed up some steps to the corner end zone section of the lower bowl to take my pre-game pictures and watch the teams warm up a bit. Despite the sea of bright yellow seats (yellow is my least favorite color), I liked the stadium and the way it was set up. The lower bowl goes all the way around the field, but it’s horseshoe shaped, which in my opinion is the most ideal stadium shape. The opening is to the south and the view isn’t PNC Park good, but it’ll do. There’s a large concourse beneath the scoreboard which had some standing room, but since you’re behind stands and further away, it’s fairly obstructed. Better views of the field could be seen from the tall spiral ramps on either end and fans were starting to claim their spots.
Since the Steelers didn’t get back to me about signing my witness log book, I had to find an usher that would be willing to vouch for me. I headed to the north end zone and found Robert, who agreed to sign off for me after the game. After talking to him I decided I would head up to my seat for the start of the game. My seat was over in the north end zone in the 500 level. The walk up the ramps gave me a nice view of the actual city and looking down, I saw the giant cluster of fans still trying to enter the stadium. It looked miserable. Glad I didn’t wait to get in last minute!
Once in my seat, I got out my towel for the pre-game waving that goes along with the giant Terrible Towel on the field. That has to be the lamest thing I’ve ever done, not for me. Glad it wasn’t very long and they cleared the field for the game. I was appalled when the Baltimore Ravens were introduced as the Steelers’ archrivals. I beg your pardon? Did you guys forget about the Cleveland Browns? The guy next to me laughed and said rivals have to be good. I pouted to him and thought angrily, first the Ravens steal our championship and now they steal our rival! RUDE. This was the tipping point and I was fully swayed to cheer for the Steelers, but I wouldn’t have been mad if Bane decided to swallow up the stadium… as long as he left my section intact of course. I’m not trying to die in Pittsburgh.
I ended up chatting up the Steelers fan next to me, a visitor to the city as well. He’s a truck driver from North Carolina and squeezed in the game during one of his routes. I liked him and made him laugh a lot, so I hope the feeling was shared. Just a couple of fans uniting momentarily through our mutual dislike of another team, the stuff Hallmark movies are written about. The game was underway and when I saw Vick trot out as the starter, it all clicked with the protestors. Well, I guess I was rooting for Ron Mexico tonight, dark side here I am. The crowd was late arriving (those lines man!), but once the place was full it was electric. For as lame as the opening Terrible Towel thing was, during the game it was super fun! I’ll freely admit I got down with that towel and waved it during third downs and after scores. One thing that surprised me, and this has been the norm at most of the NFL stadiums so far, is celebrating first downs. Good teams are doing it. They tried to implement it at Ohio State a few years ago and our fan base threw a fit, saying we were above organized cheer for them and I agree. It’s very interesting to see it done so casually at the next level.
At the half, they honored Jerome Bettis for being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I had caught the ceremony in Green Bay, but this one was a much grander ceremony. I always liked The Bus, so was actually glad I was there to watch him thank Coach Cowher and the fans. After the ceremony, I decided to go down and explore the stadium a little bit. The wind had picked up a bit and it was getting cold despite my layers. Before descending to the lower levels I stop along the sideline at the fifty-yard line and popped out to watch part of the opening drive. The ushers up there didn’t let you watch much more, so I walked over to the southwest corner to head down one of the large spiral ramps. The standing room was fairly crowded, but it varied level to level on the ramps. I found spots to squeeze in easily and watched the game. Looking down at the south end zone I noticed most of the people in the concourse were turned away from the field and were watching the game on the large scoreboard. What the hell is the point of going to a game? The couple behind me must’ve followed my gaze because they started commenting it on well.
At the start of the fourth quarter, I decided I needed something to warm me up and I went down to the Great Hall for a coffee. This is where the similarity to Cleveland stopped. There were six giant Lombardi trophies displaying the actual trophies with recaps and pictures from the games. The Pittsburgh Panthers also play at this stadium, so there were some displays for them as well. I did a quick walk around with my coffee before finding room on the opposite ramp thinking I would watch the rest of the game from there.
The Steelers came up with a nice stop towards the end of the quarter and I thought I should walk to the north end zone to be closer to my stadium usher and hurried back to the end zone. It was under the two-minute warning when I returned to the small walkway between the sections. As it was the end of the game, and very interesting- Baltimore was driving, the ushers were lax and letting people stand in the area. When Baltimore hit the game-tying field goal, they yelled for people to find their seats for overtime.
I wasn’t about to walk back up to the 500 level, so grabbed a lower bowl seat that was empty to watch my first overtime of the season. If I was going to have an overtime game, better one when I was driving and not catching a flight on the same day! The crowd had shifted a little and there was some hostility in the air. I wondered how they would treat the remaining Baltimore fans if the Steelers dropped this game. I was about to find out because Baltimore hit another field goal to win. I walked over to Robert and he signed my log book. Most people had stayed to the end of the game and it was a slow walk out of the stadium, but the Pittsburgh fans didn’t seem as angry anymore.
Once out of the stadium we came to a halt as the staff kept letting cars go from the special stadium lot. This pissed off all the fans and they united in their anger over the delay. I waited in the crowd for about 10 minutes, getting antsy and finally trying to go back to the stadium to cross through to another exit. The stadium staff wouldn’t let us back in and I felt like I was being held hostage. Not cool, Heinz Field, not cool. Fed up, I decided to cross through the tailgate lot and take a longer route back to my car. Being by myself at night in an unfamiliar city, I ran from group of fans to group of fans following them up through the park and down the street to where my car was parked. The drive back to Columbus wasn’t bad and I only hit a little bit of traffic getting onto the freeway, but it cleared up quickly.
I wanted to hate this stadium and the crowd for the obvious reason, I’m a Browns fan, but that didn’t happen. I’ll never pick up another Terrible Towel, but they aren’t quite as bad as previously believed.
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Special thank you to Rober for his time and assistance during my visit!