Surviving the Off Season, Part Six: Our Life’s Work
by Ivan Cole
Tired old ladies kissing dogs
I hate the human love of that stinking mutt
I can’t use it
Trying to make it real compared to what
– Les McCann and Eddie Harris
I was mourning the retirement of Heath Miller as I was reading Rebecca’s piece on the subject and something clicked.
Part of me is thrilled for Heath that he went out his way, when he wanted, hopefully before any hope of leading a relatively normal life is gone. I hope all players are feeling increasingly comfortable with doing this. (Which means, of course, that they leave before their team and/or their fans are ready to see them go.)
And part of me is bracing for the various comments that “he was washed up anyhow, better to save the cap space.” Football may be a business for the league and the owners, but it always grieves me to see people treated as expendable.
It was this last part that I was, indeed, expecting. In fact, more than a few of what passes for the football media intelligentsia as well as rank and file fans had been pushing the idea of jettisoning Miller as either a smart, a necessary (or both) football move lately.
I don’t know if the Steelers brain trust actually agreed. Kevin Colbert seemed to allude to the notion that the team was prepared to consider Miller as being a continuing component in their plans for the 2016 season. But who can say really?
Some people had Ben Roethlisberger gone before he signed his extension. There had been a number of false alarms with players like Troy Polamalu before it became real. But eventually, inevitably, they all leave. It is merely a matter of how it happens. How it all plays out. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but the relationship with the athletes that we admire is similar to that of a pet in that we know that the life span of the relationship is short. It will come to an end, and often earlier than we would like.
But something was different this time.
We assume the leave taking to always be one sided. The beloved athlete exits the stage and we are left to go on and find new objects of attachment. But in this particular instance I entertained the possibility that the day may come it when could be me as a fan who is the one that retires someday. That it might be me who decides it may be time to walk away.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
On October 14, 1992, Sid Bream and the Atlanta Braves tore the heart out of Pirates fans at the conclusion of the NLCS. Shortly thereafter, stars such as Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla left the fold, and the team fell into a generation of competitive irrelevance.
To that point my love for the Pirates was on par of that for the Steelers. Indeed, in the earlier years, the sixties, it was probably greater. Roberto Clemente was my first love as far as sports heroes goes. His sudden loss due to tragedy was shattering, but it didn’t diminish my love for the team.
So it wasn’t the relatively benign tragedy of the playoff loss that caused me to ‘retire’ from the Pirates. It likely was just a good time to begin to make my exit, not only from the Pittsburgh club, but from Major League Baseball in a more general sense.
In many ways baseball, with its longer season and more numerous games, is a more demanding sport to follow than the NFL. The internet wasn’t the robust engine it is today. Washington didn’t have a team at the time, and I never really warmed to Orioles, or more generally the American League.
Today I am happy about the Pirates. Thanks to Rebecca I have even had the opportunity to take in a game at PNC Park, a delightful experience. But my relationship with the team, and the game generally is decidedly casual. My passion never fully returned.
A few weeks ago I watched a Real Sports feature on world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. Prior to that, never heard of him. This from someone who in another time had followed boxers and boxing; Ali to Tyson, Sugar Ray Robinson to Sugar Ray Leonard, religiously. But sometime around the same period that I began to leave baseball, I retired from boxing as well. The sport itself helped the process as it went into decline.
Three years ago I wrote a feature for Behind The Steel Curtain that chronicled my growing estrangement from college football, as I found it increasingly difficult to justify my support of a system that was so exploitative and disrespectful of the young men who participated. Again, I went into semi-retirement. I don’t believe I have viewed more than three complete college games in 2015. So even if I didn’t have a problem with mock drafts on principle, I simply lack the knowledge base to speak upon it in an intelligent manner in any case.
Not Done Yet
None of the above is to suggest that an exit from pro football will occur at all, much less imminently. The point is, for me at least, that fandom has a mortality potential, and there were elements present in Miller’s retirement that increased my awareness of that fact. Let me clarify.
End of an era
Soon only Ben will be left from what will likely be viewed as the second greatest cohort in the history of the franchise. I have been blessed to have been around long enough to have experienced and witnessed how this process works. For many reading it is likely the first time see an entire group of greats pass on.
James Harrison will be next, probably within a year. Matt Spaeth and Greg Warren will probably go without much in the way of fanfare. And then Ben. So it is not just the loss of Heath that we are grieving, but the ending of a historical period that, unfortunately, many will not fully appreciate until years after it is gone.
It helps that we have moved relatively seamless into a new period that is extremely intriguing. Not that competitive potential is the principle factor driving engagement, but it doesn’t hurt that the current group has the potential of achieving as much or more than any previous set of players. Hard to imagine anyone walking away from this story before it plays out a bit more.
I have come to the realization that my motivation as a fan comes not just from the desire for a particular outcome, say, winning a championship, but also from my identification of with those who are tasked with achieving this end. It is not just about rooting for the colors or the uniform. Who inhabits the uniforms matters.
Who leads them on the sidelines and in the front office and the ownership suite matters.
In this sense I don’t buy into trying to paper over the significant differences that exists among various sectors of the Steelers fan base. The concern expressed by Rebecca concerning players being viewed as expendable or disposable is completely on target. For many Heath Miller’s humanity is inconsequential. He is simply an action figure, a commodity who has outlived his usefulness. The only meaning for them with his departure is the anticipated thrill of what new toy the team will procure to replace him.
It is this sense of the demotion of one’s humanity that has driven me to distraction on more than one occasion. The quote at the beginning of this article by Les McCann and Eddie Harris speaks to concerns I had with those who took issue with Michael Vick. It didn’t bother me that they had ongoing problems with his treatment of dogs, but the nagging suspicion that some afforded more love and respect to animals than they could muster to other human beings generally. For me this constitutes an irreconcilable difference.
Miller’s exit, inevitable as such things must be, weakens my connection to the team even though it may lead to a strengthening of its competitive posture. The challenge is always to attempt to forge similar (never the same) ties to the next man up. The predecessors are never truly replaced, but there is an expansion of relationships.
Franco begets Hoge, who begets Foster, who begets Morris, who begets Bettis, who begets Parker, who begets Mendenhall, who begets Bell. Each relationship unique and satisfying in its own way.
But for some the humanity is irrelevant. So when the idea is advanced to honor Miller by giving the Heeeath cheer whenever a tight end catches the ball next season I am torn. For some will it not just become an institutionalization of the indifference expressed when any white guy whose uniform number began with an ‘8’ (Spaeth, David Paulsen, Jesse James, Rob Blanchflower) were recipients of the cheer when they caught a pass?
It is at moments like these that I am most vulnerable to the thoughts that challenge my continued fidelity to the game. Decoupled from relationships the game becomes increasingly defined by such things as concussions, gambling, commodification and the worst aspects of corporate culture.
It is clear that if I were to ever leave the game it would be precisely at the point when a relationship or set of relationships had been severed. I would almost certainly not have left boxing while Muhammed Ali or Leonard were at their peak, or when Bonds, Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke ruled the roost with the Pirates.
Perhaps that is why I am so bullish in defense of Mike Tomlin and the Rooneys.
Their presence, the relationship I have with them as a fan, has allowed me to brush aside a number of concerns about this industry that I would find problematic. While removing them from the equation would have no impact on many fans, it would open the door to a series of questions for me whose answers might lead me to the door.
Chuck Noll famously challenged players to confront the question of when they would put aside playing a child’s game, no matter how lucratively they were compensated to do so, and to begin to get on with their life’s work. The bias has been that we have viewed this as a necessary and undesirable moment when dreams die. But what if we view this as a more liberating moment, when one grows up and moves on to broader horizons?
Noll himself was one whose interests and abilities were such that he probably didn’t need football but gifted himself to the game.
William and Mary is no mere football factory, and those who know Mike Tomlin understand that he could be just as much a success in fields more challenging and prestigious than coaching a professional football team. He almost certainly would be better appreciated.
Bill Cowher has resisted the temptation to define himself solely in this manner as well. And these factors may well be the key to each man’s success as a leader.
As football returns to Los Angles we would be wise to keep in mind what might have been one of the contributing factors of why it left. My brother lived in LA for a few years and pointed out that sitting at home watching Cleveland and Jacksonville duke it out was a questionable alternative to a day at the beach. It is not unreasonable to question from time to time whether spending a beautiful autumn afternoon holed up in the rec room agonizing over the outcome of a game is the best use of the limited time one has on Earth.
For now, for me, the answer continues to be yes.
But as I sit in contemplation of Miller’s departure, there is a tinge of envy mixed with my regret. He left on his own terms, he’s grown up and moved on to pursuits that will almost certainly be more risk averse and healthier for his family. He will not be viewed and treated like a commodity by anyone.
It is a sad moment only for those of us who have been left behind.