Players past, present embrace Steel Curtain


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John Banaszak (left) and Mike Wagner (right) take a front-row seat for their first ride on Kennywood's Steel Curtain – HUNTER HOMISTEK / DKPS

Want to turn a 6-foot-6, 331-pound monster of a professional football player into a sad, 12-year-old kid?

Just tell him he can't ride the Steel Curtain.

"Oh, I was bummed, man," Matt Feiler was telling me Friday at Kennywood, where the park unveiled its latest, greatest thrill ride. "I seriously wanted to ride it."

Being that size pays dividends at right tackle, but, unfortunately for Feiler, it doesn't work out so well in a cramped roller-coaster seat. After the crew couldn't get Feiler's safety bar to fasten, they had to tell him to exit stage left.

[caption id="attachment_855586" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Matt-Feiler-Kennywood Matt Feiler looks on as the Steel Curtain prepares for takeoff — without him. – HUNTER HOMISTEK / DKPS[/caption]

And I'm not trying to rub it in for Mr. Feiler here, but he was the only person in attendance who experienced that feeling of disappointment. A crew of fellow Steelers — past and present — in Cam HeywardMike WagnerChris Hoke, Craig Wolfley and John Banaszak also attended the showcase, and, after the feeling returned to their legs, they had nothing but praise for Kennywood's latest creation.

"I think I shed a tear at the top," Heyward was saying after his ride. "My stomach's finally coming back down...

"That is not football right there. It is its own contraption. It is a lot of fun ... We should've [ridden] the Jack Rabbit first and worked our way up to this, but if you're looking for thrills, you're looking for a good time, this is the gut-punch you need ... It was a success riding that once — but I'm not riding it again."

Think Heyward's kidding? Just look at his face as the car came in:

The rundown for the Steel Curtain goes like this:

• A massive, world-record 197-foot "fake-out" inverting drop to kick things off

• Nine total inversions — a North American record

• A 220-foot lift hill — a Pennsylvania state record

• A top speed of 76 mph.

Wagner, who said he'd never been on a roller coaster that so much as went upside-down, was unfazed by it all. In fact, he was already in line for a second run as I caught up with him.

"It was wonderful," Wagner was saying. "As a kid and even when my children were young, I used to love riding the roller coasters. So I was so thrilled. It is a top, A-1 ride."

One more take, this one from Hoke, an experienced roller coaster enthusiast:

That's all beautiful for Kennywood and for thrill-seekers, but in the end ... none of this is really about the roller coaster, is it?

There are plenty of roller coasters that go fast — and faster than this one. There are plenty of roller coasters that go upside down, that twist and turn, that churn stomachs and pump the adrenaline.

But there's only one Steel Curtain in this city at this park honoring this team. The scope of the ride goes far beyond the tracks, something not lost on anybody in attendance.

"I grew up here, and I remember getting on the Jack Rabbit all the time," Heyward was telling me, shaking his head in disbelief in the process. "But to be represented as a team and be a part of this team and see it in an actual theme park is pretty special."

Let's stretch it back to Wagner, a crucial part of those four-time Super Bowl-winning Steelers squads of the '70s. It was his team, after all, that gave birth to the "Steel Curtain" moniker. And through the years — the decades, as he was quick to point out — those two words carry the same heft in the Steel City and beyond.

"It's a big deal, and it's the first one in the country, right?" Hoke added. "So you're going to start seeing other sports franchises, towns, you're going to start seeing little parks like this pop up with rides. But they're pioneers. They're trailblazers."

To Heyward, it's all motivating. The team doesn't need any extra juice this year to go out and to dominate on the field, but having a section in Kennywood dedicated to the team he proudly represents?

Yeah, it's pretty sweet.

"We got all the emotion and everything getting ready," Heyward said. "This is just the icing on top."

The Steel Curtain will be the main attraction of a larger addition to Kennywood. Dubbed "Steelers Country," the team will be represented inside the park with a section featuring games of skill, merchandise, food and more — all themed for the black and gold. It's just another representation of the bond between team and city, and it's something Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Terrible Towel on his shoulder, was telling me he was proud to be a part of on this sunny Friday in Western Pennsylvania:

And if the Steelers do bring Lombardi Trophy No. 7 back to Pittsburgh this season, Heyward says they won't be going to Disney World like champions of years past. Their destination is much, much closer.

"We're going to Kennywood, yinz!" he joked.

Maybe they'll expand the seating for Feiler and his offensive linemates by then.

Watch as the Steelers and Co. take off for the first time:

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