Many of you reading this can insert your own favorite seat assignment into the title of this post and write about your memories at a particular sport, concert, or other large venue. The title refers to my late father’s season ticket assignment for the Pittsburgh Steelers at old Three Rivers Stadium (TRS) between 1970 and 1990.
TRS was built in 1970 as a multi-function stadium, which permitted American football and baseball to be played in the facility. Almost the entire bottom section of seating was on rollers so they could be moved to allow fans better viewing of the games, depending on what was being played. Many cities around that time were going to this one stadium concept, and many towns including Pittsburgh learned in hindsight these stadiums created poor viewing for baseball games and limited the options of each team to increase revenue (They had to share almost everything!). TRS was demolished in 2001 and replaced by two separate stadiums, Heinz Field (For the Steelers) and PNC Park (For the baseball Pirates, and THIS stadium is a marvel: A modern sports wonder of the world).
During the 1970’s my Dad watched the Steelers rise from the usual bottom-dwellers of the National Football League (NFL) to the best team in the NFL. Between 1974 and 1979 the Steelers won their first four championships after winning zero in their first 41 years of football. On December 23, 1972, my Dad was there when star player Franco Harris made the “Immaculate Reception” touchdown catch, which is arguably the greatest touchdown ever scored in the 96 year history of the NFL. He sat in seat 11 that day, which would become my seat when I started going to games.
My first game in these seats was in 1980 when I was five years old. I don’t remember much from that season, but I do remember my first game being against the Cincinnati Bengals. It was the year before the Bengals switched to their tiger-striped helmets, which they still wear to this day. I remember thinking how boring their helmets were when I sat there: They were plain orange and “BENGALS” was written across each side of the helmet. Look them up! They were bad. I might have only went to one or two games that first year, because my Dad wasn’t sure if I would like going to TRS with 55,000 other people at such a young age.
In 1981 I went to the majority of the games with my Dad. The 600-level seats were the highest seats in TRS, and row R was five or six rows from the top of the stadium. You could see the field well except for the one corner of the east end zone. A brand new facility, and they still couldn’t alleviate spectator blind spots in viewing baseball OR football. We used to pack food and hot beverages into a huge handle bag and take it into TRS, which kept us from having to buy all of the overpriced concessions at the games. This practice of bringing in outside food and drinks to sporting events in the U.S. has since been policed to the brink of extinction, starting in the mid-1990’s.
Each year, there was one home exhibition game along with eight regular season games. When the Steelers played on a Sunday or Monday night, my Dad always sold the tickets since I had to get up for school the next day and my Dad had to head out to work early. He never had trouble finding a buyer, even though the bulk of the 1980’s was a decade to forget in the annals of Steelers history. Out of the 70 to 75 Sunday afternoon games they played during the 1980’s, I was there for about 65 of them. My Mom or one of my brothers would occasionally go with my Dad, but I was the person in the house who followed the team closely, even more than my Dad. It was a great experience sharing that time with my late father, even if some of the game outcomes were terrible for the home team.
Our last game in those seats wasn’t sentimental, because at the time we didn’t know it would be our last game in that space we occupied for so many years. After reviewing the 1990 season, I can’t even be sure I attended the last three home games. I remember being there for the 20-9 victory against Atlanta, which took place in the middle of the season. With player salaries on the rise the Steelers also started to raise ticket prices. During the 1990 season, my Dad sold a few Sunday afternoon games to our neighbors to offset the cost of the ticket increase. He wanted to continue to do this into 1991, but the Steelers looked to be a poor team (They were) and the demand for tickets was very low. The economic recession put a tighter financial strain on my parents (My mother was a stay-at-home parent at the time), so my Dad could not afford the risk of having to pay $700 to go to TRS. In 1991, $700 was probably equal to about $2,000 in 2016. So in unspectacular fashion, my Dad decided to let go of the tickets.
Of course, the Steelers got better in 1992, but the waiting list for season tickets was probably around fifteen years at that time. In many other markets my father could have simply renewed the season tickets in a different seat assignment, but we were in the wrong town to have this as a solution. I went to three more games with my Dad in his life: A 1991 game against Washington (Tickets courtesy of his work, he paid for three and we took a friend of mine), a 1992 game against Detroit (Again from his work, we took one of my brothers that day) and a 2001 game against the New York Jets at Heinz Field. That time one of my brothers got the tickets through his work. Heinz Field was fine, but the atmosphere was not the same as old Three Rivers. It had more of a corporate feel to the crowd, since ticket prices were so high that none of the real supporters could afford to go to the games. To this day, that Jets game is my last Steelers game in attendance.
In a surreal moment that I get chills about to this day, my late father actually had a chance to say goodbye to our seats. From 1993 until his retirement in 2005, my Dad worked in pest control after he lost his job in the insurance industry. The company he worked for handled many large accounts, including TRS and the Civic Arena, where the hockey Penguins played. In late 2000, after the final home game for the Steelers, my Dad was sent in, alone, to set up bait traps to catch the big river rats before the Three Rivers implosion in January 2001 (The Steelers were afraid the rats would survive and then run into the new stadium next door). He started at the bottom of the stadium and had noticed that the construction workers ripping up the field were away for some unknown reason. He was alone in the seats and starting taking pictures with the camera that he brought since this might be the last time he would be in there. Actually, my Dad might have been the last non-employee, non-demolition crew visitor to Three Rivers.
Since nobody was around, he made his way up the ramps to section 662. He snapped a photo of the steps reminding me of the climb we made up to our seats in row R, which seemed endless when I was a young boy. He snapped a photo of the seats, two badly stained orange beauties with the seat numbers on the top right corner. He sat down in seat 12, and snapped a photo of the view we shared for ten years, and the view he had for twenty years. He then had a smoke and sat there for minutes in absolute silence except for the hum of highway traffic outside. He then descended the steps, went to work on the opposite side of the stadium, and left to come home. He went back before the blast to gather the traps on the bottom levels, but the top levels were blocked because they were being prepped for the charge of explosives that would take down TRS in a few weeks.
Many season ticket holders tried to unbolt their seats before the final home game, but the Steelers wouldn’t allow that to happen for various reasons, including the potential for a riot, which I would have bet on if the odds were 5-1. Aside from the torn up football field below, my father’s final view of Three Rivers from section 662, row R, seats 11 and 12 was serene and unblemished, a fitting farewell to our Sunday sanctuary of sport.