AFC Championship Game Day: Citizen Sportswriter Gets in the Press Box
Sunday January 27, 2002
I didn't have enough money to stay at the William Penn. The Holiday Inn Express 20 miles north in Cranberry Township was just as nice, especially considering I paid with accumulated Crowne Plaza points.
The total for this weekend is gasoline and last night's dinner with a couple...uh...a few Iron Cities, since the breakfast and lunch buffets will be free. A frugal member of the working press I am.
Info in the press media packet suggests I park near the William Penn, help myself to the food, and ride a bus from the hotel to Heinz Field.
Other info in the press media packet also suggests I quell my excitement because I'm relegated to watching this game close to the press box on television beside the buffet.
Traveling from Cranberry Township south on I-79, I bear left on the I-279 ramp. The skyline is at a distance in my windshield.
I walk again through the William Penn lobby. It is voluminous, decorated with mahogany, wool carpets, and expensive wallpaper. Beautiful.
Obviously, I have to get out of West Virginia more often.
I catch the elevator to the Monongahela Room on the 17th floor to join my fellow Working Press folks for the morning meal.
As expected, the breakfast buffet is standard Pittsburgh fare including eggs, fried potatoes, Italian sausage, and Polish sausage, beside which is a continental spread of danish and croissants and so on.
Why is this important? You can imagine the veteran Steelers and Patriots beat sportswriters see this table eight times in eight different NFL cities. If it's Sunday, this must be a bagel.
Fortunately, nine times most of them get to have breakfast at home. They do have to get weary of road, though.
Buses leave for the stadium starting at 9:00 a.m. and then every 30 minutes afterward. After picking through the food, saving myself for the stadium buffet, I stand on the street corner awaiting the 10:00 motor coach.
The bus driver pulls onto the street, five minutes late, with police escort. There are around thirteen of us in here, and, it's not bad. Nice interior, clean, no stains, not like the buses one would expect.
A strange thing happens. A group of perhaps two dozen folks walking down the sidewalk in Steeler fan gear sees our bus and lets out ear-splitting cheers, spinning their Terrible Towels and yelling things like "Get 'em!" and "Kick Patriot ass!"
They, apparently, think we're the team. I think it's hilarious. The gaggle of writers across the aisle thinks nothing of it and continue to talk shop.
That's the difference. I'm ecstatic to be a sportswriter for a weekend, and I can barely contain it. My fellow sportswriters on the bus are professionals, going about their business as any surgeon, attorney, or certified public accountant would.
And, we're commuting to our office.
This is the maiden season for Heinz Field. The stadium opens up to the Allegheny River—one of the three rivers for which Heinz's predecesor was named—and extends away from the Allegheny in a horseshoe.
The open end of Heinz has created problems for kickers and punters nearby. I'm sure I'll be writing more about this later.
Thousands and thousands of Steeler fans, and perhaps a hundred Patriot fans who are risking their lives, are at the parties in the east parking lots. Man, I love to tailgate.
However, that desire to have wings and Iron City has been overcome by my desire to find out if I have what it takes to be a sportswriter.
The driver motors past those hardcore fans, then along the open end of Heinz and around the turn to the west entrance to the stadium. I'm the last to exit the bus.
Writers are in a loose queue walking along a wide sidewalk toward a double glass door. I follow. The weather is unseasonably warm, with sunny skies and a temperature around the mid 50s.
I'm wearing a blue oxford shirt, white denim pants, Bass weejuns, and a gray herringbone wool sportcoat. After looking around since the breakfast buffet, I have ascertained I'm dressed appropriately. It's a good thing to fit in.
There are ropes strung along the edges of the sidewalk with more than 20 people behind each rope. Several are applauding, mildly, like it's a golf tournament. I guess they're waiting for Rick Reilly to appear.
We enter the doors to an elevator awaiting us. The west wall of Heinz extends up maybe 12 stories. The doors slide closed, and the elevator ride is about 20 seconds with writers packed in like Spam.
The car stops, and the doors slide open. I pile out and, as a baby goose would, follow everyone else to the left.
I find it interesting that the carpet is of industrial office grade and the walls are stark white. Thinking this will improve as I get closer to Hallowed Ground, I turn right and discover that it doesn't. White walls, gray carpeting, photos of football scenes and personalities all hung too high surround me.
Then, I don't care, because to my left are the half-dozen stairsteps that lead you to the press box.
Too bad I'll never see it. Oh, what the hell? I chance it and climb up to take a look.
There are maybe five tiers of writers sitting in chairs at a common desk on each tier, each desk possibly 20 yards long. An enormous window is in front of the writers, with a football field on the other side of that window.
I become paranoid and leave my press box experience at that.
It's an hour until kickoff. I staked my seat at a table close to the disappointing heavy hors d'oeuvres and sandwich buffet and directly in front of seven of the televisions. I pull a legal pad and a pen out of my satchel and work on my thoughts for the keys to the game:
Steelers: win time of possession battle.
Steelers: neutralize special teams matchups. This means no screw ups on punt coverage and field goals like they've been doing all season. Watch Troy Brown like a hawk.
Steelers: use 3-4 defensive set to rattle the young Tom Brady.
Steelers: get Jerome Bettis running and playing hurt.
Steelers: get Plaxico Burriss involved.
Steelers: no Kordell Stewart mind-fog interceptions.
Steelers: win turnover battle.
I have to pace myself, so I stand and walk to the west window.
From there, I see the Carnegie Science Center we used to visit with our daughters before they already knew everything. Behind the Science Center is the Ohio River. South of the Ohio is the Monongahela River. There are three of them.
I think of thousands of years past, during which early man navigated the confluence, claiming women and food and property, joining forces with others, and fighting to the death to protect from other forces what was rightfully theirs.
Sounds like football.
Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 pm.
I return to my chair. Three men have sat down near it, two across the table and one beside me.
"It's too crowded in there," the guy beside me says, pointing to the press box. "They've given me a high chair, for Chissake! I'm staying in here near the food."
Wow. I pounce.
Turning to the guy, I say, "I'll trade this for your high chair."
Sensing I am a raw rookie, he says, "Let's go."
I follow him to the press box, climb the stairs behind him, and turn left. Three high chairs down is mine.
"This fine?" he asks.
We trade credentials and shake hands. He disappears.
Next: The Game
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