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Randy Pausch: Tough as steel

Feb. 1, 2009
Earlier this month, the Pittsburgh Steelers became the Super Bowl champions of the National Football League, as they battled back from a three-point deficit

Earlier this month, the Pittsburgh Steelers became the Super Bowl champions of the National Football League, as they battled back from a three-point deficit to defeat the Arizona Cardinals, 27-23. An estimated 90 million viewers watched the game on TV, while 70,774 looked on from their seats in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. It's hard to say how many “Stuhler” fans were actually present to see the black-and-gold win its sixth title in seven attempts, but without a doubt, one of the team's biggest supporters wasn't in attendance.

Randy Pausch loved the game of football, especially the version of it conducted on Sunday afternoons in Heinz Field. Like many who grew up in the 1960s, Pausch's boyhood dream was to play in the NFL. Instead, he “settled” for being a distinguished professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and the coauthor of a bestselling book — a book that inspired several Steelers to greatness, including wide receiver, Hines Ward, and head coach, Mike Tomlin.

According to a writer for the New York Times, number 86 (Ward) reported to minicamp at the start of the year with a team playbook in one hand and, in the other, an autographed copy of “The Last Lecture,” a book based on a talk Pausch delivered to students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon. Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September 2006, and courageously battled the disease as he went on with his life. In August 2007, doctors told him to expect three to six months of health. A few weeks later, in front of about 400 people, Pausch gave his final lecture, a lesson he prepared mostly for the benefit of his three young children, appropriately titled, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”

In the address, which you can find on our website, Pausch discusses his own childhood and the goals and dreams that sprang from it. To smiles and laughter, he describes how he wanted to be Captain Kirk, float in zero gravity, and design and build Disney attractions. But more than anything else, he said, he wanted to be a professional football player, preferably on his favorite team.

The following month, in October 2007, the Pittsburgh Steelers invited one of their biggest fans (and a gaggle of reporters) to an open practice. Time stood still as Pausch, wearing a Hines Ward jersey, stepped on the field and into history as an honorary “man of steel.” Under sunny skies, the professor turned gridiron warrior tossed and kicked footballs, ran routes, and listened to instructions with all the intent of a rookie trying to make the squad. In one still photo, seen on our website, Pausch is captured tightly clutching a pass in mid-air, escaping gravity, if only briefly, as he forever holds on to his dreams.

Pausch didn't live to see the Steelers' most recent championship season. He died on July 25, 2008, but not before he gave Hines Ward a pep talk for the upcoming campaign. “I told him to keep playing hard and to step up and be a mentor to the younger guys on the team. I told him that it's important to lead, and live, by example.” Another valuable bit of advice he passed along to the veteran Ward is that “we cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

“There are times at the end of games when you look up at the scoreboard and do not like what you see,” says Pausch. “This is one of those times for me. I'm hanging in there, trying to spend as much quality time with my wife and kids as possible, and though it's very frustrating to know I won't beat the cancer, there's a great satisfaction in knowing that I'm walking off the field with no regrets.”

Those are the words of a champion, like the Steelers, like we were all meant to be.

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