Surviving the Off Season, Part Six: Our Life’s Work

via Steelers.com

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.

The Pirates

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.

Boxing

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.

College Football

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.

Relationships

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.

9 comments

  • Plenty of thought provoking material here. While sad at Heath’s retirement, I am in admiration of players who leave on their on terms. Whether it be Heath, Jason Worilids, Rashard Mendenhall Jim Brown or Barry Sanders, there’s something inspiring about someone who has enough sense to leave the game he leaves before he is injured or unwanted.

    Most partings have at least a tinge of acrimony, of not something more intense. Even Troy and Hines had some desire to continue when the Turk came calling. Other revered Steelers played out their careers elsewhere, usually in obscurity. Two prime examples are Franco Harris and Dermontii Dawson, Hall of Famers who played too long in other cities.

    I doubt I’ll ever move on. It would take an implosion of the Steeler way. The seventies team all retired and I hung in. I survived the relative mediocrity of the eighties and the parting of great Steelers like Woodson, Kirkland, Lipps. A new generation is nearly gone, but another is building momentum under Coach Tomlin, Colbert and Art II. Unless the Steeler way is lost, I’ll be there, whether we win or lose.

    There’s a whole lot more in your article, Ivan. But I’ll leave it there. Great job.

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  • This wasn’t quite the article I expected when I opened the file. Very thought-provoking and a bit sobering in a way…

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  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    This article is a prime example of why this is such a fine blog. Thoughtful and provocative with both personal and historic perspectives that touches home with issues I have dealt with and some I hadn’t considered (Heeathhhh! but more on that is a second). What is there not to love about it.

    The first team I walked away from, though it was not so deep a passion, was the Montreal Expos. Being a homer at heart, I tend to cheer for the home team and hometown heroes (even when they are elsewhere). I started cheering for the Expos because they were the only MLB team in Canada at the time. They were terrible and they were terrible for many years (or so it seemed at the time) but I cheered (because I was also raised to cheer on the underdog with whom my family identified so strongly). Then they finally fielded what seemed to be a championship level team with star player littering the lineup only to stink it up in the playoffs. When word leaked out about rampant cocaine abuse on the part of some of the star players I was devastated. I had sunk so much emotional currency into these guys only to see them piss it away. I didn’t understand and I couldn’t forgive. I cheered for the Jays when they finally won but my heart was never really in it.

    The second time I walked away from a sport was when the original Winnipeg Jets left for Phoenix. It was heart wrenching and despicable to see the heart of the community ripped out and shipped to the dessert for a bunch of people who didn’t understand or appreciate hockey. People who hadn’t see the team that had gone from being the worst in league history to one of the top four in the NHL (unfortunately that put us into 3rd in our division behind the Oilers and Flames at the time). The team had started the process the year before by trading away beloved Teemu Selanne while keeping the much less popular Keith Tkachuk. A final goodbye by a crowd that blocked Portage and Main and a failed, fan fueled, fundraising campaign were the bitter aftermath of a decision that had been made by the owner and the league because the idea of increased TV revenue from a major market was more important than the people who had supported the team since it’s inception.

    I still watch Jets 2.0 with my wife and I have a fairly good grasp of the team, it’s players and it’s circumstances but my heart isn’t really into it. If the team left now I wouldn’t mourn for the team though I would feel for those left behind.

    I very nearly walked away from NFL fandom not so long ago. Some of you may remember. The Rooneys and the Steelers are all that is keeping me watching NFL games and following NFL events. The league officials and officiating have left a bad taste in my mouth. My heart is conflicted between my love of the game and the knowledge that the danger of head injuries are putting their lives and future of these young men on the line.

    A final thought. Heeathhhh! In my mind the idea of yelling Heath’s name, when a Steelers TE caught a pass, was an homage to the player and a compliment to heath’s replacement. I never considered the colour of the player. For me it was a position related thing. I am saddened that there could be racist aspects to the act. Until now my only concern was whether a receiver first/blocking maybe style of TE deserved the accolade but now I will have to restrain myself.

    I never thought of yelling “Troy” when a SS made a great play but I never thought of Troy as replaceable. Troy was unique. He seemed so far removed from other players in terms of his style of play. Heath, on the other hand, seemed like a guy who carried a lunch bucket and showed up every day to do what he did. Someone you could emulate because he was just a guy, like the rest of us while Troy seemed more like a cross between superhero and saint (this description of Troy would probably bother him which is just part of his charm as far as I am concerned). I just hope that what ever player gets #83 next can carry on the tradition Heath has begun.

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    • Just a clarification. I am not sure how potentially racist the Heath cheer is rather than something that reflects a certain sloppiness. I have never heard it directed at Will Johnson, I don’t think it was a knock on Johnson. Rather, I think they many fans simply thought it was Heath making the catch rather than Matt or Jesse. The proof would be, as Roxanna says, the cheer goes up for all the tight ends going forward. Then we can say its a tribute.

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  • Walking away…or at least taking a step back…from fanhood is natural, I think. It is normal to become attached to a team, but it is also normal to be attached to players. Most of us don’t go for a team based on the name or colors on the jersey — those things are later used to define the team. Instead we are attracted to the ‘ethos’ of the team. How that team plays can represent how we view the important aspects of a sport.
    Being from the PR, I grew up rooting for individual players, usually other Ricans, that had made it to the majors. We didn’t have a team of our own, so you stick to players you can relate to. Clemente will always be our shining light in that arena. Upon moving to the States, that still was my rooting method. I liked Dale Murphy, not necessarily the Braves. Randall Cunningham, Deion Sanders, Kevin Greene were fun to watch. Jordan captured all imagination. I was loosely a Braves fan until the lock out. I left baseball behind completely until 1999 (screw Sosa and McGuire in 1998). The 1999 Reds played the kind of baseball that I felt was right. They made a futile run at a playoff spot late, came up short…but I was back in on baseball…just not with the Braves, but with the Reds who exemplified my type of ball.
    I mentioned once that I had been a loose Cowboys fan (really mostly a Sanders fan) until XXX. Despite the Steelers’ loss… they played the type of football that I felt was right. And off I went.
    Basketball has never held my interest and college sports in general are well into the back of my mind for the same reasons as Ivan.
    It will be interesting how my fanhood will change as the names continue to turn over. The NFL, as a game, is heading in a direction that I find less interesting. I enjoy defensive football..the league doesn’t. I keep waiting for hockey to take over, but my team (CBJ) is just too terrible to jump into completely.
    Perhaps I need to find some alternate games…. rugby and aussie rules football have caught my eye lately. But they’ll likely run into the same issue as top flight soccer… the best is played overseas…it’s tough to stay up late to watch games.

    For now, I’ll continue to enjoy the ride with the Steelers.

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  • I doubt if I’ll ever lose my love for the Steelers. Barring a repudiation of the Steeler way, I’m with them for life.

    I gave up baseball in the steroid ere. Baseball is nothing without stats and the juicers rendered stats meaningless. It certainly didn’t help that I was. Yankee fan who had endured the Steinbrenner era. Once he brought in miscreants Gary Sheffieldand Roger Clemens. What? Reggie Jackson wasn’t enough.

    If I have any rooting interest now, it’s the Buccos. I can’t say I even follow basketball, except in the most casual way. I will watch a Penguins game now and then. I also like a little golf. Tiger is dead to me, but I like Phil, Bubba & Rory.

    One more thought — me Heeeaaaath for anyone but Heeeaaathhhh. White, black, yellow or green, nobody’s going to get a Heeeaaaath from me unless he’s the real thing. That’s my tribute to 83.

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  • HawaiianSteeler86

    Ivan, What a great article! I never thought of the fact that a fan retires from a sport. Yet, I certainly have retired for the most part from MLB, the NBA and the NHL. I’m still interested in college football and basketball, though not as rabid a fan as I used to be. The NFL, to me still holds my greatest interest. I don’t think that I will ever lose my fandom for the Steelers unless as Roxy stated “Barring a repudiation of the Steeler way”.

    I was “In Shock” when I first read that #83 had retired. Yet, it was the perfect way for him to leave the team. It was never about “Heath Miller” to him. He was a “Team First” player. I wish him the very best in the future. He will always be one of my favorite Steelers.

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  • I wonder how difficult it was for him to hang it up knowing how good the team will be next year.

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