As anyone who knows me can tell you, I love the Patriots like I love my country: In a completely biased, irrational, jingoistic, my-football-team-right-or-wrong, star-spangled championship banner-waving, “Foxboro: Love It or Leave It” bumper-sticker kind of way.
Some people might think both dynasties are on the decline and their best days behind them. But I’ve seen both win the Big Ones too many times to believe it. If New England Patriot-ism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then this scoundrel wants to live like a refugee.
But while I’m a shameless homer, I’m not a total xenophobe. There are 31 other teams in the NFL and it’s not as if I hate them all the way I hate, say, the Jets. In much the same way that I’ve looked at other countries like Ireland or Australia and said to myself, “Hmm. They speak English. They drink beer by the barrel. They talk too much and sing too loud. I could definitely live there,” I’ve seen other NFL franchises and thought, “I could see myself rooting for these guys if I had to.”
And the team at the top of that list is the one facing the Pats on Sunday night: The Pittsburgh Steelers.
I’m not saying I’m a Steelers fan, just that I could be. If Mr. Kraft were to ever get sick of me stalking his quarterback or pawing through the Gillette dumpsters looking for locks of his coach’s hair and banished me from Patriots Nation forever, it’s not out of the realm to imagine myself following the Black & Gold.
Because really, what’s not to like? They’ve been successful, no question. But that’s not the reason. The Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Raiders of Oakland have won a lot of titles over the years and I’d no sooner defect to them than I would to North Korea.
Pittsburgh is different. There’s a certain admirable quality about the way that they’ve won. The Steelers have a tradition and philosophy and they stick with it. The way they’ve branded a particular style of playing football and kept it through decades of rules changes, coaching trends and gimmicks. Chuck Noll coached the same way Bill Cowher did which is the same way Mike Tomlin does. The difference between Troy Polamalu, Rod Woodson and Mel Blount is only a matter of hairstyle. The manner in which they smashed your receiver in the mouth and the pain afterward is very much the same. Dick LeBeau has been running the same Zone Blitz packages through parts of five presidential administrations and won’t stop until someone stops him.
So, yeah, there’s a lot to admire about these Pittsburgh Steelers, with one major, notable, glaring exception: Ben Roethlisberger.
I sincerely doubt that I could ever root for a football team that had this loathsome buffoon quarterbacking it. Some of my best friends in the world happen to be Steeler fans and I’ve seen what they’ve gone through the last few years as the world has learned the extent of Ben Roethlisberger’s idiocy, and I want no part of it.
It’s trite and a little condescending to paint all Steeler fans with the same brush... that they’re all God fearin’, blue collar types straight out of “Deer Hunter” who like their Iron City beer cold and their football players hard workin’. But I can stereotype them this way: The vast majority of Pittsburgh football fans prefer that their players NOT be drunken, reckless, stupid, self-absorbed misanthropes who like to hassle girls.
Which is precisely what we’ve learned Big Ben is. The Sports Illustrated cover article about him from last May was a magnum opus of this guy’s knuckleheadedry. Ben bothering pregnant waitresses. Ben chewing & screwing at restaurants. Ben surrounding himself with a posse of paid sycophants but weaseling out of paying $5 cover charges. Ben repeatedly pulling the “Don’t you know who I am?” when anyone dare suggest he act like a human being. And mostly though, you get a picture of Big Ben being incapable of keeping Li’l Ben where it belongs and harassing drunken 20 year-old coeds every chance he gets.
And this isn’t me just being unfair because I’m a Patriots partisan. Steeler fans and legends have turned on him. By April, a Pittsburgh newspaper poll had 38% of fans wanting him suspended without pay. Terry Bradshaw said he has no use for Roethlisberger, which would be the Pittsburgh equivalent of Bill Russell calling Paul Pierce a nitwit, which is unimaginable. When Joey Porter was still with Pittsburgh he accused Ben of being a slacker. Hines Ward called his suspension “justified.” And those are just the ones who were willing to go on the record. Plenty more said the same thing without attaching their names.
So I mean it when I say I honestly feel bad for Steeler fans. I mean, none of them signed on for this. When Roethlisberger came into the league and started winning and they all fell in love with him and Heinz Field turned into a sea of No. 7 jerseys, no one figured that a few years down the road some Masshole sports columnist (me) would be calling their savior “Rapelisberger.”
But they’re stuck with him. When he came back from his suspension, the Rooney family had him introduced over the PA system like he was bouncing back from an ACL tear or something, and the fans responded like he was De Gaulle leading the Resistance back into Paris after VE Day. And no lame non-apology written by a publicist will wash that stench away any time soon.
And for that reason, I don’t envy them. Again I’m biased, but one of the great things about this Patriots 10-year run of success is that they’ve won with guys that are impossible not to like. Brown, Bruschi, Harrison, Vrabel, Light, Seymour, Wilfork and dozens of others you can root for without needing a Silkwood shower after.
In football, liking or disliking a team usually begins with the quarterback. And in that respect, Ben Roethlisberger is the Anti-Tom Brady. Whereas Brady is careful, conscientious and responsible, Ben is... well, a dink. The fact that Brady was in a crash on his way to practice when someone ran a red light on him, and Roethlisberger was in a crash when he was speeding on a motorcycle without a helmet in violation of his contract is an irony that should be lost on no one.
Look, I’m not nine years old. I get it that lots of athletes are lousy people. And I admit that I’ve rooted for my share. Manny Ramirez is a despicable human being. I knew that all along and I stuck up for him for seven and a half years for the sole reason that he could hit a baseball. And I rooted for his team to win in spite of him. So while there’s not much moral difference between Ben and Manny, the fact that one is the leader of the team and the other is literally out in left field is a huge distinction.
By no means am I qualified to walk a beat for the Morality Police. I just know that I’ve rooted for rotten human beings and I’ve rooted for some of the best. And it can’t be easy to pull for a team when the guy taking the ball from center would just as likely walk out on a dinner tab or sexually harass your niece as throw a touchdown pass.
So while in theory I could, hypothetically, see myself as a Pittsburgh Steeler fan, for now I’ll just stay put. And be glad the worst thing our quarterback ever did is grow his hair out.