From Dan Rooney to the Stanley Cup, Pittsburgh’s top sports stories of 2017
We mourned the death of one of the city’s iconic figures in Steelers chairman Dan Rooney died.
We celebrated the back-to-back Stanley Cup championships of the Penguins.
We cringed — and prayed for the best — when Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was carted off the field in Cincinnati with what later was described as a spinal cord injury.
The year in sports in Western Pennsylvania provided the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. But it kept us watching.
And, thanks to the Penguins, kept Pittsburgh the City of Champions.
A look back on the region’s top sports stories in 2017:
The Steelers lost their leader and heart and soul of the franchise when team chairman and former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney died in April at age 84.
Under Rooney’s stewardship, the Steelers won a record six Super Bowl titles, and his passing came just three months after the team competed in the AFC championship game.
Rooney was responsible for hiring Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, giving the franchise unprecedented stability with just three coaches since 1969. Tomlin’s hiring was a shining example of the effectiveness of the Rooney Rule, which requires franchises to interview minority candidates.
Rooney based his life on three ideals – faith, family and football – and eldest son, Art Rooney II, joked at his father’s funeral that the order of importance often varied.
Rooney’s funeral was officiated by Archbishop Donald Wuerl and Bishop David Zubik and was attended by former President Barack Obama and scores of national and local dignitaries, plus past and present Steelers players.
The Steelers dedicated the season to their late patriarch, wearing a black patch with a shamrock on their jerseys to honor his memory.
What started as a way to protest President Donald Trump’s comments about NFL players disrespecting the national anthem backfired on the Steelers during their Sept. 24 game at Chicago.
Intending to stand together in the tunnel at Soldier Field while the anthem was played, the Steelers’ plan went awry when tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, walked out in plain view of fans and TV cameras during the Star Spangled Banner.
The Steelers were criticized for allowing Villanueva to stand alone amid the controversy, although Villanueva accepted the blame by saying he “botched” the team’s show of unity.
Complicating matters was that coach Mike Tomlin and three assistants stood on the sideline during the anthem.
The team’s stance came two days after Trump condemned NFL players who kneel during the anthem, saying they should be fired.
Players apologized for the way they mishandled the situations, and all Steelers players stood for the anthem for the rest of the season.
At opposite ends of the calendar, the New England Patriots were the problem the Steelers couldn’t overcome.
The 2017 season ended with a 36-17 loss in the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium when Tom Brady picked apart the Steelers secondary for 384 yards and three touchdowns. The outcome was the same when the rivalry renewed in December, although this one featured a controversial ending.
The Steelers, who gave up an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter, trailed by three points when they got the ball with less than a minute remaining. A 69-yard pass play to rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster set up the Steelers at the New England 10. What followed was an apparent touchdown pass to tight end Jesse James. Replay officials, however, ruled that James’ catch did not “survive the ground” and the play was ruled an incompletion. Two plays later, instead of spiking the football, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass into the end zone where it was deflected and intercepted to end the comeback.
The stunning loss hurt the Steelers chance of having home-field advantage in the playoffs.
SHAZIER INJURY, VIOLENCE IN BENGALS GAME
The violent side of football was never more evident than in a December game in Cincinnati that began with the loss of Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier to a spinal cord injury and featured five other players exiting with injuries.
The officiating crew called 20 penalties for 239 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster drew a one-game suspension for an illegal hit to Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict in which the rookie wide receiver stood over the injured player in a taunting motion.
Antonio Brown took a vicious hit to the head while catching a tying touchdown pass, but Bengals safety George Iloka had his one-game suspension overturned on appeal.
Shazier’s injury occurred on what appeared to be a routine tackle. He spent a night in a Cincinnati hospital, then underwent spinal stabilization surgery upon returning to Pittsburgh. The injury ended Shazier’s season and put his football future in doubt.
Taillon beats cancer
When Jameson Taillon took the mound on June 12 against the Colorado Rockies, it was no ordinary start. The outing came exactly five weeks after Taillon had surgery for testicular cancer.
“It was pretty similar to my (MLB) debut — shaky legs, I was excited,” Taillon said after tossing five shutout innings in a 7-2 victory. “Some good emotions out there.”
There were butterflies, Taillon admitted, as he walked to the bullpen for his pregame warmups. When the game began, the right-hander quickly settled down. He gave up five hits (all singles) and struck out five.
Despite being sidelined for a month during the season, Taillon wound up making 25 starts, which was tied for fourth-most on the team. He went 8-7 with a 4.44 ERA.
McCutchen trade saga
During the winter meetings two months before the start of 2017 spring training, general manager Neal Huntington nearly completed a trade that would have sent outfielder Andrew McCutchen to the Washington Nationals.
That deal fizzled, but the possibility of McCutchen’s departure was a cloud over the team the entire season. The uncertainly of his status gnawed at McCutchen, who put up decent — but not stellar — offensive numbers after a dismal performance in 2016.
On Sept. 26, McCutchen clubbed his first career grand slam and collected eight RBI. The next night, McCutchen got a standing ovation in which might have been his final home game at PNC Park.
The Pirates triggered McCutchen’s $14.75 million option for 2018, so he still could be with them on opening day. But, as management looks for ways to retool the roster, there remains a good chance McCutchen will be traded before spring training begins.
Jung Ho Kang avoided a jail sentence after his third drunk-driving conviction in South Korea. However, it prevented Kang from getting a U.S. work visa and forced him to sit out the season.
The Pirates never acquired another third baseman — Huntington said management never expected Kang would miss the entire year — and instead rotated eight men at the position.
There has been no indication Kang will be able to rejoin the Pirates in 2018.
On April 18, outfielder Starling Marte was suspended 80 games after testing positive for the anabolic steroid Nandrolone. The Pirates went 39-41 during his absence.
Marte issued what he said was an apology, although he never took any responsibility. He refused to explain why he flunked a PED test that was administered during spring training.
“I have no memory of anything being injected or any steroid or anything like that,” he said during a press conference before he returned to action in mid-July. “I do know and I’m very well aware that I was careless. That’s something I regret, not being careful enough.”
Pitt found an unexpected victory and some hope for the future when it upset previously undefeated and second-ranked Miami, 24-14, on Nov. 24 in its most significant victory in 17 years at Heinz Field. Pitt finished 5-7, its first losing record in the regular season in 10 years. But the bigger development was the insertion into the starting lineup of freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett, who ran for two touchdowns and threw for another.
Penn State won its first seven games and rose as high as No. 2 in the Associated Press rankings before losing two tight decisions to Ohio State, 39-38, and Michigan State, 27-24. The Nittany Lions and star running back Saquon Barkley fell out of the national title chase and Heisman Trophy consideration almost simultaneously, with Barkley held to a total of 107 yards rushing in both losses. Meanwhile, Penn State fell to No. 9 in the nation and settled for a Fiesta Bowl date with Washington.
Pitt basketball coach Kevin Stallings’ misfortune carried over into the off-season after he finished 2016-17 with a losing record (16-17), the first at Pitt since 1999-2000. After guard Justice Kithcart was dismissed, five other players transferred, including Cameron Johnson, who might have been Pitt’s best returnee before he decided to enroll at ACC rival North Carolina. Counting four graduating seniors, Pitt lost 10 scholarship players and started the 2017-18 season with nine players who previously had never played a Division I game
Marc-Andre Fleury knew it was coming. Chris Kunitz did too.
With an expansion draft on the horizon and the constantly constricting vice of the salary cap squeezing tight, the 2017 postseason would be the last ride for the core group of Penguins that won a Stanley Cup championship together in 2009 and followed up with another in 2016.
The ride didn’t stop until it hit the parade stage in Point State Park in June.
Getting critical contributions from about-to-depart stars such as Fleury and Kunitz and overcoming a healthy dose of adversity, the Penguins became the first NHL team in two decades to win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships when they toppled the Nashville Predators in six games in the final series.
Adversity hit in the form of injuries to key players. No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang had season-ending neck surgery in April. No. 1 goalie Matt Murray tore his hamstring during warm-ups before the playoff opener.
Fleury carried the Penguins past their first two playoff opponents, earning his signature victory with a 29-save shutout in Game 7 of a second-round series with Washington. Kunitz provided the run’s most memorable moment when he fluttered a shot past Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson in the second overtime of a Game 7 win in the Eastern Conference finals.
Sidney Crosby became the third player in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe Award as playoff MVP in consecutive seasons. Evgeni Malkin led the team in points. Rookie Jake Guentzel led in goals. The Penguins sent out their departing teammates on the highest of high notes.
“We’ve got a core of veteran players that have been through a lot together,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “They’ve had success and failures. They’ve been on both sides of it. They understand what’s at stake and how to react. They certainly showed it again.”
Four days after he earned his third Stanley Cup ring, Marc-Andre Fleury walked into the Penguins locker room and packed up his things for the last time.
“We’ll see each other again,” Fleury said, trying to keep a stiff upper lip as he prepared to bid farewell to his longtime teammates and friends. “Just not every day.”
The emergence of Matt Murray as the team’s new No. 1 goaltender and the restrictions of the salary cap numbered Fleury’s days in a Penguins uniform. His tenure finally came to an end when he was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL expansion draft June 21.
Fleury left as the team’s all-time statistical leader in most major goaltending categories, having made a legion of adoring fans along the way.
Pine-Richland senior Phil Jurkovec led his undefeated football team to a state championship and earned himself a spot among the best high school quarterbacks in state history.
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Notre Dame commit passed for 3,969 yards and 39 touchdowns in a closely watched season that started on national television. ESPN televised Pine-Richland’s opener. Jurkovec also rushed for 1,211 yards and 24 more scores this season, and led the Rams to a 16-0 record.
One of his best performances came Dec. 9 at Hersheypark Stadium in the PIAA Class 6A final. Jurkovec rushed for four touchdowns and passed for another to defeat St. Joseph’s Prep, 41-21, in the state championship. The Philadelphia Catholic League power was a two-time defending state champion.
“He solidified himself as the best quarterback to ever play in the state of Pennsylvania,” Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz said in Hershey. “He’s doing it on the biggest stage in the biggest classification versus the best competition. Period.”
Jurkovec will graduate with 8,202 career passing yards, fourth most in WPIAL history.