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Old 02-02-2009, 07:57 AM   #1
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TAMPA -- Thursday, 3 p.m., Pittsburgh Steelers practice, University of South Florida: After a surprise deluge leaves players and staff drenched, 78-year-old owner Dan Rooney walks the sidelines with a towel for headgear, warding off the light rain that lingers. He looks, quite frankly, bizarre. "Hey, Mr. Rooney,'' calls out Hines Ward, with a mischievous smile, from 20 yards away. "You with the Taliban?''

Sunday, 3:20 p.m., Crowne Plaza Hotel East, Tampa: The Steelers walk to the final team bus for the 14-mile ride to the Super Bowl. Rooney is talking to a visitor of the hotel when nose tackle Casey Hampton walks by. "Old man!'' Hampton says, stopping to model his jeans, T-shirt and-Army-Navy-store-jacket outfit. "How's my suit?''

Sunday, 11:30 p.m., Raymond James Stadium, visitors locker room: Rooney, as he does after all games, win or lose, walks from locker to locker, thanking players for their play. He'll shake every hand. When he gets to defensive end Aaron Smith, he has to tap Smith to get his attention because he's got media at his locker. Smith sees Rooney, who sticks out his hand. Smith doesn't shake his hand. He hugs Rooney. "I'm happy you got your sixth, sir,'' Smith says. "I'm just happy I could be a part of giving you something you deserve so much. We're lucky to have you for an owner.''

On the morning Steeler Nation celebrates its NFL-record sixth Super Bowl -- if you don't think the natives are particularly happy with their team this morning, consider that the Pittsburgh Public Schools are operating on a two-hour delay today, not over weather but over excess celebrating -- I write about what I've witnessed the past five days. I was the Pro Football Writers of America's pool reporter at Steelers practices Wednesday through Friday, then I covered their hotel Sunday for NBC as they departed for the game, and then the postgame stuff, of course. And this is not a story about the affection the players have for Rooney, though they surely do. It's a story about the affection everyone on the Steelers has for everyone, basically.

Watching six hours of Steelers practice at the Super Bowl was different than watching six hours of the Patriots or Colts during previous PFWA assignments at the big game. All got their work done. The Patriots were pretty serious seven years ago, the Colts a tad more light-hearted but mostly businesslike. I'm not saying the Steelers were Delta House fratboys at Faber College, but what struck me was how much fun they were having. Smiling, laughing, really enjoying themselves. As secondary coach Ray Horton told me on the sidelines Friday afternoon, you're supposed to play this game. Play is fun. Work is work.

"It matters,'' said Ward. "You're going to be a better team if you like one another and trust one another.''

"We're just a bunch of little boys, fooling around in the living room,'' Troy Polamalu said. "We're a team that's been built on tradition, on many people before us being close and forming tight bonds, all the way up to people like Jerome Bettis. Guys just love playing here. We have Mr. Rooney's cell number. We practice hard, we play hard, and we have a lot of fun doing it.''


On Thursday, safety Anthony Smith did double and triple blackflips to entertain the defensive backs during a practice lull. When British-born practice-squad receiver Marvin Allen caught and ran about 40 yards with a scout-team pass, Ward shouted, "Long live the King! Wait -- there's no King in England, is there? Well, long live somebody over there!'' Polamalu either did or didn't pack cornerback Bryant McFadden's helmet with grass clippings.

On Friday, during warmups, McFadden weaved in and out of every row, shouting out numbers in a sing-songy tradition. Coach Mike Tomlin put 305-pound nose tackle Chris Hoke just in front of the two returnmen on the kickoff team, then gleefully called over to the regulars on the sidelines: "Bro's gonna return a kickoff in the Super Bowl!'' And on it went.

Chemistry didn't win the most exciting Super Bowl I've covered, but chemistry did wear a Pittsburgh jersey. I'm convinced it played a part in what happened in the Steelers' last-minute 27-23 win, the same way organization and intelligence helped New England win three Super Bowls. Chemistry got built three years ago in Pittsburgh when Jerome Bettis wanted to draw the franchise quarterback more into the fraternal graces of the locker room and started playing a silly game with Ben Roethlisberger, standing 20 yards from the goal post and seeing who could be the first one to hit an upright with a pass. It stays built because Tomlin flits from group to group at practice, being involved, touching almost every player every day. "FAST Willie Parker!'' he'll say when Parker sprints upfield against air in a practice.

No one knows what chemistry is, or how important it is in winning. But you ask coaches, and they'll say they're trying to build the right chemistry on their team. Always. It's one of those things you can't define, but you can see. And the Steelers are full of it. I spent 10 minutes mesmerized by the defensive backs, one talking louder than the other (except the quiet Polamalu, who mostly looked on and smiled) as they went from a loud brotherly spat to peals of laughter.

The Steelers define "loose.''

"We're brothers,'' said cornerback Ike Taylor. "We're closer than brothers. Sometimes, when I miss a play, I feel awful about it because I feel like I've not only let myself down, but I've let down the group, and we play for each other, so if I fail, we all fail. That's a big responsibility.''

This was the circle of Pittsburgh life Sunday: Hines Ward went to Santonio Holmes in the morning and told him, in essence, It might not be my day because of how my knee's feeling, and players become stars by excelling on days like Super Sunday. Ward knew the guy he'd taken under his wing was ready to fly. Holmes, when the game got very big in the final three minutes, went to Roethlisberger and told him, in essence: I'm your guy, and I want to make the big plays today, and you can trust me.'' And Roethlisberger, being chased all over the place, believed Holmes and got him the ball four times on the biggest drive of their lives.

Ward gave it up to Holmes. Holmes let Roethlisberger know he's ready for the hot lights. Holmes proved it, catching the most acrobatic winning touchdown in crunch time in Super Bowl history. Afterward, I caught Ward crying. Unashamedly, unabashedly crying.

"I can't help it,'' he told me, walking through the tunnel from the field toward the interview room after the game. "I am just so happy right now.''

"You look like you're just leaving a funeral,'' I said.

"No,'' he said. "All the work I put in -- we put in -- paid off. I didn't know if I was going to be able to do anything out there because of my knee, and we did it. All of us. I am so proud of Santonio. So proud. It's a great thing about this team. It's such a team.''


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