Terrible Towel Memoirs: Being a Pittsburgh Steeler Fan Living in New England

Mike StangerCorrespondent IMarch 28, 2011

27 Jan 2002:  Hines Wards #86 of the Pittsburgh Steeler sits on the bench during the closing moments of the AFC  Championship Game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Patriots won 24-17. Digital Image. Mandatory Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

"Hell is other people."

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote those words in his play No Exit.

However, Sartre’s words are too non-specific for me.  In my worldview, Hell is being a Pittsburgh Steeler fan in New England.

Allow me to elaborate.

Several years ago, while still living in Pittsburgh, I visited a friend in Massachusetts.  The purpose of my trip was twofold: Do a reconnaissance mission of the area for a potential move and attend a football game between the Steelers and Patriots at Foxboro Stadium (the worst football stadium, ever).

The visit was a double success: I fell in love with the New England region and the Steelers won. Within a year, I became a resident of Massachusetts.

Unfortunately for me, moving to New England from Pittsburgh somehow disrupted the space-time continuum, placing me in my own football fan hell.  I became like a character in No Exit, being led to my room, completely unaware of my fate of eternal damnation.


My first few years living in New England were uneventful.  At the time, both the Steelers and the Patriots were not very good.  Furthermore, the Patriots had just hired Bill Belichick to be their head coach. 

I knew of Belichick from his unsuccessful years in Cleveland and felt that this was a positive for any Steeler fan living in New England.  With Belichick at the helm, I believed that the Patriots were destined for mediocrity and would not be of any threat to the Steelers, allowing me to enjoy my new residence.

Little did I realize that Belichick and Tom Brady would amalgamate into Beelzebub incarnate. 

Belichick and Brady—My Tormentors

The Steelers returned to elite status in 2001.  They finished the season 13-3, led by a league-leading rushing attack and a strong defense.  Seeded number one in the conference, the Steelers seemed poised for a Super Bowl run.  They crushed the Ravens in their first playoff game.

No matter who they played in the AFC Championship Game, I thought, the Steelers would win and make it to the Super Bowl.

Oh, how the football gods laughed at my hubris! 

My loyalty to my beloved Steelers blinded me to the fairytale unfolding right under my nose in a playoff game in New England, where a bizarre “tuck rule” allowed the Patriots to live on to defeat the Raiders.

I should have seen the writing on the wall, but I was young and foolish then, not aware of the alignment of the cosmos.  The Steelers never had a chance against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

The game played out like a Greek epic poem.  When Tom Brady got hurt early in the game, the tragic figure, Drew Bledsoe, returned for redemption, leading the Patriots to a score.

In the end, the mighty Steelers fell hard: 24-17.

How did this happen, another AFC Championship loss in Pittsburgh?  This one cut deep to the bone because I was behind enemy lines. 

Two weeks later, I was probably one of the few people outside of St. Louis that was rooting for the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.  It made no difference.  The New England Patriots—Destiny’s Darlings—poured salt on my wounds.

And so my tortured existence in New England began.

The foul taste of the AFC Championship game had barely cleared my palate when the first week of the 2002 NFL season arrived.  The Steelers opposed the New England Patriots in brand-new Gillette Stadium.  It was the first regular season football game played there.

Fireworks took place before and during the game—at least on the Patriots' side of it.

It proved to be no contest.  Before I could vomit out the sickness I felt in my stomach, the Patriots were leading 27-7 in the third quarter.  I stopped watching. 

It was slowly becoming evident that Belichick was no longer the same man who coached in Cleveland.  He was proving to be a superior coach to Bill Cowher.

The Anguish Continues

Months after watching the Patriots won a Super Bowl in 2003, I saw a glimmer of hope shine through the darkness. The Steelers were playing well in 2004 under rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  But, the Patriots were coming into Pittsburgh undefeated, riding an NFL record 21-game winning streak.

It was Halloween.  I offered up my autographed Lewis Lipps jersey to whatever pagan god would accept it.  One did.  The Steelers handed the Patriots their first loss of the season and snapped the 21-game winning streak.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t learned my lesson.

Later, in the playoffs, New England pounded Pittsburgh.  Roethlisberger looked out of his league and the defense had no answer for Brady and Company.

Needing an outlet for my frustration, I went outside and shoveled the 20 feet of snow that had fallen during the day.

I called off work the next day.

The 2005 regular season matchup between the two teams brought more disappointment.  The Steelers took the lead early in the game, but as the game progressed, I could sense their sphincter muscles tightening. 

The coup de grace came when Antwaan Randle El completely lost his mind and attempted a lateral inside the Patriots’ 10-yard line.  The ball flopped around until the Patriots recovered.  I was convinced that Randle El was a victim of demonic possession.

The game ended on an Adam Vinatieri field goal.

I called off work the next day.

The 2005 season ended on a high note, with the Steelers winning Super Bowl XL.  As joyous of an occasion as this was, I still felt a slight emptiness.  The Steelers won without having to face the Patriots in the playoffs. 

Patriot fans were very adamant about pointing this little fact out to me.

Different Head Coach, Same Results

Bill Cowher called it quits after the 2006 season, making way for little-known Mike Tomlin.  His youth and energy was much needed, just as Cowher’s was in 1992.

Yet, when it came to playing the Patriots, the end product looked disappointingly familiar.

The Patriots steamrolled their way through the 2007 season, making every opponent look like a high school Homecoming Game cream puff.   I dreaded seeing them play Pittsburgh.

Although the Steelers had a good record going into the game, 9-3, it was a bit deceiving.  In the prior few weeks, they lost to the hapless Jets in overtime, 19-16, and struggled mightily in a win under cow-pasture conditions against the winless Dolphins, 3-0. 

Clearly, the team was struggling going into the game against the undefeated Patriots.  That didn’t stop me from having delusions of grandeur.  I envisioned a Steelers’ victory in an overtime squeaker, sending the Pats reeling for the rest of the season.

I was such a fool. 

Aside from the teams moving in opposite directions—with the Steelers going the wrong way—Pittsburgh was without both starting safeties going into a game against a record-setting passing offense.  To compound the bleakness of the situation, Anthony Smith, the replacement for starter Ryan Clark, was goaded into predicting a win.

O Fortuna!

The game was teasingly close at halftime, 17-13.  However, the Patriots' rage was unleashed in the second half.  They scored 17 unanswered points, with the nail in the coffin coming in the form of a gadget play touchdown pass that fooled most of the Steelers, including the failed prognosticator Smith, who blew his coverage assignment.   

Another game against the Patriots; another humiliating defeat.

Yes, I called off work the next day.

The 2008 season provided only temporary relief.  Matt Cassel played admirably throughout the season in Tom Brady’s stead. 

However, against the Steelers that year, Cassel looked more like a backup college quarterback than an adequate replacement for Brady.  He had two interceptions and a fumble, as the Patriots finished with an uncharacteristic five-turnover game.

The Steelers romped 33-10 and I went to work the next day wearing a Steeler shirt.

“Big deal,” my co-workers huffed.  “They didn’t beat Brady.”

Ugh!  This shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did.

The Steelers finished the season with an exciting victory against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, 27-23.  That same emptiness filled me.  The Steelers won the Super Bowl, even beating the Patriots during the regular season, but the Patriots were sans Tom Brady.

I was unfulfilled.

The 2010 regular season provided the opportunity for the Steelers to beat the Patriots with Tom Brady.  In my mind, here was a chance for the Steelers to pound the Patriots without an imaginary asterisk.

Brady was flawless.  The Patriots routed the Steelers in a game that wasn’t nearly a close as the score and the score wasn’t even that close, 39-26.

There it was again, that pang of nausea.  It was exacerbated by the fact that my wife forced me into going to work the next day.

“Be a man!” she barked.  I didn’t want to be a man—I wanted to be a pathetic, petulant child. 

Of course, she won.

At work the next day, my co-workers gave no quarter.  Their cruelness was only surpassed by my anger at the Steelers.  Lashing out on Facebook, I called for Arians to be fired and LeBeau to retire.  I wanted the entire team executed.

Fortunately, nobody paid attention and life went on.

Even in times of elation in 2010, I suffered.  For the first week leading up to Super Bowl XLV, I had to listen to the local sports radio stations berate the Steelers and their fans.

Two local hosts were particularly harsh.  Mike Felger called Steeler fans “insufferable” and Gerry Callahan bashed Roethlisberger on the air and in print.

I couldn’t take it.  For the second week before the Super Bowl, I boycotted sports radio.  It was a long week.

The Super Bowl ended in disappointment.  The Steelers lost with Roethlisberger playing poorly.  Callahan was in his glory. 

Once again, my co-workers taunted me, but with less gusto.  They were starting to lose interest.  It was like beating a wounded animal. 


Truthfully, I do not look forward to the upcoming NFL season, assuming there is one. 


Upon the horizon in 2011—like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation—lie the Patriots.  They come to lay waste to what is left of my pride.

Indeed, my hyperbole is no without merit.  The Steelers will have an aging defense facing a young, explosive Patriot offense.  The game has all the ingredients for another bitter slice of humble pie.

Now, many Steeler fans may not appreciate my cynicism.  Some might say that I’m not a true fan.

To them, I have nothing to offer but my psychological scars—scars untreated and left to the elements of an unkind land.

No, I am a Steeler fan, one living in a private hell.  Work and family keep me locked in New England, where I can only cry into my Terrible Towel.  Like the characters in Sartre’s play, I have no exit.


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