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Gameday at Heinz Field
The towering stands of gold and black seats were all around me. I was sat in the swanky press box inside the 66,000 capacity Heinz Field Stadium, the jewel in the Steel City's crown.
What with the recent upsurge in interest in American Football back home in England, thanks to the sojourn of the New England Patriots and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to Wembley a few weeks ago, I thought today would be a great time to soak up the glitz and glamour of America's number one sport.
I had a word with a few of my press contacts over here, and within a few days an interested Englishman was given the credentials to cover this mammoth game between the Steelers and their big rivals the Cincinnati Bengals.
The build up to this clash has been immense all week. As I began to type this I was instructed to stand up, with at least 200 other members of the press, to honour the American national anthem.
A huge roar then descended upon the stadium. These fans know how to cheer I thought, how patriotic........think again. Fighter jets roared over the top of the stadium in true top gun style.
The game got off to a ferocious start, the Bengals star player and highly controversial wide receiver, Chad Ocho Cinco, taunts the Pittsburgh crowd as he catches the ball after an inch perfect pass from the "Cincy" quarterback.
Ocho Cinco, who changed his name to match the number he wears for the Bengals, 85, has just been fined $20,000 for an outrageous Paul Gascoigne esque joke. He pulled a one dollar bill out of his sock during last week's game as jokingly he tried to bribe the referee after a decision went against his side.
It didn't go down well. Yet every sport needs characters such as Chad Ocho Cinco. We would be lost without them.
The Steelers took an early 3-0 lead as Jeff Reed made a field goal. But the very next play the Bengals hit back with a touchdown, just to show why this pulsating game has captured so many people's imagination across the globe.
The NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, has spoke recently of his dream to have an NFL team in London. Whether this eventually happens remains to be seen, but you have to admit, the sell out crowds at Wembley for one-off games over the last 3 years have certainly strengthened his argument.
But the big dilemma is this. Do the games sell out purely because of their "novelty" stature? Would Goodell's decision to introduce an American Football team to London be successful?
At the moment my answer would be no.
But why not in 2012/2013? Keep on having regular season games at Wembley every now and then; maybe have two a season, why not? If a steady interest continues to build, and attendances stay at their extraordinary levels, then that would be the perfect time to introduce a NFL team in London.
Why would the team be called I hear you ask? Letters on a postcard please....the London Royals perhaps!?
The sea of colour, delight and unrivalled anticipation which I saw on the faces of all around me at Heinz Field left me in no doubt the sport is worth pursuing and embracing in the UK.
Yet whether I can see fans preferring to go and watch the NFL team in London over say, Chelsea v Arsenal, is doubtful.
As the game drew towards half time, the Steelers trailed 6-3. Their Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lining up a touchdown pass and the atmosphere was electric. This game decided who went top of the AFC North, and progressed to the play-offs.
These two teams’ seasons hung in the balance of this result. The Steelers were looking to win a Superbowl for the second year running and were on a five game winning spree coming into this game. But the stubborn Bengals held them to no touchdowns in the first half, but the Steelers led 9-6 at half time.
As I travelled to the game earlier today, I caught the bus into downtown Pittsburgh and walked over one of the cities many bridges,(interesting fact, there are more bridges here than any other city in the world!)I gazed around the skyscrapers and then over to Heinz Field.
Over 70,000 people were "tailgating", basically eating as much food as possible and getting very drunk, at 10.30am! The Americans certainly know how to organise huge parties, and every week this is the scene at NFL stadiums across the country. There are thousands of people in “parking lots” outside the grounds consuming copious amounts of alcohol several hours before kick-off. They play games including bean bags, metal rings and other such objects. No Comment!
Also tables upon tables of hot dogs, burgers, crisps, cakes, in fact any kind of food you can mention are present out of the boot of every car parked in the car park. I have never seen anything like it before.
The accommodating and friendly nature of Americans is especially apparent when it comes to American football. It’s their national game, their extremely proud of it. I was made to feel very welcome in the press box and outside the stadium as I soaked up this unique experience in front of me.
I then descended from the press box high up in the stands to go pitch side for the last quarter of the game. The noise was deafening, how these players communicate out on the pitch is beyond me.
I had never felt anything like it, and I was only stood on the sideline. To have so many fans screaming and shouting at your every move must be such an adrenalin rush for these players.
It was sensational and was by far my favourite part of the whole experience. The buzz I got from standing yards away from some of the best American football players in the world will live with me forever.
The game was itself an extremely rare one, the score was 12-12, heading into the final 11 minutes of play. There had only been one touchdown all game and the kickers for both teams had a field day. The game was heading for a dramatic finale, and I would be pitch side to watch this encounter unravel in front of me.
The game however ended in bitter disappointment for the Pittsburgh Steelers as they lost the game 18-12 after letting the Bengals score another two field goals. The game was described by many of my fellow journalists as the ugliest game they had ever seen. Even with my limited knowledge of the game I could see that, but as I rushed onto the pitch at full time with the ESPN journalists at my side I look up at the towering stands around me.
I had come a long way from my early days dreaming to be a journalist, and I’m sure I still have a long way to go. But it dawned upon me to enjoy this moment and soak it all in. As I was thinking this a 6-foot-11, 20 stone linebacker walked past. Everything in America is bigger and better I thought!
After the game I hurried to the locker room to catch a word with the Steelers dejected players after their first loss at home in eight games. They were surprisingly chatty to the media, and this for me is one of the biggest differences between media coverage on both sides of the Atlantic.
Barely seconds after a crushing loss a microphone and countless questions are thrust into the faces of these players. The media are allowed untold access, just imagine if Alex Ferguson would allow this to happen at Old Trafford?
I spoke to the man of the match, Steelers kick Jeff Reid about the possibility of the Steelers making the Trip across to Wembley maybe next year, he seemed very positive about the idea and confessed to being a closet Chelsea fan.
“I’m a soccer fan so I think it would be kind of great to play in Wembley Stadium, it would be a really cool atmosphere I’m sure,” said Reed.
When asked if he had a favourite English team he replied, “Chelsea practiced at our facility a few years ago and I got to meet them, they were class acts and some real nice guys.”
I then spoke to linebacker Nic Eason, who once played for the Scottish Claymores in Glasgow before NFL Europe was disbanded, so he is a man who knows all about travelling across “the pond” and the issues which may arise from such a lengthy trip in the middle of the season.
“I think it would be kind of a hindrance to our season,” said Eason. “So I’m kind of iffy on that, but for me it was a great experience living in Scotland, I got to see a different culture and it was great for me,” said the giant number 93.
Yet Steelers fans favourite James Farrior seemed to be very excited about the possible opportunity to play at Wembley.
“It’s a long way to go for a football game man, but I definitely think the fans would support us and I’m sure we have got a lot of Steelers fans over there, so it would be nice to go over there,” said Farrior.
Also when we spoke about the possibility of a future franchise in London, Farrior seemed just as optimistic.
“The NFL is always expanding and trying new things every year, and having a team based over in England would be a good thing.”
So my day was action packed and filled with drama. The NFL will certainly be a worthy addition to sports in England, but whether or not fans back home embrace the sport is another thing.
It’s taken me almost 3 years to fall in love with the game living in a city where the Steelers are top dog’s. But in all honesty I have a funny feeling a few years from now you will see Jeff Reed and co. kicking field goals at Wembley stadium. Mark my words.
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