FINDLAY - The town that likes to call itself Flag City U.S.A. did a pretty fair imitation of the Steel City yesterday, cheering the Pittsburgh Steelers and hometown hero Ben Roethlisberger to victory in the Findlay native's first NFL playoff game.
Hundreds of new and old Steeler fans jammed Buffalo Wild Wings, filling the sports bar and grill on the eastern edge of town with a sea of black-and-
gold jerseys, caps, and the football team's trademark Terrible Towels.
Even fans who usually root for other teams switched to the Steelers to support Roethlisberger, a former star at Findlay High School and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
"You gotta go with the hometown team, or the hometown boy, I should say," said Findlay resident George Ruckstuhl, acknowledging that his normal allegiance to Cleveland was
wavering. "For a while it's been the Browns, but I might be jumping on the bandwagon for the hometown kid."
Around Ruckstuhl, a group of friends stood twirling their towels and chanting, "Here we go, Steelers!" as the game against the New York Jets got under way.
Nancy Laubenthal, an assistant manager at the restaurant, said Steeler fans have been showing up for games all season because of Roethlisberger, but yesterday's crowd was the largest yet. She estimated more than 200 Steeler fans were packed into the bar, but she did not count herself among them.
Asked which team she roots for, she lowered her head and answered with a sheepish smile, "I'm sorry to say, but I'm a Browns fan. I support Ben because he's a local boy, but I'm a die-hard Browns fan."
Luke Aldic of Cincinnati counted himself as another Steeler fan-come-lately, thanks in part to Roethlisberger. He drove up with a friend, Ken Clark, to meet Clark's twin brother, Keith, who's from Lansing, Mich., and watch the game.
"I'm really a Bengals fan," he said, smiling. "But when they got knocked out [of playoff contention], I've got to go with the conference. The Steelers, I think, got the pick of the year with Ben. They got the gem when they got him. I'll be a Steeler fan all the way through the Super Bowl when they win it."
That prospect, however, appeared to be in doubt through much of the game's second half, thanks in part to a spotty performance by Roethlisberger that included two interceptions. Tom Shumway of Findlay grimaced and shook his head as Jets defensive back Reggie Tongue picked off an errant throw by the rookie quarterback and ran it back for a touchdown that put New York ahead 17-10 in the third quarter.
"That was not good," he said. "That hurt."
But Shumway, who attends the same church as the Roethlisberger family - St. Paul's Methodist on East Sandusky Street - said he still had faith in him.
"I know all of Findlay's behind Big Ben," he said. "I'm behind Big Ben."
Minutes later, the crowd came back to life as Roethlisberger scrambled for a first down on the Steelers' next series.
"Yeaaaahhh!" Rob Slemmer of McCutchenville, Ohio, shouted, thrusting his arms in the air. "Way to go, Ben!"
A few plays later, Roethlisberger flipped the ball to wide receiver Hines Ward and watched him run into the end zone.
"That was excellent," Shumway said, pumping his fist. "That was actually a risky call, when you pitch it off to the side like that. That was gutsy, and it paid off."
The quarterback's second interception set up a game-winning field-goal try for the Jets at the end of regulation, but kicker Doug Brien missed, giving the Steelers - and Roethlisberger - a reprieve.
The quarterback led a long drive in overtime, composed mostly of running plays, that put kicker Jeff Reed in position to win the game for Pittsburgh.
As his kick slipped just inside the right upright, the crowd exploded in a deafening roar, with some fans standing on tables waving their towels.
Shumway grinned and said he was happy for Roethlisberger.
"This is the most pressure he's ever been under, but he still handled it better than most veterans I've seen," he said.
Contact Steve Murphy at: email@example.com or 419-724-6078.