MEN OF STEEL!

The fifth of February was covered with snow, and the winter air in downtown Detroit wafted with fried foods and cigar smoke and the smell of a job well done. Crowds of visitors teemed through the streets, Woodward, Brush, Gratiot, Madison, en route to their mecca, the world’s biggest football game, which made Detroit, for one day, the world’s biggest stage, big enough for the Rolling Stones, big enough for ABC-TV, big enough for the best teams in America’s biggest sport to do battle in Ford Field. The scene, the day, the week – the six years since Super Bowl XL was awarded – all culminated in this moment.

And when it was done, the winning team, the jut-jawed coach and the host city could all embrace a long-awaited word.

Worthy.

If there had been any question that Detroit could host the world’s biggest party, doubts were erased. If there had been any question the spirit of this town outshines its struggles, it is gone now.

And if there was any question the Pittsburgh Steelers could finish the most impressive postseason run in the history of the NFL, well, that’s gone, too.

Worthy.

Bill Cowher, who has seen nearly 100 NFL head coaches come and go while he has been in Pittsburgh, finally wins the big game? Worthy. The Steelers, having beaten the AFC’s Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds on the road, then beat the NFC’s No. 1 seed, Seattle, 21-10, for the title? Worthy. Jerome Bettis, who, with his perfect-attendance parents, waited his whole career for a Super Bowl – then announced his retirement? Worthy. His hometown, doubted and derided as this game approached?

Not anymore.

“Detroit, you were incredible …” Bettis bellowed to the crowd, holding up the championship trophy. “Pittsburgh, here we come!”

Worthy.

Key plays at key times

First, to the game, because, had Shakespeare been a gridiron fan, he would have rightly said “the game’s the thing.” It went to the Steelers because of the way they played and in spite of the way they played. You could tell neither the Steelers nor the Seattle Seahawks were used to Super Bowls. Jitters mixed with flagging energy, mistakes mixed with excellence, penalties changed the sails on the ship over and over.

But when plays needed to be made, Pittsburgh made more of them, none bigger than a trick job in the fourth quarter, a reverse option involving wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, a man with two parts to his last name and more than that to his game.

He took a handoff from a running back, squared his body and hurled a strike to Hines Ward for 43 yards and a touchdown.

That made it 21-10. And all but snuffed out a courageous but flawed Seahawks performance that, one suspects, they would love to have back this morning. No doubt both teams could play better if they got a do-over, no more nerves, no more pressure. But you only get the chance you get, and you have to live up to the moment.

Pittsburgh did. And so it got to dance under the confetti and dump the Gatorade bucket on Cowher, who raised his fists in a grinning, wet salute. He’d been doubted over the years, he’d lost his other try at a Super Bowl, and he’d dropped four AFC championship games at home. He could have pounded his chest.

Instead, the first thing he wanted to do was pass the glory.

“I’ve been waiting a long time to do this. Mr. Rooney,” he said to his owner, Dan Rooney, whose family is one of the treasures of the NFL, “this is yours, man.”

Worthy.

The quarterbacks struggled

The crowd roared for Cowher and Bettis, who said, “I played this game to win a championship. I’m a champion. The Bus – the last stop is here in Detroit.”

Why not? All game long, Ford Field was like a home game for the Steelers with Terrible Towels being flung like a million yellow pinwheels. It’s not an accident. Pittsburgh is close. Pittsburgh is, in many ways, a mirror city of Detroit. Of course, Steelers fans – unlike Lions fans – know what it’s like to win Super Bowls. They saw four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s.

But the 1970s were a long time ago.

What they saw this time was not a classic – no Bradshaw, Swann or Mean Joe Greene.

It was, instead, a game that had occasional explosive moments separated by stretches of mediocrity and a number of head-scratching flags. It was a game that set records for the longest run from scrimmage (75 yards, Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker) and the longest interception return (76 yards, Seattle’s Kelly Herndon). It was a game that saw a quarterback called for an illegal block and a receiver throwing a touchdown.

The MVP award went to wide receiver Hines Ward, who caught five passes for 123 yards, including that door-closer in the fourth quarter.

“The great ones don’t miss balls in the Super Bowl,” he said, “and I want to be considered one of the great ones.”

Seattle will remember those words, when and if it returns to this stage. The Seahawks simple blew too many chances. They held Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ young quarterback, to one completion and one yard in the first quarter, but never could take advantage.

They had a touchdown erased on an offensive pass interference call and a good punt return nullified by another penalty. They blew the clock at the end of the first half, then blew a field goal that didn’t have to be that long. They missed another field goal in the third quarter. They dropped good passes. They flamed out when they should have flamed on.

Even when Pittsburgh seemed intent on floating the game to them – a foolish Roethlisberger interception that led to Seattle’s touchdown – the Seahawks couldn’t stand up on the log. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck threw his own bad interception, and next thing you knew, Ward was catching that Randle El surprise and that was that.

“You can’t make the mistakes that we made and expect to win against a great team like this,” said Hasselbeck, who threw 49 times, but had only one touchdown, three sacks and one interception. “The Steelers played well enough to win tonight and we didn’t.”

End of story.

That one, anyhow.

Detroiters did their best

And now to the city. There was a moment during the Rolling Stones’ halftime show where the audience was asked to shine small flashlights and, on cue, it did, and the building was awash in red and white, an image that, if you saw it, always will stay with you, uncountable points of light.

To be honest, that’s what this past week was like, too. Uncountable points of light. You can’t collect all the “Can I help you’s?” and “Hope you’re having a good time’s” uttered by volunteers throughout our city. You can’t count the mountainous hours put in by the host committee. You can’t count the meals served with a smile, the traffic cops who did their jobs, the bus drivers, the security people, the waiters, the airport workers. Uncountable points of light.

But they added up to a success.

Someone wrote this week that Detroit was “auditioning for acceptance,” and I guess that’s accurate, hard as it is to hear, because you wonder sometimes why we care so much what the rest of the country thinks.

But if we suffer a wee inferiority complex, it manifests itself in good ways. Everyone had a bit of Chamber of Commerce in them last week. Time after time, when visitors were asked their impressions of this city, they said, “I can’t believe the people are so nice.”

And as they head for the airport this morning, let’s think about what they saw while they were here:

They saw Aretha Franklin, they saw Kid Rock. They saw the spacious lobby of the Renaissance Center looking out to Canada. They saw Canada. They saw The Henry Ford. They saw the Max M. Fisher Music Center and Seldom Blues restaurant. They saw the Fox and State and Woodward Avenue under the lights. They saw Ford Field and Comerica Park. They saw our best manners and our welcoming attitude. They saw us deal with snow. They saw a football Sunday with a downtown heartbeat.

But here’s the thing.

They saw things we can see all the time.

So maybe what we showed the world, we also showed ourselves.

Coming down Woodward on Sunday, I saw a man with a cup, tapping the loose change inside it, looking for cash.

“Collecting for next year’s Super Bowl,” he said. “Next year’s Super Bowl, anybody?”

Back to business. Today is the first day of the rest of Detroit’s life. Let’s hope we make as much of the weeks ahead as we did of the week behind. And we remember the biggest lesson learned from this whole, crazy experience.

Worthy.

Don’t let anyone ever say otherwise.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch. Contribute to the S.A.Y. Detroit charity to help the homeless at 313-993-4700 or www.DRMM.org

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