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Blast from past: Goodbye to Three Rivers

Sunday, December 17, 2000

By Robert Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The place had never been harder to get to or harder to leave. The Steeler Nation assembled from the far reaches of the empire on a dreary, drizzly, December day to bid a glowing farewell -- one for the place where dreams were made and another to the heroes, past and present, who made those dreams come true.

Franco Harris, holding the ball used in post-game ceremonies to recreate the Immaculate Reception, yuks it up with one of his successors as a Steelers legend, Jerome Bettis, after a 24-3 victory over the Redskins. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

The game summary will show that Richard Huntley scored the final touchdown in the 31st and last season of the concrete bowl, but Franco Harris crossed the goal line last, recreating the Immaculate Reception with Frenchy Fuqua. Terry Bradshaw, unable to attend, took part with a bit enacted on the big screen.

Harris was one of the last players to leave, posing for pictures and signing autographs in the end zone. Like the fans, he wanted to savor every last moment of the greatest single moment in stadium history and the most dramatic play ever in the NFL.

"Pittsburgh Steeler fans were always the best. Always the best. Special people," said Harris, trying to explain how a play that happened 28 years ago has gotten more miraculous with time.

It was a tough day to handle, but the fans did themselves proud, letting the house that had treated them to so many thrills go with dignity. That surprised those who stereotype all Steeler fans as beery louts who use the North Shore as an outdoor urinal.

The boisterous crowd was on its best behavior. A few seats were dismantled and removed by souvenir hunters, and a number of restroom signs were pilfered, whatever that says.

But no one was arrested. Five patrons were ejected, and three fights broke out -- which is fewer than a normal game. One man was hospitalized after falling 25 feet from a walkway ramp near Gate C. He suffered head and spine injuries.

It was a time of good cheer, and more than a few tears. Maybe there's no crying in baseball, but there were plenty of teary eyes among the steely tough football multitudes, 58,813 in all.

"I always thought of Three Rivers as a first home. Think of all the firsts that happen in your first home that can never happen ever again," said Mauren Cole, a nurse at Children's Hospital and a season ticket holder for 25 years.

"I'm excited about the new stadium, and that will be our new house. But home is where the heart is, and this will always be my home," she said.

Using her Terrible Towel as a crying towel, she was among the last to head for the exits. "I didn't want to leave," she said.

 
  Related articles:

'Home is where the heart is'

Steelers win, 24-3, plus related game stories

   
 

Just getting to this final game was a challenge, what with the construction of the new ballpark, football stadium and road network going on. Fans had to negotiate a maze set up like an obstacle course, wending their way around barriers, fences, orange cones and mud puddles.

But for this occasion, Steeler fans probably would have swam the rivers to bring down the curtain on a stage that provided glory, greatness and its share of disappointments.

The construction zone squeezed tailgating spots -- some fired up their grills as far away as the Mon Wharf -- but didn't stop the party. Thunder and lightning were greeted with cheers. When the rain fell, fans figured the heavens were crying with them. This was Steeler weather; the only thing better would be if it had been snowing.

The mood was uniquely Pittsburgh. Where else could Hank Williams Jr. sing the National Anthem and a country tune, then be followed by the polka fight song they used to play in the '70s?

With the sky the color of the bruises the old Steel Curtain used to lay on opposing quarterbacks, Washington actually had a 3-0 lead. But the Bus got his 100 yards, Hank Poteat returned a punt for a touchdown and Earl Holmes recovered a fumble for the final defensive gem of a 24-3 win.

But it was almost anti-climactic. Maybe the final game should have been the 21-20 win over Oakland rather than a win over a team with the league's highest payroll and a billionaire owner who charges his fans to watch Redskin practices. No matter.

Even the Steelers of today were into it. During the pre-game introductions, they ran the length of the field to commune with fans in the far end zone.

"They gave the fans everything they were looking for," said Lynn Swann, the former wide receiver who was among dozens of players who returned for a swan song.

Some of the old banners were hung in the rain, from the Steel Curtain to Dobre Shunka (Good Ham). But there were others appropriate to the finale, from Farewell Old Friend to We're Moving Out, See Yinz Next Door.

Franco Harris re-enacts the Immaculate Reception during postgame ceremonies. His famous play on Dec. 23, 1972, was named the greatest play at Three Rivers Stadium. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

After being energized by a victory, the festivities reached a new level when the Steelers of old, like gladiators returning to the arena, took the field. Even if the Steelers by some miracle make the playoffs, their wild-card game would be on the road.

While players like Mean Joe Greene couldn't attend, they took part by videotape.

Bradshaw was off doing network duties aboard a Navy ship, but he got a big cheer when he appeared on the Jumbotron. It seems like only yesterday that as a rookie playing the first game at Three Rivers, he was so nervous he threw up on tight end Bob Adams' shoe and Ray Mansfield had to call a play. Now he's a Hall of Famer with four Super Bowl rings who gets paid to talk football for Fox.

"It's hard for me to imagine that 30 years later, they're going to tear it down," Bradshaw said. He also provided a Bradshaw moment, suggesting that the unnamed new place be called Bradshaw Stadium.

That got a laugh from Dan Rooney. But the team president also got a lump in his throat when an NFL Films production resurrected clips of his father, team founder Art Rooney. Laughter mixed with tears, just like an Irish wake.

"I think The Chief was here in spirit with us," said Rocky Bleier. "He would have approved of moving forward. So now we start the new era."

What a thrill it was for former players to hear the roar one last time, six levels of sound focused onto the turf. To a man, players pumped their fists in the air and raised their index fingers as they crossed a walkway leading to midfield.

The loudest roars were reserved for those who played on all four Super Bowl winners in the '70s, which coupled with two World Series trophies in the same stadium provided the greatest sports high this city has ever known.

The cheers for Jack Lambert reached such decibel levels that he doffed his beret, although the ovation for former coach Chuck Noll was a close second on the noise meter.

L.C. Greenwood wore a Christmas cap, proving that red and white coordinates with the gold and black shoes he wore. His neon models were light years brighter than the old high-tops he once wore.

The post-game show, complete with fireworks, was so spectacular that Dermontti Dawson captured it all on his camcorder, the graybeards of yesteryear and the players of today circling the field for one last victory lap.

The strains of "Auld Lang Syne" and Sara McLachlan's "I Will Remember You" tugged at heartstrings.

Some fans had gone as far as to call talk radio to announce what size wrenches were needed to remove seats, but the mounted police that took the field after the game weren't needed. Neither were the security guards who surrounded the Steelers logo at midfield.

When fans did file out, search lights were shining on the new stadium rising just 65 feet away from the outer edge of Three Rivers. The fans are the lifeblood of this franchise, and while some question the wisdom of leaving a stadium on which $26 million is still owed, it is the fans who paid the charter seat licenses to help pay for new construction.

Many re-lit the fires to tailgate into the night, a time-worn ritual of the Steeler Nation. Those who walked home on the Fort Duquesne Bridge paused to take one last picture or just grab one last glimpse over their shoulders.

Unless they return for the January auction, they had left Three Rivers for the last time.


Staff writer Bill Heltzel contributed to this report.



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