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

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