LONDON – There were any number of things the Steelers could point to today that were letting them know they were in a foreign country – such as checking into your hotel room and finding leather-bound hardcover editions of classics written by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen – but then there always seemed to be something else that reminded them of home.
After an eight-hour red-eye trip from Pittsburgh to Gatwick Airport got the Steelers on the ground in jolly ole' England at about the time most Londoners were heading off to work on this last Friday in September, the walk through the airport was the first indication that things are different here. Police armed with high-powered automatic weapons stationed periodically through the airport has a way of getting your attention.
From the airport, the team headed to a station to board a train for a ride into London, and one of the signs posted to welcome the team to the city and promote Sunday's game against the Vikings made use of the ultimate Pittsburgh colloquialism, yinz. Then it was on the train, where one of the conductors let it be known he was married to a woman from Penn Hills. On the elevator at the Intercontinental London Park Lane, which serves as the team's base of operations during its time in England, a young lady boarded for the ride to her room and let it be known that she attended Fox Chapel High School.
Steelers Nation truly is a global phenomenon.
It didn't take long to realize that what will take place between the Steelers and Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at Wembley Stadium is more than just a regular season NFL game. It's a showcase for the league in its attempt to grow its product globally, and so in the area of media responsibilities for the team this trip trended more towards a Super Bowl than a regular season road game.
Shortly after arrival at the hotel, there was a media session across the street, and Coach Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Keisel, Antonio Brown, Ike Taylor, and David DeCastro took turns at the podium for the Steelers. There was a surprising level of understanding among the British media, not only for the game of American football but also for the particular issues that have been plaguing the Steelers during their 0-3 start to this season.
Taylor was asked about the lack of takeaways by the defense, and DeCastro was quizzed about the struggles of the team's running attack. Sitting in the audience was Steelers President Art Rooney II, and when the session with Tomlin and the players ended, enough of the assembled media recognized him that an impromptu mini-press conference broke out with him as the central figure.
British journalists covering American football all want to know one thing: what are the chances of London having an NFL franchise?
What Rooney, a member of the NFL's International Committee, told them was encouraging without promising anything. He said that an NFL franchise in London is a likely step in the league's efforts to grow interest in the sport, but he also told them that the London franchise will be one that moves from its existing city in America because the league has no plans for expansion. And no definitive timetable was offered.
But just getting off an eight-hour flight brought several issues regarding the reality of a London franchise into plain view: while the Steelers, or any existing NFL franchise for that matter, could alternate games at home and on the road for a couple of months with no ill effects, imagine that for the London franchise. Think about this as a month in the life of the London Jaguars, for example: London at Dallas, followed by New England at London, then London at Miami, followed by Washington at London. Clearly logistics would have to be worked out, but those kinds of details would have just spoiled an otherwise festive mood.
On Sunday, there will be a game played in front of 85,000-plus fans at Wembley Stadium matching two winless teams whose performances to date this season have left them open to a lot of criticism from their fan bases in America. And yet, this game will be staged in merry, joyous atmosphere here.
And that right there should have been the biggest thing letting the Steelers know they were in a foreign country.