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Steelers don't see trick play as their treat
By Chico Harlan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ken Whisenhunt controls the Pittsburgh Steelers' playbook. His team ran 960 plays during last year's regular season, and most of them worked. So Mr. Whisenhunt doesn't have too many reasons to pay attention to Jason Georgiades, a University of Pittsburgh student who has one trick play, its blueprint secured in a briefcase, available for the Steelers' use at no charge.
The offensive coordinator and the amateur filmmaker have never met. The few who know both guess they never will. But Mr. Georgiades, 20, is spending his free hours this football season filming a documentary based on one central hope: That Mr. Whisenhunt, by year's end, will use his secret play, "The Steal Phantom," during a game.
Mr. Georgiades sat with a table of buddies at Ritter's Diner several months ago Chet Vincent, a friend Mr. Georgiades knew from Shady Side Academy, mentioned this one far-flung possibility, drawing up a play and handing it off to their favorite football team.
Mr. Georgiades, against his better judgment, thought it sounded like a good idea.
Today, the Steelers play the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field. It's week five of a project that Mr. Georgiades now calls his "obsession." He has a Web site. He has business cards. He has a $2,000 budget, a cameraman he recruited via Craig's List and, already, eight hours of footage, plenty of fan one-on-ones and a few ambush interviews with Steelers. He's learned, firsthand, about the moat separating athletes from fans and the strange things that happen when one college kid makes a goofy attempt to bridge the gap.
A warning for Mr. Whisenhunt: The Steal Phantom crusader is not daunted by the challenge:
Mr. Georgiades likes the chances of his play working, based on expert opinion. ("You know, we've played Madden, the video game," he said.)
He has a consent form waiting for all involved.
Oh, and the play remains an absolute secret, its details awaiting the inspection of one particular offensive coordinator.
"We're seeing how fans can impact the game," Mr. Georgiades said recently at an Oakland coffee shop. "And, more seriously, it's the exploration of that interactivity."
Mr. Georgiades hopes a larger issue can sprout from his plot. Recent years have warped the dynamic between athletes and fans. Basketball players attacked fans in Detroit. A fan cost the home team its baseball season in Chicago. Technology arms fans with the potential to reach a wide audience, meaning athletes at dance clubs or coaches hugging co-eds always face risk. Given the right material -- salacious or insightful or funny -- fans can interact powerfully with the most powerful names in sports.
Interactivity defines sports like never before. Fans can simulate Mr. Whisenhunt's job in a video game. They can buy stock in Ben Roethlisberger through a fantasy game. This season, the Schaumberg Flyers, a minor league baseball team, devised an Internet-based promotion that allowed fans, voting online, to select the starting lineup each night. (Unforeseen downside: Opponents' fans could vote, too, and send the Flyers' best players to the bench.)
"So, this secret play," Mr. Georgiades said, "it's not even the main point, actually. It's like, you know in 'Pulp Fiction,' that suitcase? Well, what's in that suitcase? It doesn't matter. It's a MacGuffin. It's about the characters and the plot, and this play is a plot device. Same kind of basic principle. It's to see what kind of voice a fan can have. ...
"At the pro level, we [as fans] are almost like customers. We buy the video games, the hats, the stickers. I'm guilty, too. We become this faceless mass of black and gold. Imagine a Steeler looking out ... just the anonymous entity that's shouting. It's like, how do you put a face on the crowd?"
Not easily, it's turned out. Steelers secretaries asked him to call back later, he said. He wanted to consult with other coaches about his play, but West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez had a tight schedule. Though he's hoping for an 80-minute film, he needs more substance. The comedic premise of his film undercuts the very credibility he sometimes needs.
Without media credentials, Mr. Georgiades and his cameraman, Trevor Cushing, cannot access the Steelers' locker room for interviews or attend practices.
"Anybody can put together a title and business cards and letterhead and say, 'Here we are.' But we have to know something about you," Steelers public relations coordinator Dave Lockett said. "The media that is credentialed has already built equity over time."
During the Steelers' bye week, Mr. Georgiades drove right into his first big break. He noticed a sign outside Shootz Cafe & Billiards on East Carson Street in the South Side. Two Steelers backups were inside shooting a promo. Mr. Georgiades waited until the players wrapped things up. His nerves jumped. He approached linebacker James Harrison, who, during a game last year, tackled a streaker and body-slammed him to the ground.
He then interviewed defensive back Mike Logan.
"He was nervous," Mr. Logan recalled this week. "I could almost see his arms trembling." Mr. Georgiades asked the player about the feasibility of the secret play and solicited suggestions for tracking down the offensive coordinator.
"James Harrison had kind of looked at them like, 'I ain't got nothing to say to y'all,' " Mr. Logan said. "But I tried to entertain them a little. I said that their best bet would be to go to the Steelers fantasy camp up in Latrobe. Whisenhunt actually puts on a video and shows fans why we call certain plays. I said, 'Maybe this will be your chance to give him the pitch.' That was the best thing I could come up with."
Mr. Logan, speaking about that encounter in the locker room at the Steelers' South Side headquarters, had just finished an afternoon practice. After changing, he walked down the hallway, where he saw Mr. Whisenhunt.
The two men stopped.
"You've got to hear about this," Mr. Logan told the coach.
So Mr. Whisenhunt heard the quick story of The Steal Phantom, and the mission behind it.
"We'll see," he said with a courteous laugh. Then he turned to his right and entered the team's training room, reserved for players and coaches only.