1JANUARY 2009: Here's how Deshea Townsend described to me what it felt like to experience, from the inside, James Harrison's epic interception return in the Super Bowl against the Arizona Cardinals.
"I went from the lowest of the low to the highest you can get in sports in about one second on this play. We were in zero coverage, which means no help, so you know the ball is coming out hot, right away. The Cardinals lined up in a stacked formation with Larry Fitzgerald on the inside and Anquan Boldin on the outside, and when they crossed I got picked. So I'm chasing and pushing through and trying to see what's happening and in my mind I'm thinking my guy is wide open and that I just gave up a huge touchdown in the Super Bowl.
"Harrison was supposed to be blitzing. If he had rushed on that play that area is wide open and, boom, it's a touchdown. But he told me later he just felt like he couldn't get to Kurt Warner so he dropped back instead and Warner threw the ball right to him.
"When he caught it and we made eye contact I was like, 'give it to me, give it to me.' I'm a DB, we all do that after every interception. But his eyes were saying, 'hell no.' When he wouldn't give the ball to me, I took off looking to block somebody. All week in Tampa leading up to the game, coach Mike Tomlin kept telling us about how when he was the defensive backs coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers they returned two picks for scores in Super Bowl XXXVII. So he kept yelling all week, if we get a pick he wanted all 10 guys on somebody helping out. You get coaching tips like that all the time but to actually see it happen in the Super Bowl? Amazing.
"There were so many tiny little things like that. And they all had to happen exactly right. Warner was the first one to appear and I wanted to explode through him but he kinda jumped back so I had to guide him to the outside and luckily Deebo (that's what we call Harrison) cut inside. Boldin had the best chance at him but he ended up fighting with James Farrior and took himself out of the play. The tight end, Leonard Pope, was right behind us but he jumped and landed on Ike Taylor instead. I stayed on my feet through all that and, I didn't even know it, but that held up Fitzgerald and forced him to go to the outside, where he actually ran into a player standing on the Cardinals bench. If he doesn't get held up for that one extra split second, Fitzgerald makes the tackle at the 5-yard line instead of the goal line and it's just a long return, nothing more. At that point, a linebacker came flying in to make a block and his leg hit me in the chest, like a karate kick. Everything is going crazy. Your mind is racing. The noise is unreal. I watched the rest of the play from the ground, thinking, 'keep going, don't stop, make the end zone.'
"He made it. Now we're a part of history. It's not just one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history. It's also a pure example of Steelers football."
2AUGUST 2003: Ever wonder what it would be like to win the lottery and hire a band like Pearl Jam to play your annual backyard barbecue? That's about the only way I can describe one of the must-see events of NFL training camp: the Steelers' night practice held at a high school field in Latrobe, Pa.
You park in a gravel lot. The Steelers file out of yellow school buses. The smell of grass, hot dogs and Iron City in the air. Fans on rooftops and hanging from every inch of wood and metal bleachers. Gun-metal dusk skies. The crackle of the PA speakers and the crunch of shoulder pads and helmets. I know this has nothing to do with the playoffs, but the Steelers' night practice in Latrobe is truly one of the last places on earth where big-time sports mingles so easily and openly with small-town America.
3FEBRUARY 2002: At the NFL combine in Indianapolis, I sat down for a long talk with Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert, who gave me a rare look inside the team's tried-and-true method of roster building. In the era of parity, when draft order, schedule strength, free agency and the salary cap all conspire to prevent dynasties, the Steelers seem to return to the playoffs every season. They do this with a personnel blueprint nearly every franchise has tried to duplicate: by getting as many as 10 pairs of eyes on every draft prospect, they are able to pick exceptionally well, with few big mistakes, and restock their roster each fall with young, talented and cost-efficient players who perfectly fit their schemes.
4MARCH 2001: One of the Steelers' trademarks, at least from a front office standpoint, has been their ability to make tough personnel decisions, even when it comes to beloved players. Pittsburgh simply does not overpay for marquee free agents, but more importantly, I think, the Steelers don't allow emotional attachments to sway roster and salary-cap decisions -- this is a lot tougher than it sounds. Football is an emotional game, and to get players to lay it on the line for you, to sacrifice for the greater good, they first have to feel like the franchise has their back. But at the same time, you have to balance that with a cold, hard businesslike approach to the salary cap.
A perfect example of this is linebacker Levon Kirkland. A second-round pick out of Clemson in 1992, during nine seasons in Pittsburgh Kirkland became the heart and soul of the Steelers' defense. He made a couple of Pro Bowls and I still say, to this day, that he was the best player on the field in Super Bowl XXX -- and if the Steelers had beaten the Cowboys, he would have been the game's MVP. But when his cap hit outweighed his performance, the Steelers didn't hesitate, cutting him loose.
Before the Seattle Seahawks picked him up, I met with Kirkland at a Gold's Gym near Charlotte at a time when the pain and shock of his release was still fresh. Kirkland is built like a washing machine, a very intimidating 6-foot-1 and 275 pounds, but he was remarkably open and candid about the human side of the Steelers' rather cold, cut-and-dry approach to aging, expensive players.
- EnlargeAP Photo/George Widman
Levon Kirkland anchored the Blitzburgh defense.
He got the news while driving on the highway and had to pull over to the shoulder to let it all sink in. When I pushed him to describe what it felt like, he recalled the creepy scene from "Fatal Attraction" when Michael Douglas breaks it off with Glenn Close and she's just sitting on the floor of her apartment, seething and staring off into space while flicking a lamp switch back and forth from burning light to cold stark darkness.
I've seen him a few times around Charlotte since his playing career ended. The last time we bumped into each other he didn't say anything, but just re-enacted the scene from "Fatal Attraction:" face twisted in mock pain, a far-away stare in his eyes, mindlessly tugging that imaginary lamp cord -- on and off, on and off -- until we both cracked up.
But, to this day, I've never seen or heard a better description of what it's like to get tossed aside so cruelly by a team, a city and a franchise you gave your blood, sweat and tears to for a decade.
APRIL 2006: Still a bit groggy from the jet lag and, OK, one too many Feldschlosschens at the futbol match the day before inside Stade de Suisse, I tipped the room service guy five francs, poured myself a vat of espresso and clicked on the telly just in time to catch the lead story at the top of the hour on the Swiss equivalent of CNN.
With my back to the TV this is what I heard, " ... frauch-n-something ... David Fleming von ESPN ... "
Reporting for a story in ESPN The Magazine, I spent a week zig-zagging across Switzerland with Ben Roethlisberger and his family -- in a dizzying, engrossing whirlwind of fondue, French wine, breathtaking natural beauty, clocks, lederhosen, yodelers, Alphorns and Swiss hospitality sweeter than chocolate -- as the Steelers QB investigated his Swiss heritage.
Part of the trip was a tour, by scooter, around the amazing town of Bern, home to a magnificent clock tower that is the pride of the entire country. It is said that as a clerk nearby, Einstein kept time by the clock's chimes while working on his Theory of Relativity.
Anyway, long story short, while investigating the inner workings of the clock I somehow managed to get locked inside. Roethlisberger had gone out just before me so I yelled to him for help. He'll be discreet, I thought. He won't draw any extra attention. This won't turn into an international incident or anything.
And then, from the other side of the thick green door I heard, "Oh man, I think it's Fleming. Fleming's locked in the tower! Come back. We need a key! Sweet. Hey, wait, everybody get your cameras ready. Hee. Hee. Hee."
And so, this is how I came to be the lead news item on Swiss television. The footage of me getting released from the clock tower and sheepishly rejoining the group, my face as red as the Swiss flag itself, ran at the top of the hour, every hour, for a full day. It wouldn't have been so bad, I suppose, if at the end of the footage Ben hadn't turned to the Swiss TV camera and said, "Ladies and gentlemen of Switzerland, for the record, that's David Fleming of ESPN."
6JANUARY 1998: Weather and work conspired to keep me in Pittsburgh for 11 straight days between the Steelers' 7-6 win over the New England Patriots in the divisional playoffs and Pittsburgh's subsequent 24-21 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC title game. I'll admit that there were more than a few times when it felt like I was living inside the outtakes from "The Shining." But for the most part it was every bit the dream-come-true scenario: I gorged myself on room service, pay-per-view movies, Steelers practice, film study and the outstanding food, bars and live music on the South Side of the city. I also discovered that Pittsburgh is home to Mister Rogers and Andy Warhol (as well as Rusted Root). And by the eighth day, I was 20 pounds heavier, completely out of clean clothes and a big fan of the 'Burgh.
7JUNE 1998: I was living in New York at the time, but to give you an idea of what legendary Steelers center Dermontti Dawson is like, when I flew to Kentucky to interview him, he insisted on picking me up at the airport because he was worried I might get lost. Between 1988 and 2000, Dawson quietly ruled the NFL while elevating his position to another stratosphere, doing things with his rare combo of size, speed and smarts that most centers can still only dream of. To me, he is the epitome of what a Hall of Fame player should be: an ambassador of the game who absolutely dominated his position during the course of his career.
I'm not sure ever I've met a more talented, dominant, down-to-earth player. If I were a professional athlete, you'd have to drag me from the game kicking and screaming, but as soon as Dawson felt age and injuries diminished his performance, he walked away with no fanfare and zero regret. Looking for an interesting anecdote or something even remotely scandalous, at the end of our interview I insisted on meeting his pet Rottweiler, who was chained up in the garage with the kind of thick, steel cable you use to tow railroad cars. On cue, this massive, muscular mess of saliva, teeth and paws ran over, knocked me down, stood over me for a second and then licked my face until I needed a bath towel to dry off. Yeah, that was Dermontti's dog, all right.
8JANUARY 1995: By the time I found him down on the concrete turf of Three Rivers Stadium, after the San Diego Chargers had upset the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game, San Diego quarterback Stan Humphries was lying flat on his back, staring into the snowy gray sky above and screaming at the top of his lungs in celebration. Across the field, and on the opposite side of the spectrum, a limp-legged and dangerously distraught Steelers defensive back, Tim McKyer, who had given up the game-winning 43-yard TD pass to Tony Martin, had to be dragged off the field by teammates. During the Steelers' improbable run, it was the only time I saw McKyer with his mouth shut. See, the Steelers were in command, 13-3, late in the third quarter, and after a 15-year drought, this quirky, ragtag, loveable collection of players thought they were about to return Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl. Then Humphries went to work, throwing two long TD passes, and in the final two minutes the Chargers' defense somehow managed to turn the Steelers away with a remarkable goal-line stand. This one hurt -- bad. You could tell. It was as close to actual heartbreak for a team and a town as I've ever seen.
9JUNE 1995: During the offseason I spent a few days with Steelers All-Pro linebacker Kevin Greene at his modest home in Alabama, and what I remember the most was (1) the homemade chicken casserole we had for dinner and (2) the family portrait hanging in the basement that made Greene look like a member of the Brady Bunch -- only not quite as cool. Greene, with that Thor-like blond hair hanging out the back of his helmet, would go on to become one of the larger-than-life characters of the resurgent Blitzburgh defense, as well as the third-leading sack master of all time (with 160 "baggies," as he called them). A one-time semifinalist for the Hall of Fame, he is now the linebackers coach of the Green Bay Packers. And even though he threatened to hunt me down and twist me into a pretzel if I ever told anyone about that photo, I figure the statute of limitations has run out by now ... I hope.
- EnlargeJoseph Patronite/Getty Images
Kevin Greene was a dominant player for the Steelers.10JANUARY 1996: The Indianapolis Colts were trailing 20-16 with the ball at their 16 and little time left in the AFC Championship Game, so I figured it was safe to leave the Three Rivers press box and head down to the field to watch the postgame festivities. But, of course, by the time I worked my way under the stadium and out to the sideline, Indy QB Jim Harbaugh had the Cardiac Colts down to the Pittsburgh 29 with less than 10 seconds to play.
For the second year in a row, the Steelers' trip to the Super Bowl would come down to the final drive. Like Forrest Gump, I somehow positioned myself behind the photographers lined up on the right side of the southeast end zone. And sure enough, Harbaugh launched a high spiral to Aaron Bailey that was batted away by Randy Fuller at the last second, but not before time seemed to stand still as the ball almost came down to rest in the lap of another Colts receiver, who had been shoved down to the turf. I was literally 15 feet away as the Colts' receivers fumbled for the ball in a kind of dreamlike state before it bounced in and out of their hands and rolled to the ground. Game over.
The Steelers were back in the Super Bowl -- barely.
11OCTOBER 1997: Even on his best days, linebacker Greg Lloyd wasn't much of a talker. After the Steelers' exceptional scouting staff found him in the sixth round of the 1987 draft out of something called Fort Valley State, Lloyd, who would go on to become one of the greatest draft steals ever, took to wearing a T-shirt that read "I wasn't hired for my disposition." And by the time I caught up to Lloyd in the dark, crowded, crumbling locker room of Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, the once-dominant linebacker who gave Blitzburgh its nasty swagger had been struggling with a bum knee for more than a year and reporters, PR guys, even teammates warned me to give him a wide berth.
Earlier that year, in fact, at an American Bowl game in Dublin, Lloyd had called Irish people rude. He had flipped off a reporter, told another one to "eat s--- and die," threatened to place-kick another and had actually shoved a Russian television journalist working for a Pittsburgh station.
At that point in my life, however, I had already been cursed out by the best. I mean, you could teach an entire linguistics class based on the white-hot, rancid lava stream of explicative terms Reggie Jackson once filled my face with. So I stepped right up to him, introduced myself and asked Lloyd (did I mention he was a black belt, too) how he was doing.
And you know what he spat back at me?
"I'm doing fine, man," he said.
Actually, he wasn't. In 1994 he had 70 tackles, 10 sacks, one pick and five forced fumbles. He was everywhere, including the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro first team. I remember watching him in pregame warm-ups, the way he used to skip all the stretching and drills and just pace, back and forth, back and forth, like a caged animal waiting to pounce. Opponents used to call him Lloyd's of London because when you played him, you had better take out extra insurance.
But by the time I had caught up to him, he was a shell of his former self, jumping offside all the time to try to get an edge on the pass rush. I mention Lloyd because, as you watch the game next Sunday and hear everyone talking about where this Steelers defense might rank in history, don't forget the guy who put the bite back in Blitzburgh.
12NOVEMBER 2008: Here's what I wrote for a cover story on the Steelers' top-ranked defense.
"Walk inside the Steelers' training facility and you will find five Lombardi Trophies shimmering in a glass case outside the team's executive offices. But if you continue deeper into the building, and the heart of the franchise, you'll come across a lesser-known relic that's even more significant to this year's defense. It's a floor-to-ceiling black-and-white photo of the first points ever scored by Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl -- a safety by the Steel Curtain in a 16-6 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 12, 1975. At the bottom of the picture, Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert growls into the face mask of a prostrate and clearly frightened Fran Tarkenton, the Vikes' elusive quarterback who was supposed to be unstoppable. The picture is a reminder to all that when it comes to offense in the NFL, nothing can ever be considered invulnerable or innovative until it's survived the ultimate test -- the Pittsburgh D."
Thirty-six years later, the Steelers are still on top of the NFL and the outcome of the Super Bowl still comes down to that same theory: How Aaron Rodgers and the Packers deal with the Pittsburgh defense will, more than likely, determine the outcome of the game in Dallas.
As well as the next chapter in my seemingly never-ending Pittsburgh diary.