Celebration, catharsis meet at Heinz Field

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Amid fireworks, a live concert, a light show and a ceremony to honor the Steelers' five Super Bowl championships, all staged in an elaborate, made-for-live-television show that the NFL calls its Opening Kickoff, a populace's prolonged offseason celebration collided with a Thursday to form either a crescendo or a catharsis. Or both.

The Steelers and visiting Miami Dolphins commenced the 2006 NFL season last night, only a few scant turns and hours from the funeral procession after which Mayor Bob O'Connor was laid to rest.

At 8:31 last night, the emotions of the day were entwined when Corey O'Connor strode to the center of Heinz Field and waved a Terrible Towel in remembrance of his late father.

"That poor child, what he went through today, then to be here," Debby McGrogan of Carnegie said while standing on the terrace underneath the JumboTron, alongside her husband, Tom. "I got to quit getting chills."

"That was just wonderful to see his son out there. Awesome," added Tim Clemens, a member of the Washington County sheriff's office. "We followed the procession into town this afternoon, and we tailgated in memory of him."

The late mayor indeed was known to partake of such pregame festivities around the Heinz Field parking lots, which were teeming with more of the same yesterday afternoon. A measure of the merriment seemed to provide a release of seven months' steam, a post-Super Bowl XL Steelers' summer filled with Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident, talk of Coach Bill Cowher's retirement, rookie Santonio Holmes' run-ins with authorities, Joey Porter's bottled-up ire over his contract and other assorted sensations that such champions label minor distractions. Last night was merely a chance for the Steelers Nation and Pittsburgh to let its hair down, or at least its Troy Polamalu wig.

Perhaps it wasn't a good sign when cornerback Deshea Townsend's shiny, yellow, 1971 Cutlass convertible conked out around 6 p.m. at the corner of General Robinson and Mazeroski Way. The heck with the Oldsmobile, this isn't your grandfather's football team -- it brought home a Lombardi Trophy to Pittsburgh for the first time in 26 years. Jersey-clad fans in Polamalus, Porters and Willie Parkers, in Hines Wards, Heath Millers and Ben Roethlisbergers filed past the Gateway Center patch of grass where the triumphant parade concluded last February. They walked up Fort Duquesne Boulevard under leftover FanFest banners and reconvened on the North Shore, the Steelers Nation epicenter on game days. Or nights.

Visitors feel welcome there, too.

"I won't go to, like, New York or Oakland, but I'll go to friendly confines," said Steve Petrie of Centennial, Colo., a South Florida native wearing a Dolphins golf shirt. His wife, Rachel, was wearing a Miami No. 13, rendered famous by one Dan Marino. "I think we'll be all right."

"Better be -- I'm wearing the ugly shirt," Mrs. Petrie snapped.

"Don't worry," her husband said, "he's from Pittsburgh."

Ken Welty is from Annapolis, Md., but he's a McMurray guy and Steelers season-ticket holder for 14 years -- after his late father owned the seats the previous 21 seasons. He outfitted his truck with a power generator and two huge, disc-jockey speakers, the better to entertain the 20-plus fans that gather around his tiki-hut bar. Mr. Welty and some friends are heading to the Colts-Giants game Sunday, then the Vikings-Redskins Monday nighter, followed by next Sunday at Chiefs-Broncos, mostly because he'll be in Denver on business.

He was asked the question of the night: Will the Steelers repeat?

"I don't know about that," Mr. Welty replied with a grimace. "I've been a Steelers' fan too long to get excited. How many times did they almost make it? I'm a realistic Steelers fan, and it's hard to be that."

"No, they won't," said Mike Petitta of Cranberry, the fellow with The Bus vehicle, the six kegs of beer, the music, the grill and the scads of partygoers in Lot 1. "I just want to be honest."

"Am I allowed to say 'Hell, yeah!' in the newspaper?" Lindsey Oleksa, a 2005 Steel Valley High graduate in a Charlie Batch jersey, asked her Polamalu-clad mother, Stephanie. Mom answered sternly: "No."

So the show went on, with scalpers on bicycles and cellphones (and sometimes both concurrently) getting $200-plus a ticket, and fans desperately seeking seats, including one holding a sign: "Illinois Steelers' fans, need tickets." Those folks who didn't get into the stadium missed the Rascal Flatts concert, the gyrating colored lights adorning The Point and bridges, Jerome Bettis arriving for his NBC employers in a yellow school bus and then emerging to wave a Terrible Towel in his return to the Heinz Field grass.

Franco Harris represented Super Bowl IX, Lynn Swann X, Mel Blout XIII, L.C. Greenwood XIV and the entire 2006 Steelers XL. After an eight-second moment of silence for the late mayor -- Mr. Clemens raised his ballcap to Mr. O'Connor's photograph on the JumboTron -- and more fireworks and Martina McBride's national anthem, and Corey O'Connor's towel wave, the Steelers and Dolphins aligned at 8:38 for the real-time opening kickoff.

And so began another journey to determine a Super Bowl champion.

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


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