Monday, January 24, 2011

Snow Day

The New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers faced off in Sunday's AFC Championship game. While the weather was freezing in the Steel City, it lacked a certain element that would have made the contest appear extra special...

One of football's most unique qualities is its exposure to the elements.

Mother Nature can dictate, and even wreak havoc upon, the strategies and outcomes of football games. Non-dome teams must prepare for any weather condition imaginable in their home stadium -- including heat, rain, wind, snow, or freezing temperatures. No matter what may be happening outside, the game will be played -- so teams (and fans) must react accordingly.

For television purposes, snow and football make the perfect marriage. It appeals to both the hardcore and casual fan, but why? Maybe it's the novelty of seeing the yard lines disappear from the field, beneath a blanket of white. Perhaps it reminds some of their youth football games in a schoolyard...because for at least one day, these highly-paid NFL players are playing in the exact same conditions that you used to experience. Or maybe it's just the "snow globe" appeal, watching wintry conditions swirl around the field while a game is being played.

The classic schoolyard snow football game

I had always wanted to attend a snow football game for these very reasons, but one question remained in my mind -- what's it like for a fan in these conditions?

On December 14th, 2003, I got my chance to experience professional snow football for myself. The New York Jets were hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers at Giants Stadium, and Mother Nature teamed up with Old Man Winter to make their presence felt. Snow was falling at a steady clip over New Jersey, causing what was normally a 45-minute trip to the Meadowlands to take an hour-and-a-half. Upon my 11 am arrival at the stadium, roughly 4 inches of fresh white powder had already fallen from the sky -- and there was more yet to come.

Attending the Jets-Steelers game in 2003 felt kind of like this

Tailgating proved to be a unique and improvisational task. After shoveling out a makeshift spot for the grill, the next challenge was lighting it. It took several attempts and roughly 30 minutes, but the charcoal was finally ablaze, allowing for at least a mini-cooking session.

In the area surrounding Lot 5A, parking spaces were merely a suggestion. The yellow lines that designated spots vanished under the snow...and since it was an active storm, plows and other snow removal equipment could not do their normal job of clearing the asphalt. Fortunately for the Jets, the weather kept many fans away...sparing the team from numerous complaints about parking availability.

As gametime approached, the relatively short walk to the stadium felt more like a cross-country hike. Steps were uncertain, as snow crunched beneath boots. Occasional icy patches on the sidewalk posed a threat. A normally mindless walk had turned into a chore, but it was completed safely.

Just before the opening kickoff

Inside Giants Stadium, its red seats in both the lower and upper levels were coated in snow. The normally green FieldTurf surface was blanketed in white from sideline-to-sideline. Maintenance crews pushed shovels every five yards for the length of the field, only to helplessly watch as the continuing snowfall negated their efforts.

Crews continually worked to keep the yard lines and sidelines clear

While the attendance for this game is listed as 77,900...that number was extremely misleading. If half of the seats were occupied, that would be a generous estimate. It was not a game for the casual fan -- both teams were 5-8 on the season, and Old Man Winter only enhanced the number of no-shows. My location -- Section 302 -- had more empty seats than fans.

Despite their ugly records, the game proved to be quite picturesque. The Steelers' black helmets and gold pants sharply contrasted with the playing surface, while the Jets stood out in their traditional hunter-green jerseys.

A picture of beauty for any football purist

It was weather built for old-school, smashmouth football...and both teams fit that profile to a "T." Pittsburgh's feature running back was Jerome Bettis, one of the top rushers in the National Football League. New York was led by Curtis Martin -- who in this particular game, became the 2nd player in NFL history to eclipse 1,000 yards rushng in each of his first nine seasons in the league.

Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis is about to receive the handoff

For the 1st half, the "snow globe" was in full effect. Flakes fell at a rate of about an inch per-hour, covering both the field and the die-hard Jets' and Steelers' fans in attendance. Despite the snow and relative cold, it was fairly comfortable to sit through -- until late in the 3rd quarter. At that point, the snow had converted to sleet...and icy pellets began to strike. As clothing became wet, the conditions turned less bearable. My toes started to become numb inside my boots; my face became thinly glazed by the frozen rain. Mercifully, the wintry weather subsided during the 4th quarter...leaving behind a still-white field and about 20,000 freezing fans.

The wintry weather made it occasionally tough to see the scoreboard

On this day, the Jets prevailed, 6-0...thanks to two Doug Brien field goals. The unspoken challenge among teams' star running backs was won by Curtis Martin, who carried the ball 30 times for 174 yards.

Curtis Martin reached a career milestone, despite the snow

In a lesser battle, I feel like those who were at the Meadowlands topped Mother Nature. She threw her best wintry shot, and we overcame it -- frozen extremities and all.

My buddy Marshall and I were proud to have conquered Mother Nature

It's funny how the stars (or in this particular case, the weather patterns) can align to turn an otherwise meaningless game into an extremely memorable one. Neither the Jets, nor the Steelers, made the playoffs in 2003...but that experience of watching snow football in-person was worth every minute of thawing that occurred afterward.

The 2003 Snow Bowl

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Birds Fans With Baggage

It's the NFL Playoffs, and the Baltimore Ravens took on the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC divisional round game this afternoon. This entry takes a deeper look at the psyche of a Baltimore football fan...and it's not as simple as one may think...

Do you remember your first love?

Sports have a way of mimicking relationships. You become connected with a celebrate its suffer through its failures. When enough time (and occasionally money) is invested in the franchise, you develop a loyalty toward it. Passion begins to flow. You love that team...and every once in awhile, you hate them...but you always stick with them. So what happens when -- in the blink of an eye -- that the object of your affection is gone forever?

For older football fans in Baltimore, their emotions have run the gamut of extremes. After entering the National Football League in 1953, the Baltimore Colts became one of its most storied franchises. They won "The Greatest Game Ever Played," the 1958 NFL Championship against the New York Giants. They added NFL titles in 1959 and 1968, but lost Super Bowl III to the New York Jets in one of the greatest upsets in pro football history. The Colts then redeemed themselves in 1971, winning Super Bowl V over the Dallas Cowboys.

Alan Ameche scores the game-winning TD in "The Greatest Game Ever Played"

To have so much success, you need a lot of talented football players...and the Colts had no shortage in that area. Quarterback Johnny Unitas, wide receiver Raymond Berry, defensive tackle Art Donovan, linebacker Ted Hendricks, tight end John Mackey, defensive end Gino Marchetti, running back Lenny Moore, offensive tackle Jim Parker, and fullback Joe Perry -- in addition to head coaches Don Shula and Weeb Ewbank -- are all members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They were icons to generations of football fans, and beloved by Baltimore residents.

The fans held a special place in "Charm City's" football lore as well. For the duration of the Baltimore Colts' existence, they played in Memorial Stadium -- affectionately nicknamed the "World's Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum," for the noise and passion that Colts' fans brought to every home game.

Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, home of the Colts from 1953-83

In the early morning hours on March 29th, 1984, pro football in Baltimore changed forever. Under the cover of darkness, a fleet of Mayflower moving trucks pulled up to the Colts' headquarters in Owings Mills, Maryland -- and started transporting all of the franchise's belongings to Indianapolis. Dissatisfied by a lack of progress in talks for a new stadium, Colts' owner Robert Irsay had enough. Baltimore had its collective heart ripped out.

The Colts make their move to Indianapolis


Fast-forward to Week 1 of the 2010 NFL season.

The Baltimore Ravens were at New Meadowlands Stadium on a Monday night in September to take on the New York Jets. The Ravens -- established in 1996 when the franchise moved from Cleveland -- have a reputation for solid defense and a strong fan base. Numerous Ravens fans, dressed in the team's familiar black-and-purple colors, made the roughly 3-hour drive from Baltimore and its suburbs to watch their team.

The Jets and Ravens get ready to open the 2010 NFL season

Sitting directly behind me in Section 328 was a pair of Ravens fans -- a father and son. The son was dressed in a purple jersey with QB Joe Flacco's name and number adorning it. The father was donning a black polo shirt with the Ravens' logo over his heart.

During the course of the game, my friend Mike and I struck up a friendly conversation with these two. We discussed both the Jets' and Ravens' hopes for 2010, found out more about each others' respective teams, and talked about the travel involved for them to attend such a road game -- on a weeknight, no less. They were good, dedicated fans.

Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez keeps an eye on Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis

Knowing the history of the Baltimore Colts, but not the fans' mentality...I asked the older man a point-blank question at one point -- "Did you ever get over the Colts?" I was surprised by both the answer and the quickness of his response. After a roughly three-second pause, he looked up at me, raised his eyebrows and flatly said, "No," while shaking his head.

The Ravens are a franchise that, during its 14-year history, has won a Super Bowl. They are seemingly perennial playoff contenders. They fill their stadium week-in and week-out...year-in and year-out. All of these things were going through my mind, processing the man's initial answer, when he added, "The Ravens are great. I love them...but it's just not the same."

It's a sentiment that is apparently not unique in Baltimore. At M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens' home field, there is a Ring of Honor to commemorate the great players of the past...for both the Ravens and Baltimore Colts. Outside the stadium's main entrance is "Unitas Plaza," complete with a bronze statue of the Colts' Hall-of-Fame quarterback. There are numerous web sites dedicated to the history of the Baltimore Colts. To the longtime fans, Baltimore and the Ravens appear to be a marriage of convenience above anything. They still occasionally think about the one that got away.

A statue of the greatest Colt of all-time...outside the Ravens' stadium

On this particular September night, the Ravens edged the Jets, 10-9, in an expected defensive battle...but I came away with more than just the game experience itself. It's funny what you can learn while talking with other fans -- especially those of the other team.

When I watch Ravens' games now, I can't help but think about that conversation...wondering about the elder generation of Ravens' fans. When they win, can those fans match the feelings of joy that a Baltimore Colts victory brought them? Or when they lose, does some blue blood trickle from the black-and-purple wound?

Only they know where their heart truly stands.

Baltimore football fans have filled the void...for the most part

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ode To The Igloo

On New Year's Day, the Pittsburgh Penguins faced off against the Washington Capitals in the annual NHL Winter Classic at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, home of the NFL's Steelers. With the 'Burgh on my mind, I pay tribute to the Penguins' former arena, which closed at the end of the 2009-10 season...

It is one of my favorite NHL arenas -- yet it essentially no longer exists.

In an era when many state-of-the-art arenas are now cut from a similar cloth, making it tough to decipher which building you're actually in...Pittsburgh's Civic (Mellon) Arena was distinctive. The structure that now sits empty at 66 Mario Lemieux Place housed the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins from the franchise's inaugural year in 1967 until its closure in 2010.

The arena is unmistakable as you approach it. In the "Steel City," its hemispherical stainless-steel roof dominates the landscape. It was that shape which gave the building its beloved nickname -- "The Igloo." Divided into eight sections, the dome once had the ability to open within minutes...making Civic Arena the world's first major indoor sports stadium with a retractable roof!


The stainless-steel roof of The Igloo

It was a Sunday in March when I attended my final game there; an afternoon contest between the Penguins and Boston Bruins. Across the street, the dazzling new CONSOL Energy Center was under construction. It will become home to the Penguins for the next generation -- yet on this day, all of my attention was devoted to a building that originally hosted the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera when it opened in 1961.

Upon entering through its glass doors, I couldn't help but reflect upon my previous times at Mellon Arena. During my college years, it became a very familiar place. Whether it was to take advantage of the Penguins' "Student Rush" program, see various NHL stars in action, or just escape from reality for a few hours...The Igloo became my sanctuary.

Back then, tickets were easy to come by. The Penguins were struggling on the ice, as well as financially...and there was a question of whether the team could even afford to stay in Pittsburgh. At one point, the franchise filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It was the underdog appeal that continued to draw my support, and gave me added respect for the Pens' faithful who were showing up at the arena.

For my final game at The Igloo, I decided to tour the building on my myself one last opportunity to soak it all in. This time, the circumstances were different. During the last few years, the Penguins have evolved into a perennial NHL power -- capturing the Stanley Cup in 2009 and seeking even more accolades in 2010. The franchise had an unprecedented active sell-out streak; a standing-room-only crowd of 17,132 was now the norm. The Pens were one of the hottest tickets in town...yet the building was fundamentally the same as it was almost a decade ago.

Center Sidney Crosby is a big reason for the Penguins' resurgence

The steel exterior was not the arena's only distinct feature. Inside, the roof stood out as well. The faded-white ceiling stretched over the entire seating bowl, with numerous floodlights shining from inside small square holes. It was like watching a hockey game from inside a gigantic, opaque snow globe. Hanging from the ceiling were numerous rigging cables, the Jumbotron scoreboard, and banners detailing the Penguins' successes and greatest players over the addition to the American and Canadian flags.

The Igloo's distinct ceiling

My favorite arena feature, however, was the balcony seating at each end of the rink. Not part of the original structure, the "E" balconies were added in 1975...increasing The Igloo's capacity by 3,000 seats. They provided a great view of the action -- especially in the lower rows. The seats were just high enough to watch plays develop, but low enough to where you could still sense the intensity that was emanating from the ice surface. The "E" balcony was where I sat for my first game at The Igloo -- and on this March afternoon, it was where I saw my final game in the old barn.

Watching the action from the "E" balcony

Following the Penguins' consecutive Stanley Cup victories in 1991 and 1992, the new "F" balconies brought an extra 1,000 seats to the building. The "F" balcony was not for those who were squeamish about heights. The seating arrangement was steep, to allow an unobstructed view of the ice surface...and in the top row, you could actually reach up and touch the arena's ceiling! The quirky seating arrangement gave the arena a personality that was unmatched by its NHL counterparts. When you saw the balconies on television, you knew exactly where the game was being played.

You can touch the ceiling in the last row of the "F" balcony

Walking through the Mellon Arena concourses, you could feel western Pennsylvania's connection to sports. The Pittsburgh Sports Hall of Fame was located on the lower concourse, featuring plaques of great athletes from all walks of life. In another hallway, the jerseys of the entire Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League were proudly framed and displayed -- with special attention shown to that year's division champions. It is that sense of community in Pittsburgh which makes the city feel more like a town.

High school hockey jerseys are displayed in the lower concourse

The concourses were also an example of why the Penguins needed a new building. Narrow and dimly-lit, the hallways produced numerous chokepoints for people walking around the arena during intermissions. Ramps and stairways seemingly popped up out of nowhere, especially on the cramped balcony levels. If you wanted food or needed a trip to the restroom, it required advanced planning to avoid missing any game action.

It's a virtual maze on the balcony level concourse

Inside the seating area, the building got loud -- creating a distinct home-ice advantage for the Penguins. The shape of the building, coupled with its acoustics, assisted in reverberating the crowd noise throughout the arena. Chants of "Let's Go Pens!" echoed when they were shouted by the sell-out crowd...and cheers for a Penguins' goal, big hit or great save can cause some ringing in your ears!

With both teams contending for Eastern Conference playoff spots, this particular early March game -- my final Igloo game -- carried an intense edge. After a scoreless 1st period, Boston got the scoring underway on a power play goal by Blake Wheeler. Mellon Arena was briefly silenced...but when Pascal Dupuis tied the game at 1 roughly five minutes later, Pens' fans erupted as the goal horn blasted. Then, early in the 3rd period, Evgeni Malkin's tally would eventually prove to be the game-winner...a wicked wrist shot from the top of the right circle that snuck past Bruins' goalie Tim Thomas.

The final minutes ticked off the clock as a nervous packed house watched. The Bruins desperately attempted to tie the game, while the Penguins tried holding down the fort. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the Penguins won the battle...and Pittsburgh emerged with a 2-1 victory.

The Penguins celebrate a hard-earned victory over Boston

Following the game, I sat and watched as The Igloo emptied...fully knowing that I would never again set foot inside this arena. I gazed at the building's various seat colors -- orange, navy blue, and red -- none of which involved the Penguins' team hues of black-and-gold. I reflected upon all of the games I had witnessed there in the past, taking pictures to ensure that my memories of the arena would not become distorted over time.

An emptying Igloo, complete with those familiar balcony seats

Someday, The Igloo -- after almost 50 years of service -- will disappear from the Pittsburgh landscape forever. However, its legacy -- and quirks -- will not be forgotten.

Old and new together -- Igloo in the foreground, CONSOL Energy Center behind it