Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger salutes the crowd at Heinz Field after playing and winning his final home game on January 3, 2022 (Getty Images)

It was the fall of 2004. Rookie phenom “Big” Ben Roethlisberger, first round draft pick out of the University of Miami (Ohio) stepped up when journeyman QB Tommy Maddox was sidelined with an elbow strain in week 2. He led the black and gold on a 13 game winning streak to finish the regular season with a 15-1 record. But in the AFC Championship at Heinz Field, he was bested in a shootout against another megastar quarterback: Tom Brady of the Patriots. As a not-quite 10 year old, I was crushed.

They had an off year in the 2005 season, going 8-8 and sneaking into the playoffs as the last seeded wild card. But they beat the odds on the road, defeating the Bengals, Colts, and Broncos over a 3 week span and then came Super Bowl XL, on February 5, 2006. In his hometown of Detroit, aging Steelers running back Jerome Bettis finally won a Super Bowl. Big Ben became the youngest QB to win the big one. And I got the best birthday gift any kid in Western PA could ask for: seeing the Steelers lift the Lombardi Trophy.

They went back to the big show 3 years later, beating the division rival Ravens in the AFC Championship and the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl. A third Super Bowl trip for Ben’s Steelers came up short against the Green Bay Packers.

I’ve drifted away from watching football, for a few reasons. Unlike many, it’s not because I think the game is “too political”. Part of my drift was that starting in the 2013 season I was at college and often found other ways to occupy autumn Sunday afternoons, but it was more the cultural shift around the sport.

I’m not a fan of choregraphed touchdown dances, for instance. It’s one thing if a cornerback pulls off a pick-six or a rookie gets his first pro touchdown reception, but otherwise- Scoring touchdowns is your goshdarned job!

Then there is the broadened acceptance of gambling on games. I don’t think organized gambling has any place in competitive team sports. Then again, I’m not a fan of casinos or lotteries either.

I’ve hinted at my opinions on the quality of NFL officiating before, so I’ll just note that the NFL needs to treat the training and development of better referees with similar urgency to their concussion protocols. The perception that games are being rigged under the guise of officiating mistakes is only going to become louder, especially when people are betting on these games.

(Parenthetically, now that Major League Baseball has followed the NFL’s lead and embraced gambling, they should put Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose in their hall of fame…)

And beyond the cultural shifts, there was one of the worst Monday Night Football games ever played. On December 4th, 2017 in an ugly and penalty filled slugfest against the Steelers’ despised division rival Cincinnati Bengals, our Pro Bowler linebacker Ryan Shazier sustained a paralyzing spinal cord injury. In many ways, that was the day the music died for me with football.

But as the generational talent that is Ben Roethlisberger took his final lap with the Steelers, I tuned back in to watch my childhood hero’s last bow. The first part of Big Ben’s career was as troubled off the field as it was brilliant on the field, but he matured into a respected elder statesman and team captain, known for mentoring young players.

His 18 seasons with the Steelers is the longest a quarterback has ever played for one team. It’s part of why he is so beloved in the Burgh, and is emblematic of the Steelers organization’s dedication to stability. Since Chuck Noll came to town in 1969, the Steelers have had exactly 3 head coaches: Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin. Those three have combined for six Super Bowl rings and 8 AFC championships.

In my life, the Steelers have played in one of the toughest and most balanced divisions in football, the AFC North. When you play the Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens for a total of 4 out of 16 or 17 games a season, you have to earn the divisional title.

It appears that the Steelers may be adrift next year. They have some good talent on both sides of the ball, but they need a few good men on their offensive line to protect the quarterback, whoever it might be. Unlike many, I won’t mind if they give backup Mason Rudolph the job to see what he can do. If there’s one thing the Steelers are known for, it’s winning when you count them out, and a hungry QB that has gotten little love since his debut in 2018 and needs redemption for his on-field fist fight with the Browns Myles Garret during his sophomore season just might surprise us all.

And what of the other teams that play in Pittsburgh?

I’ve never been one to watch hockey. While I’m happy for the Penguins when they do well, I have a hard time following a game that involves two teams chasing a tiny object around a huge sheet of ice. (I’ve never bothered watching soccer for the same reason)

And then there are baseball’s Pirates. Oh the Pirates. Since PNC Park (an outstanding gem of public architecture in a city that is filled with beautiful buildings) opened on the North Shore in 2001 they’ve had the prettiest home field and most of the ugliest seasons in the major leagues…

Unlike the Rooney family and Penguins chief Mario Lemieux, Pirates owner Bob Nutting has never been noted for any special dedication to paying for talent or building a winning culture. If they weren’t one of the oldest franchises in baseball they might have been moved to another city by now. And in another city, the their futility might not be as noticeable.

But this is Pittsburgh. The Steel City. The City of Champions. Three teams linked by two colors and one devoted fanbase. To quote Coach Tomlin: “The Standard is the Standard.”

So like most Pittsburgh baseball fans, I dream that someday an ownership team who understands that you need both money to hire talent and the intangible eye for competitive drive and a winning mindset will take over the Pirates and return the World Series to Pittsburgh.

But at the end of the day, why does it matter if a sports team wins or loses? What makes certain fan bases like the one in Pittsburgh so loyal, and why do we expect our teams to live up to their past standards?

Before Big Ben came to town, I would throw a football in the backyard with my dad while wearing his old number 12 Terry Bradshaw shirt that he had worn as a boy. He would drop back to throw a junior-sized football while saying things like: “Bradshaw goes deep to Lynn Swann!” “Bradshaw to Stallworth- TOUCHDOWN!”. In the year 2000, all I knew of Steelers Super Bowls was the stories my family told of the 1970s dynasty that won 4 in less than 7 years. Watching the Steelers win championships again meant something to us.

Same with the Pirates. My paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother were both baseball fanatics. My Pap was always more interested in watching local amateur players in person as a dedicated supporter of high school, college, and summer league ball. Our hometown of Johnstown has a proud history of amateur baseball, hosting a tournament each summer dating back to when Pap sold nickel Cokes at the stadium. After over 70 years, the hometown entry finally won the AAABA tournament in 2018. He died this summer just two days after that same tournament wrapped up.

My Grammy, meanwhile, loved her Pirates. She would travel once a year to PNC to see them play in person, and caught the games on TV whenever she could. The last time the Buccos went deep into the MLB playoffs was in the early 90s, before I was born. We watched games together, but never got to see the Pirates make a playoff run together.

So that’s why I keep coming back to the Steelers and Pirates, never mind the flaws. Because what makes these Pittsburgh sports teams so great is their proud histories that knit generations of families together in a shared experience.

And a dream that someday there will be another quarterback like Bradshaw and Roethlisberger, another center like Lemieux and Crosby… and maybe even another outfielder like Clemente, Stargell, or McCutchen.