Pitt fans revel in return to Heinz Field

By Richie Smiechowski, Staff Writer

Pitt fans would rather forget the last time they watched the Panthers in-person at Heinz Field.

A 26-19 loss to Boston College on Nov. 30, 2019, left a bitter taste in every spectator’s mouth as they watched the Panthers get trounced in every aspect of the game. It was a very fitting end to a dismal regular season — which at one point seemed to be heading toward a second consecutive ACC Coastal Division championship.

When the 2020 season rolled around a year later, Panther fans were kept out of the stadium by capacity limits.

The COVID-19 pandemic turned the 2020 season upside down for players and fans alike. No roaring student section, no tailgates, no unified swaying to “Sweet Caroline” — all of the trademarks that make up a Panther game day.

After a very underwhelming season — both from the team’s on field performances and lack of noise from the stands at Heinz Field — what felt like the longest offseason ever finally ended on Saturday morning, and thus began the highly anticipated gameday.

While Pitt boasts a home slate featuring currently ranked opponents Clemson, Miami and UNC all in a row, the optimistic hysteria which surrounded their first home game against UMass — a team that hasn’t won a game since 2019 — shows just how much fans craved being back in person at Heinz.

Attendance for the game ended up totaling more than 40,000 spectators — and just about all of them were in the parking lots for their first tailgate in almost two years.

Current students, alumni, family and friends all came out in droves hours before the game started to set up their elaborate configurations of everything from four course, buffet-style meals to flat-screen TV set-ups. Each congregation of cars that lined the streets and lots surrounding the stadium showcased Pitt pride to the fullest — the sea of blue and gold’s passion and intensity drew strong comparisons from Alex Hodge, a junior communication rhetoric major.

“It’s Steelers game-level energy,” Hodge said. “Every underclassman has never been to a football game, so their energy is unparalleled — plus it’s the first game open to the public so alumni are back, more ready than ever.”

Away from the lines of aromatic food trucks and stands just outside the stadium on Art Rooney Avenue, current students gravitated toward the Clark Lot — one that is smaller than some of the lots closer to Heinz Field, but offers free passes for Pitt students. 

This lot, although not as intricately decorated as some of the alumni and parent arrangements, is a fan favorite among students. Dozens of Pitt organizations and hundreds of students gathered with just about every element needed for a successful tailgate. 

But the food, drink and amenities of tailgating were secondary, according to Jonathan Gonzalez, a junior biological sciences and chemistry major. He tailgated in the Clark Lot on Saturday and thought that having a reason for his friends to get together was the best part of his return to Heinz Field.

“I’m most excited to be hanging out with my friends,” Gonzalez said. “It’s been so long since I’ve been able to go to football games with guys that I really care about, guys that are good people — just being there among the people, that’s what I’m looking forward to.”

Around 3 p.m., the tailgaters started to make their way from the lots to the gates in droves. While normal spectator gates seemed to be doing fine, gate C — which is used to process the student section — was backlogged with thousands of spectators. The closer it got to gametime, the longer the line became, with some fans waiting more than 30 minutes to get their ticket scanned.

Finally, when a good portion of the overflowing student sections were filled, the Panther Pitt exuberantly cheered at the 2021 season’s opening kickoff.

Fans were on their feet less than one minute into the game on an apparent forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown — but the play was ultimately ruled incomplete after review. Regardless of the outcome, the surge that came from the crowd that quickly into the game was enough to give any Pitt fan goosebumps after being without it for so long.

The rest of the contest yielded no shortage of moments for fans to get up on their feet for the Panther’s performance. Seven touchdowns and almost 600 yards later, fans could return to the Victory Lights in Oakland elated at the team’s performance, regardless of the talent disparity.

MacKenzie Sendro, a junior communication rhetoric major, was at the game on Saturday and could feel an extra jolt from the crowd as they returned from the extended absence. 

“Any game at Heinz Field whether it’s Pitt football or the Steelers is just electrifying,” Sendro said. “The energy that radiated throughout the whole stadium was crazy, especially being the first game of the season and the first game back since COVID, I think the energy was just really heightened.”

Another part of gameday tradition was back in force Saturday afternoon — the Pitt marching band, which regaled fans with memorable sounds and images of a Disney+ filled quarantine, drawing the biggest cheer with their Baby Yoda marching formation.

While some fans left after halftime or the end of the third quarter due to the lopsided score and wishes to beat the traffic back to Oakland, the vast majority stayed and swayed to the tune of “Sweet Caroline,” one of Pitt’s most famous — or infamous, depending on who you ask — gameday traditions.

The Panthers, who led off their 2021 campaign with a resounding win over UMass, did it in front of an animated home crowd. Whether a reinvigorated home-field advantage will translate into more Pitt wins remains to be seen, but that is a concern for another day. For at least one week, fans enjoyed getting back to game days on the North Shore.