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Texans expecting hostility at Heinz


Pittsburgh Steelers fans are rabid. Nobody knows that better than Kris Brown and Mark Bruener.

The stadium has changed, but not the city or the fans.

Even in the Luv Ya Blue days, Pittsburgh was the place where Houston fans found heartbreak and misery. Steelers fans bragged that the road to the Super Bowl went through Pittsburgh as the Steelers won their four Super Bowl titles.

And in 1979, it would reach a height of frustration Houston fans never will forget. It was the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium and the Oilers appeared to have tied the game with a touchdown pass to Mike Renfro in the third quarter.

But the referee ruled Renfro was out of bounds even though replays clearly showed he got both feet in. The call broke the back of the Oilers in a 27-13 loss.

The Oilers would return home where 70,000 fans showed up early in the morning at the Astrodome to greet them, and Bum Phillips would utter his immortal words:

"Last year we knocked on the door. This year we beat on it. Next year we're going to kick the son of a b---- in."

The play led directly to the evolution of the instant replay in the NFL. It also helped build the legend of Pittsburgh as one of the toughest places to play in the NFL.

That legend continues today. ESPN just last week named Pittsburgh fans the best in the league.

But are they really that different? Two Texans who should know say yes.

{QUOTE}Tight end Mark Bruener played for the Steelers for nine years before coming to Houston. He says a different breed of fans resides in Heinz Field.

"Very much so," Bruener said. "They're different in a good way as far as their passion. When I was with the team, we could be in Seattle or San Diego or Miami or New England and you'd always have a hotel lobby full of Steeler fans. They really travel well. There are a lot of fans that never miss a game.

"It was great playing for them for nine years. They can be an opponent's worst nightmare. They are very passionate about their football and they're very passionate about their team and the players. Heinz Field is a very tough place to play, a tough environment for visiting teams."

Kicker Kris Brown, who played in Pittsburgh his first three seasons, agrees.

"They're a lot different than most fans in the league," Brown said. "It's just their support. They live and die with the Steelers."

To the uninitiated, it may sound peculiar. Aren't all fans equipped with the same vocal chords and same annoying drums and horns?
Bruener says in Pittsburgh, the cheering is just taken to another level.

"The thing you can explain is you just cannot hear anything," Bruener said. "You can be two feet from one of your teammates and you just can flat-out not hear anything.

"They really have something special with regards to the way their fans support the organization. It starts with (team owners) the Rooneys and ends with the way the players treat the fans as well."

Loud just has a different definition in Pittsburgh.

"We all play in tough environments," Bruener said. "Every year we play in Indianapolis and that's one of the loudest stadiums that I've ever played in. At this level, you get accustomed to noise and dealing with that. You just have to make sure you're keyed into your assignments. You just have to concentrate and focus that much more because the noise can be a distraction if you let it."

During practices the week before many road games, the Texans pipe in crowd noise over huge speakers that raise the level of noise to extreme decibels. But they don't reach the levels of Heinz Field.

"You can't duplicate it or find a way to get it at the level you're going to get it at that stadium," Bruener said. "But it still is a good conditioning mode for us, because it tries to immitate the noise we're going to experience over there."

Coach Gary Kubiak also believes no sound system can duplicate Heinz Field.

"I've played there many times in some big games," Kubiak said. "You can't mimic that. We can sit out here and turn all the noise we want, but it's not anything like what we are about to go see.

"I think our players know that. We have maybe a couple of players that have no idea, (rookie tackle) Duane (Brown) being one of them. We're trying to get him ready with that. We'll do some more of it tomorrow. That's one of those things that you have to grow up on the move, so hopefully he handles it."

Ironically, the Texans have played only one game in Pittsburgh and came away with a stunning 24-6 upset win in 2002. It was a bizarre game in which Houston generated only 47 yards total offense, a franchise low, but returned two interceptions and a fumble for touchdowns.

"It was a crazy game," Brown said. "You probably will never see a game like that again. I mean you have 47 yards of offense. I don't know if we had a first down. I think we had one first down (passing, another franchise low) and you think you're going to get blown away and you end up winning 24-6.

"That's why in this league you never know and there's such a premium on big plays. You've just got to find a way to win. By no means did the statistics show what the score should have been. But I think we had three turnovers for touchdowns and that's the way you have to win some days."

Brown says playing the Steelers in the opener could help the Texans.

"I think really a lot of the advantage they get there can come later in the year because weather can be an issue," Brown said. "The footing can be an issue. The field itself can be an issue. So we're actually fortunate that we're catching them early on in the year. I don't know that it will be as difficult as it gets later on in the year, in November and December.

"Certainly, the crowd is a raucous crowd and you have to go and prepare for the noise. But I think condition-wise and weather-wise it gets a lot more difficult later in the year."

Brown doesn't discount the Steelers fans, though.

"I think they're passionate fans," he said. "The team's got such an incredible history and they've got such a loyal following. Their fans are really the heart and soul of that city and the team."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Carley is a veteran Houston sportswriter who has covered the NFL for more than 25 years. He has worked for such newspapers as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Houston Post, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and the National Sports Daily covering such teams as the Dallas Cowboys, the Houston Oilers, the Los Angeles Rams and the Oakland Raiders.

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