NASHVILLE — The start of the Pittsburgh Steelers-Tennessee Titans game was still two hours away Thursday night, but Chattanooga resident Mike Proctor was ready.
Ready to cheer the Steelers, that is.
"I've been a Steelers fan most of my life," he said as he pulled off his jacket to reveal the $125 James Harrison No. 92 jersey. "Mean Joe Greene. Terry Bradshaw. Franco Harris. I remember watching those guys win Super Bowls."
The Steelers have won six Super Bowls total, more than any other franchise in the National Football League. Yet playing as they did in Thursday's stunning 26-23 loss to the Titans, they might have to wait a while for No. 7.
The official death blow for the Steelers came at the finish, when Tennessee's Rob Bironas drilled a 40-yard field goal as time expired to push the Titans to 2-4 on the year and drop Pittsburgh to 2-3.
But the Titans defense -- so porous and passive for so much of this season -- stayed tough throughout this night against one of the most rugged teams in the NFL.
"Everybody just believed," said Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who completed 25 of 44 passes for 290 yards and the tying touchdown in relief of injured starter Jake Locker.
"Hopefully we can put a stake in the ground with this victory and go from here."
Of course, this wasn't just an extraordinary night because the Steelers were the vanquished. Sports Illustrated cover boy Ed "The Hulk" Hochuli was flexing his muscles as the head ref, which meant complaints would be at a minimum.
And from somewhere above, the late, great football fan and Pittsburgh native Beano Cook -- who died Thursday -- surely was catching a play or two during breaks in play of his preferred college football contests.
But the Steelers fans were the story until those final four minutes, wheh the Titans players stole the show. In their own home.
"Steelers fans are like Alabama football fans," said Jeff Johnson from Winchester, Tenn. "They travel well and they come to your stadium expecting to win."
Johnson has supported the Titans ever since their move to the Volunteer State in the mid-1990s.
"I remember when they were still the Oilers and they played at both Vanderbilt and Mempis until the stadium was built," he said.
His 9-year-old grandson Elijah "Biscuit" Johnson wore a Titans sweatshirt in the cool evening air and tossed a miniature football with his close friend Brandon Brewer, who wearing a Steelers jersey.
"They're against each other tonight," said 38-year-old Brian "Bear" Brewer, Brandon's father and the two youngsters' youth league coach. "But they're teammates on the Winchester Warriors on Saturdays. They'll be playing the Winchester Bears this weekend."
Brian Brewer has been a Steelers fan most of his life. But he understands being friends with the enemy. His older brother was a Dallas Cowboys fan.
"Our home could get pretty intense," he said.
So could Rusty Torbett's friendship with Mike Bodley when the two were in the military and Georgia fan Torbett and Penn State backer Bodley continually argued over college football.
But Torbett accompanied to an NCO club one Sunday to watch Bodley root for the Steelers.
"We'd get along during those games," said the 37-year-old Torbett, who lives in Chattanooga. "I've been a big Steelers fan ever since."
Yet thanks to the Titans, this game remained as intense on the field as in the stands, the Tennessee defense repeatedly thwarting the Steelers on third down.
Having entered this game leading the NFL in third-down efficiency by converting 53 percent of its thirds into firsts, Pittsburgh was just 2-for-7 in the opening half.
Compounding the Steelers' problems, starting center Maurkice Pouncey -- a former Florida Gator -- was injured in the first period and physical runners Rashard Mendenball and Isaac Redmon joined him on the sideline in the third quarter.
If the Steelers were going to prove as forceful as their fans, they seemed to need both more time and more weapons than they had on the field as they headed to the fourth quarter trailing 16-13.
They got the lead, but they couldn't win the game. Thanks to Bironas, the Titans — seemingly the terrible Titans when this game began — shocked the Steelers and their fans, 26-23.
"The breaks finally went our way tonight," winning coach Mike Munchak said. "Maybe we'll be a team that's a lot different going forward."
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...