SevenQuest - Part Ten
It Was a Good Day
The morning before the big showdown with the Bengals, I sat down and perused the Pittsburgh papers as usual, looking for every bit of information I could find to tide myself over until kickoff. At the Tribune-Review website, there was an article by Scott Brown profiling William Gay. This is the kind of article I usually skip over, the personal-interest piece full of fluff and non-football related information which I typically imagine to be rife with references to favorite foods, odd hobbies and general impressions about living in Pittsburgh. But the article about Gay was far less superficial - it discussed what he went through as a kid, and unlike other origin stories, I'd never heard this one before.
As a child, Gay's mother was routinely beaten by Gay's stepfather. One day when Gay was seven, he watched as his mother tried to finally leave. The stepfather shot her dead. Gay went to live with his grandparents, and after a period of turmoil he began to get himself back on the right track, to the point that he graduated from Louisville a semester early. He now spends time at abused women's shelters in the Pittsburgh area. A few hours after reading this story, Gay played one of his best games as a Steeler, coming up with the interception that sealed the game. Fitting.
Gay is one of the most universally reviled Steelers' players. Not by other teams' fans, but by our own. Even by me, who chastised him for giving up the losing touchdown against the Ravens and moreso for his coordinator putting him in the position to fail. After the Bengals' game, I thought about the big plays that Gay has made during his Steelers' career. A big interception in the Steelers' win in Baltimore in 2008. A big sack against Tampa Bay at the beginning of last season. And now a big interception in a huge game in Cincinnati. Yes, William Gay is an average corner, a guy with middling size and speed who simply can't handle today's great athletes at the wide receiver position. But you know what? He's my average cornerback. Every team has them. Every team plays them. They all get beat, but they all make plays sometimes. Gay is the Steelers' version. Therefore, he's my guy. And with all the things he's overcome, I'm thankful that he had the desire and the discipline to navigate a difficult path to become a member of the team I love.
I've criticized plenty of players in the past. Players I'm not a big fan of, even though they're Steelers. Players I am a big fan of on the Steelers. I've criticized plenty of coaches. But as the years go on, I'm far less interested in criticism and far more interested in enjoying the game and enjoying the team that I love. There are moments of course where it's hard not to get frustrated. But there are plenty of sources of frustration in life that are far more serious and meaningful than watching a game on TV on a Sunday afternoon. That's supposed to be the respite, the release. And the more I allow it to be that, the more enjoyable it becomes.
Perhaps it's because I'm in the "hold on to it" stage of Ben's career, like those years when you know you'll never be closer to your kids than you are right now, that events will change things in the future, they'll leave the house and that connection will be more difficult to maintain. Ben is going to be 30 years old in February. There should still be plenty of productive years left for Ben, but he's not 22 anymore, when we could fantasize about our next decade or more of Steelers football with the blessing of an elite quarterback.
How long ago does 2007, Tomlin's first season seem? Not that long ago, right? That's the same amount of time we have between now and Ben being 35 years old. It will go by like a flash, trust me. I don't want to spend this last half-decade of Ben-centric Steelers football wallowing in the minuscule disappointments found at the fringes of a season that has seen them go 7-3. I don't want to spend it berating role players because they're role players, like every team's roster is filled out with. I don't want to spend it hurling insults at coaches simply because the results of their real-time decisions pale in comparison to those informed by hindsight.
A lot of these guys have overcome things I can't even imagine dealing with to sculpt amazing careers as some of the best guys in the world at what they do. Troy Polamalu's single mother sent her son to live with family in Oregon, fearing that he would end up in jail like one of his siblings. Max Starks grew up not knowing that his father was in actuality an NFL player, more than capable of providing the things that Max lacked. Ben Roethlisberger's mother was killed in a car accident when he was 8 years old. Ike Taylor was raised by his uncle after deciding in 7th grade that he was too much of a burden to his mother, who was raising three children as a single mom.
Now, stories like these aren't uncommon around the league. Far from it. But these are my guys, and so it matters. Does it mean they can't be criticized? No. Does it mean they can't be replaced by better players in the future? No. Does it mean they should all be beatified? No. But it's something I'll remember from here on out - for all the adversity this team overcomes to win games, it pales in comparison to the adversity that many of these guys overcame in their personal lives.
I can't remember a year where I was a huge fan of so many players on a Steelers' roster. There's almost no dead weight, and there are players at every position and every rung of the two-deep who are either proven contributors to playoff teams, or exciting youngsters ready to ascend to greater responsibility. There's no Clint Kriewaldt or Matt Kranchick to be lukewarm about. There's no Jamain Stephens or Ricardo Colclough, the highly-drafted rookies who can't seem to make an impact. There's no Chris Sullivans or Donnell Woolfords, free agents who proved to be worthless. This team is special, no matter the ultimate payoff.
Being a Steeler fan itself is something to be thankful about. As we were busy tearing apart the team that just went into Cincinnati and took care of business, Browns' fans were lamenting another loss in another horrifying fashion. And they're not even sated by years and years of success, which as Pittsburgh fans we believe to be our birthright. It's not a birthright, as those born before 1950 would certainly attest. And it's tenuous - there's no guarantee of continued success.
Now, I'm not asking people not to criticize. Shoot from the hip until you've emptied your clip for all I care. Hate Steeler players. Hate Steeler coaches. It's your right, and if that's what you enjoy, I won't begrudge you that enjoyment. Not all of us enjoy the same activity in the same way, and I would never tell someone that they should enjoy an activity in the same way that I do. Some of us like to be positive, believing that better things are yet to come. Others are careful not to build up expectations to avoid a crushing let down. I understand that. We're all different. Except for one team, which is why we're all here.
As for me, I'll be focused on enjoying the greatest hobby in the world - watching and following Steeler football - and I'll be doing it in my own way. At least until Hines Ward gets the snaps that I believe Emmanuel Sanders should be getting. Then, all bets are off, the venom reflexively priming itself in my fangs. But in the meantime during the bye week, I'm simply thankful to have been born a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and I can't wait until November 27th at 8:20PM. Believe.
1. The Steelers are a respectable 50% in the red zone this season, good for 15th in the league, which is all the more impressive considering that they don't have a Rob Gronkowski or a Plaxico Burress to lean on in close to get up to the 60% mark that the Patriots and Jets enjoy. What about Antonio Brown in the red zone? It seems illogical - he's only 5-9, usually about the same size as the guys who are covering him. But is there a better Steelers receiver when it comes to attacking the ball in the air? I don't think so. Brown's recent productivity isn't just noteworthy for the results, it's noteworthy for the difficulty of some of the catches he's been making. Now, he's had a few chances in the red zone the last couple of weeks and hasn't made the play on some slants he's run. Instead, I'd like to see him get in one on one matchups and have Ben throw the ball up to him in the corner. I have confidence that if it's a decent throw, he's coming down with it.
2. I wasn't overly impressed with Andy Dalton. He made a few nice throws, but I was more impressed with Colt McCoy's debut against the Steelers a few years ago, mainly because Dalton has some nice pieces in place, including a very good offensive line. McCoy didn't have much, but put up a bigger fight by making football plays. When it was time to make the plays that win games, Dalton didn't have it. That said, let's hope he plays lights-out against the Ravens.
3. If the Steelers get LaMarr Woodley and Emmanuel Sanders back in two weeks, they'll have an inactive list composed entirely of healthy scratches. You would have to go back to the early portion of last season to find a gameday inactive list with no injured Steelers sitting out.
4. Have the Steelers ever had a better pair of gunners than Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen? There was a Jeremy Kapinos punt in the 2nd quarter where Cortez Allen was held at the line, was held halfway down the field and he still made the play on Brandon Tate (who is a dangerous return man) unassisted.
5. I'm really excited for these last 6 weeks of the season. Despite a tough loss to Baltimore, the Steelers are a team on the upswing, and their best football lies ahead. And now, other AFC contenders are starting to suffer the kinds of injuries that the Steelers have already had to fight through. Rest up and recharge over the bye week, because there's going to be plenty to cheer for down the stretch.