By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com
PITTSBURGH (CBS 2) — For all of its glitz and glamour, the new Meadowlands Stadium will never be Heinz Field — even if the Jets or Giants become the best team in football for an extended period of time. Steelers Nation has us over a barrel. I know. I saw it myself first hand. I may never be the same.
The truth is you’d be hard-pressed to find any stadium in any sport as intimidating as Heinz. At least not in January with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake.
Everything you’ve heard about Pittsburgh and its love for its football team is true. But since we live in a talk is cheap society, the only way to know for sure is to visit the Steel City and see for yourself.
So I attended the AFC Championship game on Sunday, totally mindful of the city’s reputation for being unforgiving to opposing fans. But as I sit here and type away following the 400-mile trip back to the tri-state area on Monday (it took much of the six-hour trip to get the feeling back in my fingers), I can tell you without hesitation that Pittsburgh’s reputation and love for all things gold and black is very much for real.
It’s in your face and it’s relentless.
You’ve heard stories about the “Black Hole” in Oakland and the hatred Philadelphia fans have for basically everyone, including their very own teams and players. You’ve seen the fans up in Boston do a number on Yankees fans and the folks out in Foxborough lay into Jets supporters. Everyone by now is aware of what a trip to the Bronx is like, especially in October.
Trust me, they don’t hold a candle to the ferocity of Pittsburgh fans.
It didn’t really matter that the Jets beat the Steelers at Heinz back in Week 15. It didn’t matter that the Jets were flying high after having beaten both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in their houses the previous two weeks. None of it made any difference to the Steelers fan whatsoever.
That’s because, to a man and woman, the people of Steelers Nation know that at home in the playoffs their team is better than everyone else, period. They carry themselves in a way that pushes the envelope of sportsmanship to the edge, but never quite oversteps the imaginary boundaries. Only 312,000 people live in Pittsburgh, but on game day all 312,000 are a united front against all enemies — foreign, domestic, you name it.
To put it simply, the city of Pittsburgh may very well be the single greatest homefield advantage anywhere in professional sports. We, as Jets fans, had — or at least thought we had — strength in numbers. Looking back, it’s real easy to understand why we totally missed the boat on that one.
It started about 50 miles west along I-76. Every last road sign warned us about a lot more than slippery roads. “GO STEELERS” was flashing on every last sign. Every car had a Steelers flag or decal. People at rest stops looked at us funny, as if to say “Oh boy, fresh meat.”
We were eventually greeted with a rather spectacular sight at night. Sitting at the base of a mountain lies the NFL’s model city. Sure, it also has the Pirates and Penguins — and of course the latter is rather tremendous in its own right — but make no mistake, Pittsburgh is football country. Stanley Cup championships and dreams of a .500 season in baseball are merely just distractions until football season starts.
We got to our hotel, which was located about three miles from Heinz, and it took about 12 seconds for the assault to begin. We walked into the lobby. We weren’t even wearing Jets gear and they knew. I immediately envisioned my credit card being charged double or triple.
Fans just started pointing and snickering. The guy at the registration desk did his best not to laugh at us. The Penguins were on the TV playing the Hurricanes. Only the presence of a few foreigners from New York could tear their eyes away from the screen. And even then it was just for a second. They shot their looks of death, shook their heads in disgust and then went back to watching the game.
Saturday night in Pittsburgh was an event. Through Twitter we put together a group of about 20 Jets fans and we decided to try our luck on Carson Street, or the other official place where opposing fans go to get ridiculed. Upon entering “Jack’s,” more of a college bar where trouble wouldn’t need much of an invitation, I saw near-retirement age men wearing the types of Mark Sanchez T-shirts that decorum prevents me from describing here. We did take solace, however, in the fact that beer prices were very manageable. I will take to the grave the opinion that the bartenders and bouncers only allowed us to comandeer their establishment because our green, in a lot of cases, was more plentiful than what they were used to receiving.
There were no incidents to speak of, but there was plenty rewriting of the Jets’ main chant. You can probably imagine what was said. Again, it was sort of par for the course, but what made it insane was it never stopped. You’d think the Jets were the worst team in the league with the way the Pittsburgh people were talking. So what if the Jets won there a month ago. The stakes were higher now and the cream always rises to the top in Pittsburgh, they said. It most certainly did as we all saw.
After several hours of battling the hometown fans we worked our way over to Primanti Bros., arguably the greatest sandwich place in North America. It’s so good it’s open 24 hours a day. The guys working there laughed at us initially, but the New York cash roll rule was still in play so they did their best to behave, along the way telling us how lucky we were to get there when we did. Why? Because unbeknownst to us we had arrived before last call at the bars. If we had shown up 45 minutes later we would’ve been in the deep end of the pool with about 200 sharks.
We spent the better part of Sunday preparing for what we thought would be the Jets’ coronation from team on the cusp of greatness to one that would finally end the 42-year drought between Super Bowl appearances. We dressed for the bitterly cold temperatures cautiously, trying to imagine how the players would go about their business in the locker room. I mean I literally asked my buddy Dom for a roll of tape. The only thing missing was John Facenda’s voice over an NFL soundtrack playing in the background
Again, we were foolish. We were noobs. We were stupid enough to listen to our hearts.
The fine people at JetNation.com put together a massive tailgate about a half-mile from Heinz for any Jets fan that survived Saturday night. We had a ton of people. We ate like kings not knowing it was really a last supper of sorts. No matter how well we thought we dressed for the elements we quickly found out that Pittsburgh is really the North Pole and that we’d actually slept through our trips and been unaware that we took a detour through the Bermuda Triangle.
It was a rather standard tailgate until around 5:30 p.m. when we all decided to head to Heinz. This is where things really got intense. You have to walk that half-mile and for our group it was more like walking death row. I kid you not. Fans of all ages in our faces, some throwing snowballs. Profanity brought up to an art form. Old ladies giving us the evil eye. Children giving us the finger. College-age males railing away on us like we tried to dance with their dates.
It was crazy.
At most NFL stadiums it’s now an ordeal to get inside. Security is rightfully a very slow, arduous process so, like in the image shown above, you’re often packed in tight like sardines. At the Meadowlands, no problem. Someone will say something funny and it will help pass the time. But at Heinz? Ha. Did I mention before how much they don’t like Sanchez? Well, add Rex Ryan to that list as well. It almost felt as if I was Rex and my buddy was Sanchez and the guy next to him was Antonio Cromartie.
Once inside it was get a beer or go to the bathroom at your own risk. Teaming up was a must, not that it would have made much difference if someone in gold and black or green and white had had too much to drink. The bathrooms were an event. You’re waiting on line and you have a choice to make. Do your business now and deal with the wrath or be uncomfortable for a while. Either way, you were going to be uncomfortable.
The upper deck of the north end zone at Heinz, the “Lost” island of western Pennsylvania, as I like to think of it, was just madness. You sit down, the fans are on you. God forbid you cheered once, you were ducking a flying beer. We just prayed Sanchez or the defense could find a way to get the Jets on the board early. Of course, that didn’t happen and by the time it was 17-0 in the second quarter we knew only a true act of NFL Jesus was going to spare us the true humiliation that we had yet to experience.
The Jets did salvage what was left of our lives with a spirited and frantic comeback in the second half, but, alas, Jets Nation was left wondering if Year 43 of the wait would be the final year. The abuse died down a bit as we dispersed following the final gun, mostly because the Steelers faithful had shifted their hatred of the puny Jets to the mighty Packers. We were left to fend for ourselves on the three-mile trek back to where we would lay our heads. Some guys suggested going out to a bar to drown in our sorrows, but I knew somehow that would be a bad idea so we, for sake of a better term, jetted to the relative safety of our hotel.
The six-hour drive home on Monday was filled with your typical lamenting of what could’ve been. Luckily for me my travel partners were diehard Jets fans with good heads on their shoulders and lots of perspective. We got over it pretty quickly — the loss, that is.
What we will always take with us is the beatdown we received in the belly of the beast.
As the sun set Monday evening we pulled up alongside the new Meadowlands Stadium. One of my buddies laughed while announcing we had come full circle.
Not me, I thought to myself. Part of me died in Pittsburgh.
And those ravenous fans dragged what was left of my soul through the streets.
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