After a sudden first-round defeat for the Steelers this past Sunday, I felt the need to get out of the house. I didn’t want to stick around to read all the finger-pointing Facebook statuses and amateur advice on clock management or exasperation over referee misjudgment. When you’ve moved 2,500 miles away from the city that you’ve always called home, it’s easy to rely on professional sports teams to become the tethers that connect you to your sense of home. As I walked toward campus, I imagined the Steeler Nation diaspora thinking the same collective thought about how the tether connecting us to Pittsburgh disintegrated too soon, how we’ll return to the illusion of homelessness again until next season.
When I got to campus, a crowd of thousands of people gathered on the mall at the University of Arizona. Volunteers distributed glowsticks and directed us toward the stage assembled outside of Old Main. There was a platform with newsroom cameras tri-podded, swiveling, panning across the stage, an ensemble of Arizonans and Tucsonans: a chorus, a symphony, politicians, and citizens preparing for an event.
I gripped my glowstick, unsure if I had the patience to wait and see what it was all about. Remember: the Steelers 2011-2012 playoff journey had just come to a premature halt. People joke about bleeding black and gold, but autobiographically speaking, the first tears I can remember crying were on January 28, 1996 as a result a Steelers defeat in Super Bowl XXX to the Dallas Cowboys, which happened only 90 minutes north of Tucson in Tempe, AZ. I was in the suburbs of Pittsburgh at the time, not quite seven years old, and even then, I had the notion to run out to my front porch when the Steelers lost. I clutched the railing while my father, also heartbroken (though not reduced to tears), promised that there would be a next season. Even so, I couldn’t help but feel as if the city itself was similarly vulnerable, able to be defeated. I digress.
At some point, I realized that the event on the mall was to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the January 8th shooting in Tucson, in which nineteen were shot and six died. Among the surviving victims, as you might recall, was U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who has since become a national hero as the media has tracked her recovery and rehabilitation. The event was filled with speeches from Tucson’s mayor Jonathan Rothschild, UA President Eugene Sander, a lead surgeon from UMC, and others, but the highlight was when a red-scarved Giffords led the Pledge of Allegiance. Everyone turned giddy to see her lead again, and the mall erupted in spontaneous chanting: “Gabby! Gabby!” as the glowsticks were held above-head.
I remember the events unfolding last year when I was in Pittsburgh. It happened during a Steelers bye week, a month before I could have predicted that I would be calling Tucson my new home. I can remember grainy photos of Jared Loughner and updates on his biography. I remember Democrats sitting next to Republicans at the State of Union Address as a gesture of unity for their hospitalized colleague. I remember teary Tucsonans letting the rest of the country know how injured they were, how defeated they felt.
Now, a year later, the day-long memorial commenced with bells tolling throughout Tucson. Ceremonies were performed by the Apache and Tohono O’odham Nation. Clergymen led their churches in prayer. It was a community-wide event. And this was the finale, a candlelight vigil under the desert sky upon a stage flanked by lit-for-TV palm trees. Despite the rhetoric of moving on, though, which every speaker offered to the crowd, something still seemed to be missing. One by one by one, nineteen candles were eventually lit, and the unique exhaustion that results from a day—a year, really—of healing settled in, and it felt for a few moments like Tucson had come to a standstill.
Then, Tucson natives Calexico were on stage, playing the intro to one of Gabby’s favorite songs, “Crystal Frontier.” Even though it was toned down and acoustic, the rhythm of their music—part-mariachi part-country part-Tejano—suggested a change in the program. It suggested momentum. Suddenly, it wasn’t toned down anymore. Suddenly, there was amplification. the lead singer solicited crowd participation, and horns from the symphony were integrated. Before, he entered into the next verse, Joey Burns yelled out: “We love you, Gabby!” It was a full-fledged rock concert, a nervous couple of seconds, really, the crowd unsure if the performance was apropos for the occasion. It was a question of tastefulness. Then, there was a moment: the big screen revealed Gabby Giffords sitting next to her husband, enjoying the song so much that she was leaning into him, playfully accompanying. Thousands watched as she literally mouthed boop boop boop to the horns. If Tucsonans hearts were a little heavy that year, slow to beat, Calexico managed to recalibrate them with its ¾ Southwestern waltz.
I walked away then, listening to closing words from Gabby’s rabbi about the fate of the city, but her message was already made apparent by the camaraderie in the crowd. In any city full of people who care about each other, healing is inevitable.
When I got home, I called my parents in Pittsburgh. My dad and I mulled over a few plays from the game—an untimely interception and poor pass protection—but we eventually arrived at the age-old conclusion: there’s next season. It was the case for the Steelers in ’96 and Tucson in 2011.