I used to call the months between the end of the college basketball season and the opening of NFL training camps as “The Sports Void” because I’m not a tremendous hockey or baseball fan. It hasn’t been that bad of late, with both the Penguins and Pirates fielding competitive teams over the past two years, but the pleasure in the home team winning more than they lose is not the same as the passionate fanaticism I feel for my favorites.
The local catchphrase is: It’s a ‘burgh thing, you wouldn’t understand, and a lot of people don’t. I caught it from my grandmother, who had a chronic case, through my mother, who seems to have a limited immunity. I was pleased, when I met my wife, to find she also was a carrier–no guilt from infecting her. The jury is still out on my children who, with a rigorous academic load and their own athletic endeavors to take up their time, often find Sundays to be their only hope of free time during the fall and winter. But it’s in them. They were toddlers when the Steelers cut Kordell Stewart and I had to break the news. Their tears broke my heart…but a few years later, when a new quarterback, and a new roster won the Super Bowl, they joined us driving through the streets after the game, honking the horn, high-fiving drunken college students in the street, and having our “Steel Nation” flag from the back seat of the car.
In many ways it’s a new team–only a hand full of players who were on the team two years ago are returning, the natural result of players aging combined with a pair of consecutive mediocre seasons. The young guys are the old guys now, and the new young guys are a mystery. At this point in the pre-season, hopes are high, every team a contender, and as much as we look towards wins and losses a lot of us are hooked by compelling “small” individual stories.
I’m cheering for 3rd year middle linebacker Sean Spence. When Spence arrived 2 seasons ago, a slightly undersized player whose quickness and intelligence was reputed to be more than enough to compensate for his size. He quickly distinguished himself on defense and had an excellent shot to replace the venerated James Farrior, one of the bulwarks of the team. It never happened. Early in his first pre-season game, Spence hyper-extended his knee, tearing all major ligaments, dislocating his kneecap, and sustaining nerve damage. The question was not “will he play football again,” but “will he walk without a serious limp?”
Two hard years of rehabilitation later and Spence is not just walking, he is back in camp and looking to carve a place for himself in the “new” Steelers defense and create some interesting dilemma for the coaches. The Steelers have used high picks on heralded linebackers in the past two drafts, looking to replace aged long-time starters Larry Foote and David Woodley, who could no longer keep the pace. Spence will be competing with this year’s first round draft pick, Ryan Shazier, for the spot beside Lawrence Timmons, one of the best in the game. If he succeeds in regaining the ground he lost, and the other young players establish themselves, the Steelers will have one the of the best young linebacking corps in the league. It’s exciting.
Of course, as far as I’m concerned, Spence has already won. The effort and determination it has taken for him to overcome an injury that has left other people crippled for life boggles the mind–forget about reaching the level where he can actually compete at an NFL level practice. This also speaks well of the Steelers, who had Spence’s back and kept him on the roster for two years when most teams would have cut their losses, arranged for an injury settlement, and moved on. That wasn’t cheap, but it’s what we’ve come to expect from the team, and why many of us who grew up in the region feel so strongly about the Black and Gold. In an age of sports owners like Dan Snyder of the Redskins, or the Clippers’ Donald Sterling, it is refreshing to see “the Steelers way” in effect–a professional sports team run like it’s part family business, part community asset.
Finally, I lifted these from another page, to give an indication of how most Steelers fans are thinking: