Sister Ellen’s Night at Heinz Field

By
Larry Pearce
12/16/04

One of the original objectives of my genealogical narratives has been to share the joys and accomplishments of members of our family. Throughout the hundreds of pages I’ve written over the years, we’ve passed on experiences ranging from professional titles to personal triumphs. It’s hard to categorize what follows, except to say that I believe the details are just plain fascinating. As one who ran a television camera for Penn State’s Public TV channel while doing my first Masters in the early 70’s, I can attest to the fact that allowing a vast audience to enjoy what you’re seeing through a TV monitor is great fun and, at times, thrilling. While the nightly report from Channel 3 and the home of Accuweather might not be your idea of rousing, some of the events at Beaver Stadium were exciting. My sister Ellen Pearce, a licensed physical therapist by trade, loves sports and music and is deeply involved with several church and community organizations. She’s volunteered with Moon Township’s Community Access Television channel for several years now, and this has brought together her fondness for sports and music. She works in a variety of capacities, planning, directing, and producing local interest programs: church musicals and high school football games, to name a few. When the call came to run a camera for the broadcast of the City of Pittsburgh’s High School Football Championship game between Perry and Peabody, she jumped at the chance. Apparently, the City cable network needed extra crew and equipment for this very popular coverage. The sources of this article are both her oral narrative to me and her journal account of the evening.

She parked right next to the 1.49 million square foot, 64,450-seat, new stadium using her press/ media pass. This is near where the major network TV trucks and trailers plug into the wall. One station, Fox, took the cable feed directly and edited the highlights for that evening’s 11 p.m. news. Once inside, Ellen took one of two freight elevators to the fourth floor. (There are seven passenger elevators and 2 giant escalators.) She learned that her camera position was actually five stories above the field, a tiny cement pad accessible only through the skybox window belonging to none other than Mrs. Dan Rooney, the matriarch of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ellen couldn’t help notice the private bathroom, bar, buffet table, and comfortable seating. With floor to ceiling glass on three sides, the accommodations are valued at around a half-million dollars. This is only one of 127 luxury suites at the facility, for which ground was broken in June 1999, and the opening ceremony was held in August two years later.

Once through the sliding window, Ellen climbed down an eight-foot metal ladder to her perch on the 30-yard line. Heinz Field has a grass surface that covers over two acres, yet the front row seats are just 60 feet off the field and the end zones are as close as 25 feet. The field contains an underground heating system that features 24 sensors which monitor temperature and can activate 35 miles of liquid-filled tubing, just below the surface, when the temperature drops below 60-degrees. This supposedly aids in surface maintenance and grass growth, but you wouldn’t know it to watch the Steelers or Panthers on TV from there in November and December. Some weekends, including high school playoffs, Heinz Field plays host to four and five games. She was one of two cameras trying out a new type of zoom lens worth $8,000 apiece. Made by Canon, the optical wonder can get the viewer right inside the huddle. From the $5 million Heinz Field production room, many of her shots that night found themselves going live and direct to the 27 X 48-foot Jumbotron overlooking the stadium or over 400 TV sets and two video walls. The rest of the local coverage went into the cable system, either live or digitally delayed. Other cameras for this comparatively simple particular production included ones at the 50 and other 30-yard lines and a roving ground-level electronic eye. The end zone cameras weren’t operational. From an early seminar at Penn State given by the late Roone Arledge of Monday Night Football and recent articles on broadcasting major football games, I understand it’s not unusual to have 18 to 20-camera coverage, including the hand-held portables, helmet cams, and the newest technology, action cameras suspended just above the playing field. Let’s not forget the blimps either!

The production room also has the capability to do slow motion, instant replays, and a multitude of graphics. Ellen didn’t forget to mention the sandwiches and drinks available to the crew. Though she claims she didn’t have too much to drink, Ellen admits that, because she left her post about 20-minutes prior to kick-off, she was locked out of skybox access to her camera. She said the temperature was in the low 40’s with a swirling wind at that altitude. I’m sure this, along with the excitement of the situation, would cause anyone to remember Mother Nature. Ellen didn’t want to use the restroom in Mrs. Rooney’s box, so she walked down the hall to the press box bathroom, one of 50 in the entire stadium that include 520 commodes and 344 urinals. More than you wanted to know, right? By the time she got back, security had locked her out. After finding a Heinz Field employee, who called in the problem to his superior, she was told that she was NOT to be there and that she should “tear down” (pack up her camera) and leave. Ellen says, “I pleaded my case and mentioned the cable companies I was working for. They said it was OK then.”

About ten minutes before game time she finally got back to her platform to learn that the pre-game show had begun about five minutes earlier. “No more potty breaks next time,” she says.

Perry High School was victorious that memorable night. Among the things Ellen recalls on the way out of the stadium were the hundreds of cables running overhead in the metal track along the ceilings “backstage.” Two pipes, perhaps each a foot wide, were labeled “beer” and “soda” respectively and no doubt carried beverages to the outermost reaches of the stadium. Now that’s a lot of beverages! It’s all served at the 32 concession stands. Memorabilia is sold at the 47 Pittsburgh football team stores and novelty stands. The 40,000 square-foot Coca-Cola Great Hall is a showplace for football in Western Pennsylvania, past and present, with artifacts, interactive displays, and huge colorful murals. She walked past the locker room entrances for the Steelers (6,000 plush square feet with 60 lockers), the University of Pittsburgh Panthers (4,600 square feet with 125 custom-made oak lockers) and visiting teams (2,600 square feet each with 60 lockers for NFL pros and the same for NCAA college players). Her overall impression of the new facility was that it was “immaculate.” That’s a fitting description, remembering that this was the adjective used for Franco Harris’ incredible reception that began the Steelers’ dynasty in the 70’s. What’s it take to keep the seven miles of railings, 1100 doors, 12,000 tons of structural steel, and myriad of walls and ceilings looking sharp? 30,000 gallons of paint by PPG industries. Little of the 48,000 cubic yards of concrete and none of the 50,000 square feet of glass are painted.

Ellen’s final journal entry for the evening simply says, “One great experience!” That says it all.

Works Cited

Heinz Field. 6 December, 2004
http://www.pittsburghpanthers.com/info/facilities

Heinz Field. Official Home of the Pittsburgh Steelers. 6 December, 2004
http://www.steelers.com/heinzfield

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