Though Steelers fans watching last Sunday’s game on television did not see it, many of the spectators at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field stood up and left after the Miami Dolphins scored their final touchdown. With just over a minute left on the clock (a lot of time in professional football), Miami kicked a field goal, and even though the home team was then trailing by only six points, the rest of the dejected crowd, festooned in their black and gold, muttering disgust, flowed as from a broken dam down the exit ramps.
In their rush to the parking lots and the inevitable traffic jams, tens of thousands of these fans missed perhaps the most exciting play of Pittsburgh’s season. On the final play of the game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger passed to receiver Emanuel Sanders, who initiated a series of desperate laterals that ended with Antonio Brown racing down the sideline and into the end zone. Had two-thirds of the crowd not left the building, the reaction might have registered on the Richter scale.
Unfortunately, Brown stepped out of bounds – just barely – on his way to a touchdown, and in an atmosphere of stunned confusion, officials signaled that the Dolphins were the victors.
Had Brown’s shoe not nipped the sideline, the play might well have surpassed the famous “Immaculate Reception” of 1972 as the greatest play in Steelers history. Had his foot fallen an inch to the right, the Steelers would have won the game and possibly made the playoffs. And everyone who had sat through a snowstorm but left before the end of the game would have missed it.
We can’t help but think that some of those early departers will be too discouraged to be back next game, or next year. For them, football without a trip to the Super Bowl is not worth the effort. The fans who remained in their seats Sunday, just like those loyal followers of the Pittsburgh Pirates who struggled through 20 consecutive losing seasons, know that, in sports, winning isn’t everything. There is so much more that happens on the field worth witnessing: shifting momentum, euphoria, humiliation and flashes of genius.
So much drama takes place in a stadium, and it’s not over until the curtain finally falls.