Back to the Future

During his 2007 tour of Steeler Nation, Jim Wexell watched the Cardinals' win over the Steelers and interviwed Russ Grimm -- the other finalist to Mike Tomlin in the Steelers' coaching search -- at a post-game party. Here's the excerpt from the book:

THE HOSTILE takeover of the Cardinals' stadium never materialized, on or off the field. Estimates put the Pittsburgh attendees at less than 50 percent and the Cardinals won the game, 21-14. And it wasn't that close.

The Steelers took the lead with an early 3rd-and-26 Ben Roethlisberger prayer to Santonio Holmes, but didn't score again until 1:54 was left. The second touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Holmes was too late and the Steelers had their first loss of the season.

The Steelers played without Hines Ward and during the game lost Troy Polamalu, Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke. They also, for what seemed like the 114th consecutive game, played without their special teams. Pittsburgh kid Steve Breaston returned a punt 73 yards for a Cardinals touchdown -- their first TD return in 14 years -- to give the Cards a fourth-quarter lead. They followed it with a Steelers-like 7-minute, 15-second, run-heavy drive later in the quarter to close the door. Instead of kicking a 41-yard field goal to go up by 10, Ken Whisenhunt gambled on 4th-and-1 -- with two Steelers nose tackles injured -- to win the coaching battle and the game.

"I didn't think twice about it," Whisenhunt said after the game. Family and friends surrounded Whisenhunt at the Cardinals' tailgate party. He couldn't say much more, but the guy next to him, special teams coach Kevin Spencer, could.

"Tell your reporter buddies thanks for ignoring me before the game," Spencer said with a beer in his hand and a smile on his face.

Spencer was the Steelers' special teams coach from 2002 to 2006. He too had ridden off into the desert to coach with Whisenhunt, but his presence was lost in the pre-game media fuss being made over the head coach and Russ Grimm. Spencer was assured that Breaston's TD return wouldn't allow reporters to ignore him after the game.

"I guess that's better," he said.

The tailgate was Grimm's idea; it's something he did in Pittsburgh for the sake of camaraderie. And he hasn't looked this healthy in a long time. Grimm lost weight since leaving Pittsburgh, but not his sense of humor.

"Genie, genie, give this baby a weenie," he said as he rubbed the pregnant belly of the wife of Todd Haley, the Cardinals' offensive coordinator.

"He used to be a ballboy for the Steelers," Russ said by way of introduction. "He's Dick Haley's son."

Russ offered free license to his cooler, but it held only three beers.

"This builds a little camaraderie with the players," he said. "And it lets the traffic clear. No matter how the game turns out they don't have to walk out, get in the car with the wife and a bunch of kids, and listen to all the bull****. It gives everybody a chance to just relax."

The tailgate is part of an attempt to "change the culture" surrounding Cardinals football. But can the new coaches change the culture of the hordes of Steelers fans in Arizona?

"It's a big market that hasn't been winning," Grimm said. "It'll change. Once we start winning, those tickets won't be available."

He sounded confident.

"I haven't been anywhere where I don't win," said the guy with four Super Bowl rings. "Losing is not an option. We sat there the last two weeks and listened to people say, 'Well if you play good you may stay close with Pittsburgh.' Well, you know what? If they play good, they may stay close with us. That's the mentality you've got to get and you've got to keep pressing the issue. It's a different type of attitude, believe me. You treat guys right, they're going to play for you. The guys in Pittsburgh played for me. The guys out here are going to play for me. It's an attitude."

I told Grimm that he looked healthy, but I didn't say what I was thinking: Being rejected by the Steelers may have been the best thing to happen to him. It's obviously motivated him.

Only three beers in the cooler!?

"I like it here. I'm getting used to it," he said. "I lost about 20 pounds since I got here. Christ, you don't have a choice with this heat."

Was this a circle game?

"It really was," he said. "I looked forward to it."

On top of the world?

"No. I mean, we're 2-2. After the game I wished them all the best of luck. I hope they all stay healthy. They're a bunch of good friends of mine. I want to see them have success. I hope the next time we meet will be out here in February."

(The book "Steeler Nation: A Pittsburgh Team, An American Phenomenon," is available at pittsburghsportspublishing.com.)

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