PITTSBURGH — This was the Steelers’ saddest game, begun with a profoundly quiet moment of silence, ended with tears, wedged into a city that is only beginning to mourn.
The Steelers beat the Browns, 33-18, Sunday and if sports can provide a respite from the harsh world outside the stadium gates, then this was as good an effort as could be, particularly because it featured a homegrown star, running back James Conner, and fans who had cheered him in college got to chant his name here, too.
It didn’t really feel like this was much of a catharsis this soon, though. The list of the 11 victims of Saturday’s massacre at a synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood was released by authorities just hours before kickoff, and nobody on the Steelers needed to read it to know how very close to home this horror had hit. The Steelers had just finished their Saturday walkthrough when they first heard that there had been a shooting and, like everyone else here, they scrambled to check on family members and friends.
Mike Tomlin lives about 800 yards away from the synagogue and he struggled when he spoke briefly about it after the game, saying words could not express how the Steelers feel as members of the community. Two of the dead, brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, who were greeters at the synagogue, are the siblings of the Steelers’ former community relations manager, Michele Rosenthal. The brothers had developmental disabilities and Michele’s former colleagues were in tears before kickoff remembering how she used to worry about them.
"We try to use football as a getaway when we’re on that field," said Cam Heyward, who grew up in Pittsburgh and remembered that his mother had attended bar and bat mitzvahs at the synagogue and his dad had played basketball at the nearby Jewish Community Center. "Sometimes fans do that as well. It doesn’t make you forget, but it helps take your mind off it a little bit. If we can do that for anybody, we want to."
"Just thinking about ones we lost," he later added. "You might not have known them personally. You might have. As a human, as a person in the community, even if you are living in the city for a week — you should care. There are so many different people this affects."
The Steelers, perhaps more than any other team except the Packers, feel distinctly woven into their community and the identity of their city. On Saturday night, an image of their logo was adjusted online to include a Star of David as an evocative symbol of the area’s collective grief. Heyward mentioned that Joe Greene helped teach players that when they play for the Steelers, they play for the city, too, and that the players take that personally.
It is a sometimes strange cliché that sports can help heal after tragedy, but it is hard to imagine that even the return of running back Le’Veon Bell — whenever it happens — will provide anything more than fleeting relief to a stunned city.
The Steelers can be a temporary distraction, though, and given that they just won their third game in a row a pretty good one. After an uneven start to the season, the defense is improving, holding the Browns to just 237 yards and harassing Baker Mayfield into inaccuracy. The Pittsburgh offense is versatile, capable still of a quick strike 43-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown but also using a power running drive by Conner late in the third quarter. The latter helped them quickly recover from a Browns touchdown drive facilitated by a Steelers brain freeze — when they failed to cover a free kick following a safety. Tomlin succinctly summed that play up by saying, "We screwed it up." Conner finished with 146 yards and two touchdowns — his third straight game with at least 100 rushing yards and two touchdowns — and his presence has helped halt the hand-wringing over Bell’s absence. But the drama that seemed to be on the Steelers’ doorstep with their shaky start has departed for Cleveland and, at least for a few minutes in the Steelers locker room, there were some smiles.
Ben Roethlisberger spent Saturday night listening to the news and was struck by how reporters tried to describe Pittsburgh to a national audience, as a "big, small city." As fans headed out on a rainy night, the sobering reality returned — the respite was over. Come Monday morning, the investigation and the memorials and the grief will again be the first topic of conversation.
"It’s hard," Roethlisberger said. "Coach always talks about when we step inside the white lines, everything else has to go away. But sometimes that’s easier said than done. We’re thankful for the victory, but we also understand there are bigger things. There is life. I’m glad we could give people maybe three hours of a break, of maybe not thinking about it all the time. That’s what sports does. It’s over. People are going to celebrate. But reality still sets in for a lot of people."
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