I got to do something last weekend I haven’t done in ages… go on a football road trip. My brother and I traveled to Columbus OH to see the Buckeyes play the Michigan State Spartans. Our family has been taking football road trips since I was a kid; it’s just something we do. The ‘Rona has put the kibosh on that recently so it was nice to get out again.
Flying is still a pain but masks abounded, both in airports, planes and at our destination. In Columbus, if not all of Ohio, mask rules are strict, so we were masked up in any public areas unless we were outside.
It was a great trip and I was glad to spend some quality time with my brother. Given our proximity, living about 15 minutes from each other, we don’t hang out as much as we could. Now that we’re both active in caring for our mom, we’re getting together more often.
I’m not going to get into a bunch of football details, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least post the biggest highlight from our game experience, for which we had a stellar vantage point.
The grandeur of the Ohio State Marching Band’s “Script Ohio.” The dotting of the “I” comes at 2:50.
In pre-COVID days, our family would take a road trip to see Pittsburgh Steelers away games every year or two, depending on where they played. When your family is scattered across several states, it’s a good way to get together for a fun weekend. On this trip, it reminded me of when we started all this, back in the late 70s. We lived in Northwest Ohio and would travel to Cleveland to see the Steelers play the Browns. I posted about it a long time ago and thought it might be fun to revisit.
(Again, this is about the experience, not actual football. Fandom not required.)
The first year we went, 1979, it was a small affair. My dad took me and my brother and sister. We drove out, went to the game, then drove home. This is still the most memorable of the games we attended because the Steelers won that one 51-35. The game featured 2 long runs, one by Franco Harris and one by Rocky Blier, right into our end zone.
We had such a good time, we decided to make it an annual event, and hey, why not take some friends?
We started by bringing a couple of the neighbor girls to the game in 1980. By 1985, Dad was ordering 30 tickets from the Browns ticket office. He’d phone in his order on the day they went on sale and with a seating capacity of over 77,000 people in that butthole of a stadium, he never had a problem getting however many he wanted. It also helped that back then, they were only about $20 a pop. Granted, the seats were usually lousy… low in the end zone… but hey, we were in the house.
Now, going to the game was fun, but the Saturday before became what the weekend was all about.
Black and Gold Star Hotel
The second year we went out, Dad decided we should go on Saturday and stay at the Marriott on I-71. Nice rooms, nice pool and whirlpool, and convenient freeway access. What we didn’t know until we got there was that the Steelers themselves stayed there too. Consequently, the place was jammed packed with Steelers fans. And remember who was playing for the Steelers back then… All the legends were there… Lynn Swann, Stallworth, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Rocky Blier, Jack Lambert … You couldn’t turn around without running into a Hall of Famer.
Around Pittsburgh, this might not be a big deal. But this was 1980 and we lived in northwest Ohio. We never got to see these guys at places like store openings or around town. It was a luxury if we could see them on TV. Seeing these guys up close was a very big deal to us.
Through the years, we got our act down to a science. Our convoy would roll in Saturday afternoon and we’d check-in, requesting adjoining rooms where possible. Once in the rooms, the first order of business would be to ice down the 8-10 cases of beer we’d bring.
We found that the bathtub was best for this. Here’s a tip if you ever find yourself in such a situation: First, forget about using the tiny little ice bucket. Grab trash cans. Then raid the ice machines one floor above and one floor down. That way, you still have ice for screwdrivers at the tailgate on Sunday morning. You then lay down one layer of beer bottles, then a layer of ice, another layer of bottles, and so forth until you have this:
Once the beer was iced, we’d get into our swimsuits and go take over the pool area. The Marriott had a great pool, with big glass windows dividing it from an entrance hallway. It was so cool, during those December games, to be in there swimming and looking at the snow blowing outside.
Eventually, the Steelers bus would appear and we could see them getting their room keys from the pool area. One year, they had the table set up right in front of the pool window. Each player had a little card on the table with his room number. Which we could see. Man, we got a lot of autographs THAT year… And Marriott never set up like that again.
One year, we actually had rooms on the same floors that the Steelers did. They were restricting access to the players’ floors by then, but they had to let us in, obviously. I remember my sister took a used fork from Lynn Swann’s room service tray after he set it outside. She kept it in a baggie for years after, I think.
So after the Steelers bus arrived, we would all set out to look for players to get pictures and autographs. I didn’t really autograph hunt that much… I figured I was too grown for that, but I did take pictures where I could. Now my brother was the Autograph Master. He’d have a big stack of Sports Illustrateds and Steelers Digests under his arm and upon spotting a player, could always pull something out with their picture on the cover.
The elevators were a great place to player-watch. Plus, if you jumped in the elevator right before the doors closed like my brother did when a player got on, you’d have a slam dunk autograph opportunity.
Art Rooney Sr. was still around back then and was always willing to sign for the kids, even to the point of aggravating his son Dan. One time he was signing for a little group of kids, with Dan Rooney, his wife, Coach Chuck Noll and his wife waiting for him so they could go have dinner. Dan called to him to get a move-on, but The Chief wouldn’t budge until he’d signed for everyone.
No one hurries The Chief.
A Quick Detour
In September of 1981, my Dad took my brother and me out of school for a couple days to go with him down to Miami. He was there on business, but there just "happened to be" a Steelers that Thursday night game against the Dolphins. Again, we stayed in the same hotel as the Steelers. (Amazingly, back then you could just call the Steelers office and someone would tell you where they were staying. Try that nowadays…)
For this hotel trip, all the Steelers were there, but practically no other Steelers fans. We basically had the whole team to ourselves. The Steelers were just lying around the pool outside, hanging out.
My brother approached one klatch of players, Bennie Cunningham, John Stallworth, Donnie Shell, and Mel Blount. He asked, “Could I please take your picture?”
Bennie said, “Knock yourself out, baby.” This is what he got:
L-R Cunningham, Hall of Famers Stallworth, Shell, and Blount.
Sometime that afternoon, we struck up a conversation with punter Craig Colquitt and rookie kicker Dave Trout. We told them about how much different the scene in Cleveland was and said we’d see them there.
Back to Cleveland
So that November, there we were in the Cleveland Marriott, and there was Colquitt and Trout again. My dad finagled an invitation to come up to their room to hang out, so up we went, about a dozen of us crammed into the players’ room.
Colquitt standing to the left, Trout in the gold sweatshirt, with our crew. Love the old Instamatic C110 camera!
Once it got to be evening, we'd all head to the hotel’s bar. They always had either a DJ and dance floor or a band playing. Dad was very proficient at getting lots of underage kids into the place too. “This is my daughter too,” he’d say as he breezed another one through the doors. The youngsters weren’t drinking in there anyway, (there was more than enough beer in the room), but we and the other Steelers fans that had taken over the place laughed and chanted and danced the night away.
Dad, cutting up the floor with the kids.
We’d usually have at it until the wee hours and just before we wore ourselves out, we’d walk next door to the Denny’s beside the hotel. God, that was just perfect! Nothing like that late-night Grand Slam breakfast before bed. Then we’d retire to our rooms and collapse in beds, on floors, couches, pretty much any horizontal surface.
The next morning, always too early, we’d muster to watch the Steelers get on the bus. It was the last chance to wish our heroes well. People would line the hallway leading to the side door where the busses were, pressing forward as the players walked by. Except for Lambert. When Jack Lambert went by with his game face on, everyone just stayed back and went, “Have a nice game, Mr. Lambert.” Jack was always pumped up for the Browns game because he was from the area and they didn't draft him.
He was also a stickler for manners. Heaven help the kid that said to him, “Gimme your autograph,” or “Hey, sign this.”
Jack would bark, “I will NOT. Until you ask me politely.”
The kid would stammer, “Could I have your autograph, please?”
Jack would say, “Yes you may,” and then sign for him.
In the early years, we’d tailgate down at the Stadium parking lot. And it was always miserable out on Steelers/Browns day. Rain, sleet, snow, freezing rain… if it wasn’t ugly, it wasn’t Cleveland.
Posing in front of Cleveland Municipal Butthole Stadium
In later years, (early 90’s) we started tailgating in the Marriott parking lot. Was much easier that way, and we’d have that ice handy for our screwdrivers. Geez, Dad used to make them in these 32 oz. paper cups. That woke your ass up in a hurry. We’d grill and drink and throw the ball around, then take the subway down to the stadium.
We usually sat low in the closed end zone. Sometimes we’d be far enough back to be under the overhang, but other times not. The problem with sitting so low is that you have no perspective on the action. A play could gain 2 yards or 15, and you just couldn’t tell until they posted the yard line on the scoreboard. And remember, this was before the giant replay scoreboards. All you had to watch was the actual game.
Lambert brings his defense onto the field.
We had seats in the open end zone once, back before it became the Dawg Pound. It was still pretty rough though, even then. You also had to be careful not to go into the restrooms alone, wearing Steelers gear. People got jumped in there or on the concourses all the time.
Even during day games, it was always dark in Cleveland.
Sneaking liquor into the game was always a fun pastime. For the late-year games, we always brought brandy in little plastic hip flasks. They searched you coming in, but if you put the flask down the front of your pants, they never checked there. Dad had the greatest trick of all… his Bar-Noculars. In other words, it was a 2-sided flask that looked like a pair of regular binoculars. Each eyepiece screwed off and the booze was inside the core. He’d walk right up to the security people to be frisked, with the Bar-Noculars around his neck, put his arms out, and just smile.
One particularly raw day, I killed one of the flasks of brandy by myself. I tried to share around, but no one else wanted any. I nursed it all game and never felt the slightest bit drunk. I never had to pee, so I never moved the whole game. So when it was over and I got up to leave… whoa Nelly…
Once my blood started moving all that alcohol around, I was in serious trouble. I barely made it out to the car. I sat there in the passenger seat, just kind of head bobbing. It was like the world kept flipping up and up and up. Dad asked me if I was OK. I said I thought my vertical hold was busted. (Those of you that remember the old TVs will get that reference.) That was a rough ride home but at least I made it without hurling. But the lesson was learned no hoggin’ the flask!
I look back on those times now and am just amazed. I mean, can you imagine something like these trips going on in 2021? Not even including the contagion issue. Dad was often the only adult on the trip. He would pay for the tickets and hotel rooms and there would be anywhere from 6 to 30 people, mostly under 18. Could you imagine being 16 or 17 today, and asking your parents: “Hey, I want to go with my friends, boys and girls, to a hotel 2 hours away for the weekend to go to a football game. We’re going to have a bathtub full of beer and tailgate with vodka screwdrivers in the morning. My friend’s dad will be the only chaperone. Can I go?
I think that would be a hard sell. But I can say that no one ever got hurt or in any kind of trouble, and we all had a blast.
Director's DVD Commentary: Just in case you're wondering how a Steelers fan is also an Ohio State Buckeyes fan: Our family is originally from Pittsburgh, but we moved away when I was six, to various other cities across the Midwest, including four years in Columbus. That was during my formative years when I was in 6th through 9th grades. Our mom got her Master's degree there so my brother and I saw our first college games at "The Shoe," and have been Buckeyes ever since. But we also inherited our dad's enthusiasm for Pittsburgh sports, so we have always been Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates fans, wherever we lived.