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‘It’s like a little heart in our city’
The Steelers are celebrating 20 seasons at Heinz Field
By Teresa Varley Dec 06, 2020

The Steelers are celebrating their Alumni Weekend, honoring the 20th season at Heinz Field. Steelers Legends shared their Heinz Field stories as a part of the celebration.

Home.

It's a place where we find comfort, where we gather with friends and family, where we enjoy wonderful times together and celebrate special occasions.

It a place where traditions are made, where milestones are recognized and where we enjoy life with the ones we are closest to.

Home, quite simply, is where the heart is.

And for the Steelers, for 20 seasons, home is Heinz Field.

The games, the wins, the plays, the bright gold seats, the Heinz Ketchup bottles, the Terrible Towels, 'Renegade,' the fans and the memories. Those are some of the comforts of home the team has enjoyed since Heinz Field opened in 2001 and through the 20 seasons it has been a place where the black and gold has found success and brought joy to countless Steelers fans.

October 7, 2001.

This wasn't supposed to be a historic date in Heinz Field history. It wasn't supposed to be the date the first regular season game was played at Heinz Field.

But after the team's Week 2 game against the Cleveland Browns, which was to have been played on Sept. 16, 2001 at Heinz Field, was postponed because of the September 11 attacks, that October date became the date of the first regular season game at the team's shiny, new home.

And what a game it was, as the Steelers christened Heinz Field by defeating the Cincinnati Bengals, 16-7.

With a backdrop of American flags waving during pregame and national pride at a peak, the Steelers knew they had a job to do.

"The atmosphere was kind of mixed," said Mark Bruener, the former tight end selected in the first round of the 1995 NFL Draft and now a college scout with the team. "There was so much excitement for the opening of the new stadium, but there was sadness because of the events that happened on September 11. We, as the NFL and as a team, we looked at that opportunity to not celebrate ourselves, or open Heinz Field as a stadium, but rather make our city an example to the country of our solitude to bring us together and show our solidarity with regards to the events that happened in the weeks leading up.

"The halftime, with President (George) Bush addressing the country and that being shown on the scoreboard, that was an example of the country's solidarity. I was happy we were able to show everyone that."

Along with that pride in the country was also a feeling of fear, and Bruener and his teammates knew the one thing they had to do was play without fear.

Jerome Bettis delivered, just like you would expect. Bettis, who was acquired by the Steelers via a trade in 1996 and went on to be a Pro Football Hall of Fame selection, carried the ball 23 times for 153 yards, including a 48-yard run, and had amassed 103 yards by halftime.

It was a rather nondescript three-yard carry in the first quarter that provided the first great memory in Heinz Field history when Bettis eclipsed the 10,000-yard mark for his career, becoming the 14th player in NFL history to do so at the time.

The joy it brought the team, and even more the fans, even if for just three hours, was huge.

"We knew going into the game he was going to be close to the mark," said Bruener. "For him to achieve that unique mark in the first game at Heinz Field, it was exhilarating for all of us. To be a teammate of his and know that you were a teammate of a future Hall of Fame running back at the time and him achieve that, it was really special."

Bettis remembers the moment, the group of fans in the stands holding up the individual numbers to signify 10,000 yards.

"That was sweet," said Bettis. "To have such a memorable moment in the new stadium on a day when people needed something positive. It was like kicking off the stadium and bringing the stadium into the family. It's a new stadium, is it going to work. Then you do something good there and everyone accepts it like home. It was a good way to welcome Heinz Field into the family."

Moving on up.

That is what the Steelers did when they stepped foot into Heinz Field.

Now, this isn't a knock on Three Rivers Stadium. It was home to a lifetime of memories for the Steelers and their fans.

But like everything in life, change is inevitable.

Three Rivers Stadium was a multi-purpose one, built for football and baseball. It lacked the modern conveniences and many of the comforts and luxuries that NFL stadiums have today.

The memories there will never go away, but it was time to find a new home.

"It was like we left an F-150 truck that was tough and rugged, and we went to a Ferrari and this is something else," said Bettis. "It had all of the bells and whistles, the locker room, everything was state of the art. Where we came from was doable, it was sturdy, it was great, but it was well past its prime. To go into Heinz Field, it was like wow.

"Playing at Heinz Field, the atmosphere was incredible. It was the fans that made the atmosphere. The stadium is the backdrop. It provided a beautiful backdrop looking out to the city in the open side. It was an incredible canvas for us to provide the story and the picture."

Like Bettis said, it really was like, 'wow.' Spacious locker rooms. Fans closer to the field. Better sightlines. Everything a player dreams of, Heinz Field has delivered and continues to do so.

"Night and day to say the least," said Bruener. "Three Rivers Stadium was a dual-purpose stadium for the Pirates and Steelers.

"I remember walking into the weight room at Three Rivers for the first time and my high school weight room had a bigger footprint. I am looking like wow, this is interesting. Then I realized the four Super Bowls that were won prior to me getting there were won by players who trained in that weight room and I thought, well, if it was good enough for them, it's definitely good enough for me.

"I remember my first minicamp and guys were talking about our grass practice field. I was like where is it? They said you just walk down the street, a block past the warehouse and cross the street. I thought they were joking. Sure enough, I follow everybody out and we go out there and I am like, that is the practice field. Having that as how I was introduced to the NFL made me appreciate what I have. If an individual is willing to work in any type of environment, you can be successful. But it was sure nice to have Heinz Field to work at.

"Heinz Field was built just for football and laid out for fan engagement. You would feel it at Three Rivers, but to the nth degree at Heinz Field. Maybe it was how close the fans were. They were leaning over the railing and cheering and showing their excitement and emotion.

"You can't describe it and give it justice. The hairs on the back of your neck standing up. The butterflies in your stomach. Those are all unique things, they really are."

Heinz Field truly was home for tight end Heath Miller, the team's first-round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft who played his entire 11-year career there. It was a place he loved, a place he and his teammates found success, a place that was everything and then some to him.

"Playing at Heinz Field meant a lot to me personally and our team," said Miller. "It was home to us. All of the comforts of home. Driving through the city, the picturesque look of the stadium by the river, seeing the fans tailgating. It's a scene, looking back at my career, that made you feel at home when you were driving to the stadium on game day. Once the game kicked off the fans are the most passionate and best in the NFL. That was to our advantage for sure.

"It has some unique characteristics. The one end was fully open, even though they closed it some now. It was unique. I think it fits the city, the personality of the team and the community. It's a special place.

"Playing there is something I will never forget. The memories are ones I will always hold dear. I came back to one game for a reunion a couple of years ago. It was my first game back at Heinz Field since I retired. The hair on the back of my neck, I got goosebumps walking back in there. The feeling that you had, that unique special feeling you had out there to play a game, will never go away.

"You always have the vision of a sea of Terrible Towels twirling and 65,000 people going crazy. It's a picture you will never forget in your mind. It was always quite the scene to see the Terrible Towels twirling at key times in the game."

While Heinz Field was built in the shadows of Three Rivers Stadium, the look and the feel were completely different.

"It's a special spot," said Brett Keisel, a former defensive end who played for the Steelers for 13 seasons. "Right there on the North Shore where the three rivers connect and the history that has been laid there. Being able to go out there and play for a city that is blue collar, hard-working, loves and supports their team was a dream come true. When they light it up, when things get loud in there and the towels start twirling, I think the whole city starts to shake. It's definitely unique.

"When people come to Pittsburgh to visit, Heinz Field is the first thing that slaps you in the face, the first thing you see, when you come through the Ft. Pitt Tunnel. It's the first thing I saw.

"It's like a little heart in our city."

The plays. The games. The moments. The memories.

They are plentiful. They are joyful. They are forever embedded in the minds and hearts of any of us who have spent many a Sunday afternoon or night, or a Monday night, at Heinz Field.

And they are forever embedded in the minds of those who played in the games, who were a part of making those memories.

"As a player you try to describe the exhilaration when you run out of the tunnel and they announce your name as a part of the starting lineup," said Bruener. "When you run out of that end zone, and that tunnel, and you would look in the stands and see the Terrible Towels swinging, a sea of yellow. When you are the player, they introduce you, and you are running out there and see that sea of yellow, it's one of the most unique sights any player can see. That just shows how great our fan base is. That is a memory that will always be with me."

There are 20 seasons of memories. Twenty seasons of highlight films. Twenty seasons of the best of the best.

"It's hard to pick one memory. There are so many," said Keisel. "The thing that stands out are the AFC Championships. The moments before it, being able to win an AFC Championship, winning it for the first time at Heinz Field, there in front of our fans was special. Any time you can make history it sticks with you."

Oh yes, those AFC Championship games. The Steelers won two AFC Championship games at Heinz Field, one in 2009 when they defeated the Baltimore Ravens, the second in 2011 when they defeated the New York Jets.

"Probably my favorite memory was when we got to play the AFC Championship game at home in 2009," said Miller. "We beat the Ravens for the third time that year. Just the celebration afterwards. When you win a Super Bowl, the crowd is kind of neutral. Yes, there are a lot of Steelers fans there, but for us to win that game in our house, in front of our family so to speak, that was cool to enjoy that moment not only with our team, but with our city as well."

The Steelers beat the Ravens, 23-14, on January 18, 2009 in the AFC Championship game before going on to win Super Bowl XLIII. The defense had three interceptions and two sacks, but it would be Troy Polamalu's interception that would make the difference. On third-and-13 from the Ravens' 29-yard line, Polamalu intercepted Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco at the 40-yard line and took it all the way back for a touchdown and 23-14 Steelers lead, which would secure the win and a trip to Super Bowl XLIII.

"The one moment I will never forget is Troy's interception in the AFC Championship game," said Ryan Clark, who signed with the Steelers in 2006 as an unrestricted free agent. "It signified so much. It was against the Ravens. It signified we had the chance to do something that we dreamt about as little kids, and that was the play that put us there. It felt like the right person, made the right play, at the right time, in the right place. To me it was the most sweet and poetic moment I have had on the football field. For that to happen in front of our fans, for him to finish it there in the end zone we ran down to before the game, and make that play, and us all be a part of it, that is the first moment that sticks out to me when I think of Heinz Field.

"What was so crazy is usually during the play, you don't recognize the fans. But when the play is over, you hear the fans. When Troy crossed the goal line, you could hear it going crazy. As much as we were celebrating ourselves, it was almost deafening. We were screaming, but we couldn't hear each other. We were yelling for Troy and he couldn't hear us. It was our moment. We shared that together. It was part of history. Every fan that was in Heinz Field knows where they were sitting and what they were wearing when he made that play because it was so much about all of us."

Those AFC Championship games weren't the only great memories. Yes, they were two of the top ones selected by a panel of the Top 5 games in Heinz Field history, but there were others including the Wild Card win over the Cleveland Browns in 2003, the Christmas Day win over the Ravens in 2016 when Antonio Brown extended his arm for a game-winning touchdown reception to win the AFC North, and the Steelers win over the Chicago Bears, when Jerome Bettis ran over Brian Urlacher in a game that was critical in the Steelers run to Super Bowl XL.

That highlight reel of Bettis running over Urlacher in the win over the Bears is one that will never get old for Steelers fans. Willie Parker started the game at running back, but it was Jerome Bettis who would finish with 17 carries for 101 yards and two touchdowns. And it was that second touchdown that is still talked about today and was a testament to what Bettis meant to the team.

With snow falling and the conditions deteriorating, the Steelers called on Bettis and he answered.

"My role is to come in and spell Willie, but this game set up for me in terms of the conditions and the field," said Bettis after the game. "I've always been known as a mudder, and the field really played into my favor in terms of being able to run the ball."

No, he wasn't a starter any longer, but he was a force to be reckoned with. Just ask Urlacher. In the third quarter Bettis barreled through the Bears' defense, leveling Urlacher as he tried to hold on to Bettis with no luck as he scored on a five-yard touchdown run.

"It was a counter play. I was going from the left to the right," recalled Bettis. "I was running behind Alan Faneca. I went through the hole. As soon as I got through there was a safety that showed up pretty quickly. Without thinking, boom, I ran him over and then I see Urlacher coming and it was one of those, okay, here it goes. That was the moment of truth. I had just run the one guy over and I didn't have as much momentum as I would like to. I kind of dipped through, ripped through, and kept my knees kind of moving. That was the part that kept me kind of going forward. I kept the knees going. Once I saw the end zone, I was like I have to get there. I am too close. So, I dove to make sure I got there.

"I think about the play, but for me it signified our Super Bowl run and how we were able to go from almost missing not actually playing in the playoffs to going on and that game propelling us to win the championship. That means more to me than having a great individual play. That is the play that represented us going on to win the championship."

Steelers fans.

We all know what they mean to the team and the one thing everyone wondered when the team moved from Three Rivers Stadium to Heinz Field was, how would the fans react.

Three Rivers Stadium had been their home for a long time, season ticket holders who had become accustomed to what was familiar.

But if there was any doubt how they would adapt, it was answered quickly.

"Through thick and thin they are always going to cheer for you," said Bruener. "Their allegiance to Steelers football is unique. I played for the Houston Texans at the end of my career. They have good fans, but the energy and passion our fans have is unique. When you talk to somebody who has been a season ticket holder for 40 plus years, or a second or third generation, that is the uniqueness of the support we have."

Bettis remembered seeing the stands shake at Three Rivers Stadium, even if that wasn't the plan. But what he saw at Heinz Field, it just blew him away.

"It was amazing. To see them waving those towels. To see the energy," said Bettis. "That's just something that as a football player you feed off. We would see that. That would get us going. In the fourth quarter, when they would get on their feet, that sent goosebumps through your body. It was great for us to have that visual in our head and it never got old.

"We always loved it. It never got old to see the Terrible Towels wave, that crowd. That was an intimidation factor as well. Those guys on the other side saw it too and knew they were in a hostile environment."

Hostile toward the other team, yes.

Loving the home team, absolutely yes.

"It was amazing," said Clark. "I went to LSU which is a school that is deep in football tradition. I just feel like a lot of NFL stadiums didn't have tradition. They didn't have things that when you went into the stadium on Sunday, you knew you were going to get. That everybody knew was coming. Also, Pittsburgh gave you that college town field. You didn't walk around Pittsburgh and see fans of the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns or Cincinnati Bengals. If you lived in Pittsburgh, if you were a part of that culture, you were a Steelers fan. Because of that when you walked into the stadium, you felt like you were playing in front of family.

"When the screen would go black, and you would hear 'Renegade' start, everybody knew what was coming. And when you saw the Terrible Towels, everybody knew what time it was. The atmosphere was so amazing, traditional, historic, it made it feel like the stadium was around forever because it wasn't just about the building, it was about the people. That was the greatest thing about what Heinz Field brought to us each and every week."

There might not have been anyone who felt that love more than Miller. If you were at a game at any point in Miller's career you no doubt heard it any time Miller touched the ball.

'Heeeeeeath.'

It was a constant. The crowd would erupt in a roar in unison every time he caught the ball, and even sometimes when other tight ends caught the ball.

"Looking back, and at the time, it made you feel good, especially when you are giving your all to the team and all the work and preparation you put in," said Miller. "To have that kind of affirmation by the fans and be appreciated, there is no better feeling. When I said Heinz Field was home, when you hear the fans chant your name and cheer for you in that way, it makes you feel even better, that you are home, that you are accepted and cheered on.

"Heinz Field, the fans were a huge part of our success. We played some big games in that stadium. We won some big games in that stadium. There was always a comfort when we were playing at home in front of our fans. We never felt like we were going to lose when we were there."

"Oh Mama, I'm in fear for my life from the long arm of the law.

Lawman has put an end to my running and I'm so far from my home.

Oh Mama, I can hear you a-crying and you're so scared and all alone.

Hangman is coming down from the gallows and I don't have very long."

Close your eyes for a minute and picture the scene.

The screen on the giant scoreboard in the South endzone goes black.

You hear a murmur through the crowd, that will eventually become a deafening roar.

The music begins calmly as defensive highlights burst onto the screen, and all eyes are glued on the havoc the defense has brought on opponents as Terrible Towels wave.

The players on the field and sideline are jumping around, getting the crowd fired up, while the opposing team sometimes looks, and other times just looks away.

And then…you hear that scream and Heinz Field explodes.

It's 'Renegade' time. A time that will always be special for every player who has experienced it.

"Those are memories that are embedded into my brain and into my body, those moments when that screen went black," said Keisel. "That first rift comes on and the crowd starts to buzz, electrify. We have a big stop, or a big turnover, game changing play because of that energy that was created. It's something that goes up my spine every time I hear it, even on the radio. It's a legendary song that has legendary meaning."

That was the thing. When that song was played, it meant the defense was needed for a big play. It meant the pressure was on.

"What was crazy about it is you almost got nervous," said Clark. "As hype as you got, there was an expectation of very high-level defensive play once that song went off. The biggest thing for me is it was always a signal. Although the highlights were us, it was always a signal that Pittsburgh Steelers defense was bigger than the people on the field. It was always a sign that more than anywhere else in the world, defense mattered to what we were doing. When you think about the Steel Curtain, the Steel Curtain is as synonymous with any dynasty in sports. It's because it was built on defense. It was built on physicality. It was one of those reminders that people that cheer for this team care about what the 11 people on that side of the ball do. It's not just about the flair and fun of offense. It's about imposing your will on somebody.

"For me it was a sign it's time to go to work. It wasn't just a chance to get the crowd hype, it was letting you know that everybody here is rocking with you, everybody here is dependent on you. When we are great, it's because our defense is dominant. It was our turn to go out and show we are dominant."

Even those on the offensive side of the ball, some who always seemed so cool and collected, had their juices flowing when 'Renegade' was played.

"It was cool. I was jealous I couldn't be out there for that play," said Miller. "It not only got the defense, but the whole team pumped up. Fortunately, when I played, like they do now, the defense was really special. It got our whole team juiced up to hear that song. To see our defense go to work and make big plays after that song, that was special."

The memories at Heinz Field for these players will last forever, and for them the best part is, the memories are continuing.

"Heinz Field is an amazing place," said Bettis. "It will be an amazing place for years to come."

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