Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Super Bowl XLV:
History intertwined

By Mike Batista

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers play Super Bowl XLV on what would have been Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday.

Kind of funny, considering how these two proud franchises fell on hard times during the Reagan years.

The Packers won NFL championships in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967. After winning the last two of those titles, they went on to beat the AFL champion in the first two Super Bowls.

While Reagan was president, the Packers made the playoffs only once, and even that was during the strike-shortened 1982 season, when 16 teams made the playoffs.

After winning four Super Bowls in the 1970s, the Steelers made the playoffs four times in the 1980s, but never got past the AFC championship game. They were the model of mediocrity in the decade, finishing 79-79, playoffs included.

One of Reagan's slogans during the 1984 presidential campaign was "Morning in America."

For the Packers and Steelers, it was the morning after, and the 1980s for them was the walk of shame.

During the George H.W. Bush presidency, both franchises saw a flicker of hope.

While the Berlin Wall was taken down in 1989, the Steelers and Packers appeared to be making a similar breakthrough, and were linked by their interest in the final game of the regular season.

The Bengals played the Vikings in Minnesota on Monday Night Football. If the Vikings won, the Steelers would make the playoffs, and the Packers would be out. If the Bengals won, the Packers would make the playoffs, and the Steelers would be done.

Steelers and Packers players were like kids waiting for Santa Claus, only it wasn't Christmas morning, it was Christmas night, and Santa would only come for one of these teams.

ABC's telecast included cutaways to Steelers and Packers players gathered to watch the game. As the night went on, the living room in which the Steelers watched the game grew more and more crowded. The place where the Packers watched the game, on the other hand, was just about deserted by the end of the night.

The Vikings won, which knocked the Bengals and Packers out of the playoffs and allowed the Steelers to get in as a wild-card team in the AFC.

The 10-6 Packers, led by Pro Bowl quarterback Don Majkowski, had their first winning season since 1982 and were quite likely better than the 9-7 Steelers, who were quarterbacked by Bubby Brister. The Steelers benefited from playing in a conference that was clearly the junior varsity. This was in the midst of the NFC's 13-year Super Bowl winning streak.

The Packers' playoff drought lasted four more years, while the Steelers' 1989 postseason appearance was their last of the Reagan-Bush era.

Bill Clinton had a three-touchdown lead on Bush in the presidential campaign on Sept. 27, 1992. On that day, the rich histories of the Steelers and Packers intersected on the field for the first time.

A guy named William Laird Cowher was the Steelers' new coach, and after a 3-0 start suffered his first career loss when the Steelers succumbed 17-3 at Lambeau Field.

Making his first NFL start that day was a second-year quarterback named Brett Lorenzo Favre. He also would start his next 296 games.

Reagan's Morning in America was replaced by Maya Angelou's "On the Pulse of Morning." When she read that poem at Clinton's inauguration, she might as well have been speaking to the Steelers and Packers.

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.

Give birth again

To the dream.
Favre and the Packers realized their dream when they won Super Bowl XXXI following the 1996 season.

The glory days didn't return so quickly for the Steelers. They were better, sure, reaching the AFC championship game in 1994, 1995 and 1997. But they won just one of those games, then lost to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.

The Steelers lost another AFC championship game in 2001. Cowher and Company chased that elusive post-Steel Curtain title with NFL's best defense and a power running game led by Jerome Bettis. But those two ingredients just didn't give Cowher Power enough juice.

The missing piece finally came on April 24, 2004, when the Steelers drafted Benjamin Todd Roethlisberger.

Guess who died exactly six weeks later.

With the Steelers and the 40th president no longer occupying the same planet, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a 15-1 record in 2004 and Super Bowl wins in 2005 and 2008.

Now, the Steelers and Packers cross paths again. This time, they won't be the ones watching TV. Instead, probably half the people in the world who own a TV will be watching them.

And they're a far cry from those playoff-starved franchises looking for one last Christmas gift 21 years ago.

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