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It was raining and blustery before the Chiefs-Steelers Monday-night game a few weeks ago, and the great white tarps on the Heinz Field turf were billowing and swallowing groundskeepers who were struggling to roll them up. From the press box, a vivid tableau. But impersonal. Thirty-nine years ago I knew the head groundskeeper, Steve (Dirt) Dinardo, who once, while the players were getting their keys at a hotel in San Diego, came up behind Mean Joe Greene and told him, in drastically impolitic terms, that he would have to stay in Tijuana. This was when Greene was as forbidding a presence as his nickname implied. He whirled, saw it was Dirt and just laughed.
You had to know Dirt. He liked to drive his Zamboni over loose balls on the field, pooping them around to the exasperation of Jackie Hart, the field manager. Hart himself once slugged Art Rooney Jr., a son of the owner and then the Steelers' head of scouting. Jackie's employment status was unaffected. Artie did throw him into a laundry hamper.
Aw, I'm waxing nostalgic already—and those tarps brought to mind two other stories I heard while hanging around the Steelers in the 1970s. Once, when the Rooneys' friend Squawker Mullen was getting the worst of it from a carnival boxer, various family members engaged the boxer and his carny friends in a "Hey, Rube" that brought down the tent and raged on lumpily under folds of canvas. Then there was the game in Green Bay in which Andy Russell, the Steelers linebacker, saw a fired-up Ray Nitschke dive, miss a tackle and skid headfirst under a sideline tarp. You could see big bulges, Andy said, where the Packers linebacker was kicking and heaving.
Why was I at the Chiefs-Steelers game? Well, Immaculate Reception Day is just around the corner. Usually I observe the anniversary of Franco Harris's game-ending 60-yard deflected-pass touchdown casually, by watching it six or eight times on YouTube while listening to "Pittsburgh Steelers Polka" by Jimmy Psihoulis. But this Dec. 23 is the 40th anniversary of that great turning point in Steelers history. Sure, there's a statue in Pittsburgh International Airport of Franco snagging the ball, and surveyors have determined the exact spot on the site of the old Three Rivers Stadium where he snagged it. (There will be a marker, and a ceremony.) But something more was called for. So my son, Kirven, and I made a pilgrimage to Pittsburgh. He flew in for the Chiefs and Ravens games, and I stayed through the intervening week to see if I could get back in touch with the Steelers.
The Immaculate Reception—which NFL Films and SI have deemed the greatest play of all time—gave the Steelers the first playoff victory in their history. It also began Kirven's and my 40-year adherence to, and through, the Steelers. He was four back in 1972, and I was 31. We were watching on TV. When Harris beat the last Oakland defender, cornerback Jimmy Warren, into the end zone, I tossed Kirven into the air. No question now, this was the team to be embedded with.
I was a staff writer at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Andre Laguerre, the managing editor, had got the notion that I should hang out with an NFL team for the 1973 season, from training camp through the following year's draft. The Immaculate Reception confirmed my choice of the Steelers. They hadn't been overexposed. They looked to be on the way up. Their town was rich (little did I know) in lore.
And I was divorced. My kids were living mostly with their mother because I traveled so much already. Kirven might have grown up hating the Steelers because of the year his father spent so much more time with them than with him. But he visited me in Pittsburgh. He attended Saturday practice, which was open to relatives and guests back then, and although he was annoyed, at age five, that no one in uniform would chase him, he became a fierce, lifelong Steelers fan. That's one reason I've continued to love the team for all these years.
The Steelers' '73 season ended in the first round of the playoffs. I wrote a book on that team, About Three Bricks Shy of a Load. The next year the Steelers won the Super Bowl. They won three more in the next five seasons. I kept going back to cover them and eventually to update the book through the 1980s. Kirven, who after '73 lived with me half the time or more, often came along. Late one night when he was maybe seven, we were at the house of Steelers center Ray Mansfield. I'd heard that somebody had just been traded to the Bengals, but I was fuzzy on who it was. So was Ray. Not even looking up from the Mansfield family dog, on whom I had thought he was asleep, Kirven said, "Coy Bacon." Already he was not only a much better athlete than I but also a more serious football fan.
And a truer Steelers fan. "My love of the Steelers might be the purest thing in my life, just because it's always been there and it's so unquestioned," says Kirven, who develops reality shows in New York City and used to edit video for the NFL Network. "I love the Steelers like a golden retriever loves a tennis ball."
Except that the retriever is not bound by the heartstrings to any particular ball. When a tennis ball goes bad, as the Steelers do from time to time, the retriever doesn't howl, "We suck!"