It is a certainty that during Super Bowl XLV, sportscasters will reference the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 37-36 victory against the Green Bay Packers at Heinz Field last season. And technically, that was the first time star Packers linebacker Clay Matthews III ever faced the Steelers.
Back in 1996, the friendly Bleacher Reporter author of this piece was a sports talk show host in East Tennessee and, quite frankly, feeling out of place. I longed to be back in Pittsburgh, covering the sports there, especially the defending AFC Champion Steelers. As such, I often drove back to Pittsburgh on my days off to watch the Steelers, a 14-hour round trip.
But midway through the season, Pittsburgh was to play the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome, cutting potential round-trip commuting time by five hours. I was able to secure a press credential for the game and set about ready to seek answers and sound clips for a “What’s Wrong With the Falcons?” piece.
After all, Atlanta was 0-7 after making the playoffs the year before and, since years before the Falcons had their training camp at East Tennessee State University, I theorized there would be fan interest in such a topic.
The hopes of making a contact in the press box that could potentially help me return to Pittsburgh also crossed my mind.
But while driving to the stadium, I was struck by how many Steelers fans I saw walking throughout Atlanta as compared to Falcons fans. While I was hardly surprised at the sea of black and gold I saw walking through the streets. Steelers fans are all over and travel as well as any team in the NFL, especially the year following a Super Bowl appearance and at a visiting venue not known for extensive fan support for their team. But I was struck by the lack of anyone wearing Falcons gear.
I spotted one lady wearing a modest, grey Falcons sweatshirt on one street corner, but otherwise, nothing.
True, a winless record hardly breeds fan loyalty, but there would still be thousands of fans who figured to be regulars at the Georgia Dome, and one would think they’d be wearing their team’s colors. However, Atlanta was barren in its support for their struggling team.
Finally, turning around one street corner at a brisk pace, were a group of four young boys and their mother. These boys all were wearing No. 57 Falcons jerseys, the number of veteran linebacker Clay Matthews. I thought it was a strange choice for relatively young fans to wear Matthews' number, after all he was just ending his career with the Falcons after starring for so long with the Cleveland Browns.
But then again, the Falcons had just lost their starting quarterback, Jeff George, in a bitter feud with soon-to-be-departed head coach June Jones and Deion Sanders had departed for greener pastures two years before. It wasn’t as if young Falcons fans had a select group of known stars to buy jerseys of at that time, so Matthews probably made as much sense as any other player.
Once inside, I witnessed an exciting 20-17 Steelers victory, won on a Norm Johnson field goal as time expired.
Memories of the game include sitting next to Atlanta media types who were far more interested in discussing how the Atlanta Braves had lost the World Series the night before than what the Falcons were doing on the field, being too nervous to talk to Myron Cope when I saw him standing in line to get a hot dog at halftime (I would later overcome this fear and have some very nice conversations with the legendary sportscaster) and Falcons quarterback Bobby Hebert calling the Steelers the “America’s Team of the AFC” in the locker room after the game due to the fact Pittsburgh fans outnumbered Atlanta rooters that day.
Before entering the locker room, standing in a tunnel in the bowels of the Georgia Dome, I started a conversation with then-Falcons color commentator Bill Fralic (who, for the record, denied ever speaking ill of Iron City Beer while he played at Pitt) when I then saw, walking down the corridor heading to the locker room in full uniform with four little boys in tow, No. 57 himself, Clay Matthews.
And the four little boys were the same ones I'd seen before wearing No. 57 themselves.
"Daddy, Daddy!" they cried out, furiously trying to get their father's attention, as if they wanted to pester him for a few dollars to hit the concession stand before it closed or talk to him at that instant about some matter of otherwise dire importance.
The senior Matthews, to his credit, kept his cool. He continued to walk at a brisk pace to the locker room while giving his sons as much attention as he could, but also letting them know firmly that their daddy could not talk to them at this time in a firm, yet not angry, tone.
One of those boys was, of course, Clay Matthews III.
I've often thought about that scene. What was Matthews thinking as his boys surrounded him, knowing he was ending his career on a hopelessly lost team, yet still somehow keeping his dignity about him and being the good father only a few minutes after suffering a heart breaking defeat? How did Clay III and his brothers and/or friends get access to the stadium tunnels?
Did they really watch the game (they hardly seemed to be in sad states after yet another Falcons loss)? What WAS the pressing need for their father's attention, anyway?
Suffice to say, however, that 15 years later, playing in the Super Bowl his father never could reach, the roles of father and son figure to be reversed.
I just hope, this time, Clay III is allowed in the Packers' locker room after the Super Bowl.