ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Hop in the car and cover the distance between Pittsburgh and Denver and the trip meter will likely read something on the order of 1,450 miles.
But close your eyes and consider the two cities are what Broncos coach Gary Kubiak calls “football towns," and they’re a lot closer. I worked in Pittsburgh when I was a young beat writer, still in the early steps of a career as the 1990s were just kicking up. And I’ve worked in Denver for the past 12 football seasons, a more experienced -- I prefer "seasoned" over "older" -- beat writer.
I saw Rod Woodson with the Oakland Raiders coaching staff ahead of Sunday's game in Denver. The Hall of Famer was a cornerback, and the best player on the Steelers teams I wrote about in those pre-Internet days. When he was a coaching intern for the Broncos in 2014, Woodson said he saw the similarities in how the two cities embraced their football franchises, that it had “that same feeling."
Emmanuel Sanders played four seasons with the Steelers before he signed with the Broncos in 2014. He saw it, felt it, too.
“When I was trying to decide where to go, Denver was one place I was hoping would be interested," Sanders has said. “Because you want it to be right, and with Peyton [Manning] here of course the football would be right, but the rest of it, too. And when you live here, you feel that same feeling."
I lived in a four-unit apartment building just up the Allegheny River from downtown Pittsburgh, and the “feeling" could be summed up in the form of one of my neighbors, in his 50s at the time, who almost threw the screen door off the hinges to get outside to tell the world when he finally had gotten his hands on season tickets. He said he had first put his name on a list when he graduated from high school.
Talking about taking the Broncos to Pittsburgh, specifically quarterback Brock Osweiler for his first real road test, Kubiak said: “This is a great environment. I say tough, but I think it's great. It's a great place to play, great football town, great fans."
Before there was Heinz Field and before the Steelers shared a sparkling facility with the University of Pittsburgh, the Steelers practiced, and did their day-to-day work, in Three Rivers Stadium. And near the coaching offices on the first floor of the long-demolished stadium were a few tables where we writers would gather for lunch most days.
Sometimes Steelers owner Dan Rooney would sit at the tables, always ready with a story or two. In one of those conversations, Rooney said, “If for some reason I didn’t know how we did, I could walk, with my eyes closed, down to the stadium and know if we won or lost that Sunday."
He called the “whole city a barometer."
Longtime Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Collier, who called the plays for the team’s fabled Orange Crush defense and still lives in the Denver area, has often spoken of the “heart of the crowd," that opponents "knew it was going to be hard to play here because everybody in that crowd was going to give every ounce of what they had. And if we lost I always felt like it seemed like the whole town lost."
Maybe that's because the Broncos have sold every seat in their stadiums since 1970.
There are certainly other quality football towns on the NFL map, where the passion crosses generations and runs deep. And the discussions about which of those football towns are tops and why have fueled countless hours of drive-time radio and filled magazines’ best-of lists almost as long as magazines have cared to write about the game.
But to see a boy in the crush of holiday shoppers earlier this week pick out a No. 7 Broncos jersey 17 years after the guy who wore it, John Elway, last threw a pass for the team, felt the same as watching that neighbor dance in the middle of a pothole-filled street because the wait was finally over and his tickets would soon arrive so he could see a local guy -- Bill Cowher -- be the first to coach the Steelers in the post-Chuck Noll era.
“They are the kinds of places you want to play," Sanders said. “Because people care, they want you to care. It’s like you don’t want to disappoint them. Both places, it’s like that."