PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Before we turn the calendar to 2022, let’s take a look back at a few of the biggest sports stories in Pittsburgh over the past year. Our sports teams have provided a much-needed escape in another year of COVID-19, and there has been plenty of news to follow.

CLICK HERE for our 2021 Pittsburgh News Year In Review.

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PITTSBURGH STEELERS

PITTSBURGH, PA – AUGUST 24: Tunch Ilkin, former offensive lineman and current radio broadcaster for the Pittsburgh Steelers, looks on from the sideline before a preseason game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Steelers at Heinz Field on August 24, 2013 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Chiefs defeated the Steelers 26-20. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

“He’s Pittsburgh through and through. Black and gold all the way, and he’s in our hearts.” — Steelers play-by-play announcer Bill Hillgrove

In 2021, Steelers Nation lost former player, beloved broadcaster and community activist Tunch Ilkin. He lost his battle with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, on Sept. 4. It was just three months after announcing his retirement from the broadcast booth. The team and community mourned. Current Steeler Cam Heyward remembered Tunch this way: “We lost a heck of a person, but God gained an unbelievable angel.”

Tunch’s legacy will live on at Heinz Field and the Light of Life Mission on the North Side. The Steelers posthumously inducted the former offensive tackle into the team’s Hall of Honor at Heinz Field. And, over at Light of Life Mission, the cafeteria at their new building will be dedicated to Tunch. He worked with the group for more than 35 years, and there was no cause he loved more.

“It is my greatest honor to be a Pittsburgh Steeler and give my all for this organization.” — Ben Roethlisberger

For the Steelers themselves, 2021 has been a year of ups and downs. The team ended last season with an unthinkable loss to the Cleveland Browns. Our rival from Ohio collected its first playoff victory in 26 years with a 48-37 win. It left the Steelers facing many questions in the offseason.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) sits on the bench next to center Maurkice Pouncey (53) following a 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns in an NFL wild-card playoff football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

That offseason started in February with Mike Tomlin testing positive for COVID-19. In a statement on Twitter, the Steelers’ head coach said he had “minimal symptoms and [was] thankful to be in good health.”

In March, the Steelers’ quarterback question was solved when they re-signed Ben Roethlisberger to a contract for the 2021 season. ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter, citing a source, said Roethlisberger willingly reduced his pay to $14 million from $19 million in the final year of his contract and spread the cash payment through 2022.

During the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers took Alabama star running back Najee Harris at No. 24 overall. He came in ready to make big plays for his new team. “The competition level, the difference between college and NFL is two different places. The NFL you play against the best. It’s all about starting with step one and building all of the way up. Every time you reach a new pinnacle in life, I want to start at step one and work my way up,” Harris said.

This season has certainly been a roller coaster for fans. Starting out with a win against the Buffalo Bills, followed by three consecutive loss, then four consecutive wins, and then a tie against an NFL basement dweller – the Detroit Lions.

The oddest incident this season though might be the fan who decided to spread their relative’s ashes partially in the stands and partially at the edge of Heinz Field. It happened at a game in October and prompted local authorities to investigate. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, ashes are not permitted to be spread anywhere without the property owner’s permission.

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NFL

“I wanted to make this statement public and to extend an apology to Aaron for what he’s gone through, but I clearly know this was not him.” — attorney Todd Hollis

In April, NFL Pro Bowler, former Pitt star and Penn Hills native Aaron Donald was wrongly accused of assault. A man named De Vincent Spriggs came forward to file a complaint against Los Angeles Rams star tackle.

aaron donald

(Photo Courtesy: Todd Hollis)

Spriggs, who had his arm in a sling, a puffed-up right eye and visible stitches, claimed he was assaulted outside of an after-hours club on the South Side. Spriggs told police he accidentally bumped into another man at the bar who then confronted him. Spriggs said he was kicked and punched by that man and another man.

However, just days later, surveillance video proved Donald was not the aggressor. In the video, Donald was seen standing to the side, shown a few seconds later coming over to the fight and can be seen pulling people away from Spriggs. “Mr. Spriggs should send Aaron a thank you card,” Donald’s attorney Casey White said.

The video prompted a full apology from Spriggs to Donald and no further legal action was taken.

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PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

“As the Penguins enter a new chapter, I will continue to be as active and engaged with the team as I always have been and look forward to continuing to build on our success with our incoming partners at FSG.” — Mario Lemieux

It was news that hit suddenly and took many Penguins fans by surprise. Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle selling off their majority stakes in Pittsburgh’s beloved hockey team. On Dec. 9, the NHL’s Board of Governors sealed the deal, unanimously approving the sale to Fenway Sports Group, a Boston sports conglomerate that also owns MLB’s Boston Red Sox.

Some experts have predicted the team could be sold for $700 million to $900 million.

All fans could worry about was whether Lemieux, a hockey legend and Pittsburgh icon, would still have a part in the franchise he both saved and made famous. After reaching an agreement on the sale though, Lemieux confirmed that he and Burkle would remain with the team in an ownership role.

In addition to owning the team, FSG now will take control of the former Civic Arena site and its development in the Lower Hill.

“To me, Pittsburgh is a take-your-breath-away destination for any GM or president of hockey ops. I’m so excited for the opportunity.” — Penguins President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke

In late January, Jim Rutherford, who steered the team to back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships in 2016 and 2017, decided to resign as general manager. He only cited “personal reasons” for his decision.

Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty images (file photo)

It didn’t take Lemieux and Burkle long to find his replacement. In early February, they named former Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ron Hextall as the new GM and Brian Burke as the head of Hockey Ops. After his hiring, Hextall talked of his history with the Pens. His father, Bryan Hextall Jr., was a center for Pittsburgh from 1969-74.

“I’ve come full circle, as I have fond memories as a youth in Pittsburgh watching the Penguins and my father,” he said.

Another former Flyer who joined the team in 2021 is Jeff Carter. Hextall and Burke acquired Carter from the Los Angeles Kings in April. Since then, he has become a regular contributor on the scoresheet.

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PITT PANTHERS

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 11: The Heisman Trophy finalists defensive end Aidan Hutchinson from Michigan, quarterback Kenny Pickett from Pittsburgh, quarterback C.J. Stroud from Ohio State and quarterback Bryce Young from Alabama pose with the Heisman Trophy at Marriott Marquis Hotel on December 11, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

“It’s an incredible feeling.” — Pitt Panthers QB Kenny Pickett

It certainly is for the Pitt Panthers football team this season. Pitt is headed to the Peach Bowl after rolling over Wake Forest to capture their first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in program history.

CHARLOTTE, NC – DECEMBER 04: Kenny Pickett (8) quarterback of Pitt. fakes a slide on his way to score a touchdown during the ACC Football Championship game between the Pitt Panthers and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons on December 4, 2021, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Kenny Pickett was the talk of the town and his hard work leading the Panthers showed. Not only did he win the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, he also was named a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. He ended up third in the vote.

Against Wake Forest in the ACC Championship Game, Pickett passed Dan Marino for the most career touchdowns in program history. He also owns the conference record for touchdown passes in a season with 42. The fifth-year senior was Pitt’s first Heisman finalist since wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in 2003.

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RMU DIVISION 1 HOCKEY

“The Colonials will officially apply for reinstatement to both Atlantic Hockey for the men and College Hockey America (CHA) for the women and will provide an update on conference affiliation once a determination has been made.”

In May, shockwaves were felt throughout the Robert Morris community when it was announced that the University was disbanding both its men’s and women’s hockey programs. 

University officials said the decision to shut down the programs was “based on an analysis which included scholarships and operating costs, and the necessary investments to maintain and improve the current facility.”

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

When faced with no alternative, the route for keeping the programs alive became focused on fundraising.

With a deadline set for mid-December, donors came through, with more than $2.5 million raised, keeping the programs afloat through 2025.

“The Colonials will officially apply for reinstatement to both Atlantic Hockey for the men and College Hockey America (CHA) for the women and will provide an update on conference affiliation once a determination has been made,” RMU Athletics said.

More than 50 players were impacted when the program was cut, many of them transferring to other schools. The immediate focus now turns to building back the teams.

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MLB

(Photo Credit: Rich Walsh/KDKA)

“It’s not a good thing for the sport. It’s not something we undertake lightly. We know it’s bad for our business.” — MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred

After trading star Josh Bell last Christmas Eve, the Pittsburgh Pirates did not make much noise in the league this summer. Instead, it was the league itself that made headlines.

On Dec. 1, the collective bargaining agreement between the MLB and the MLB Players Association expired. It marked the first work stoppage in professional baseball since 1994-95. The owners voted to lock out the players in a unanimous vote. While the lockout is on, free agents are not permitted to sign with teams, and players who are part of the union cannot be traded by their teams.

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HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL

Problems At Pine-Richland

“We are trying to back Eric because everybody believes in him and we don’t think there was anything wrong that was done.” – Mark Kasperowicz

For one Western Pennsylvania community, football took center stage when a popular and successful coach found himself on the outside looking in after his contract wasn’t renewed. 

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

Shockwaves were felt throughout the WPIAL when news broke that Pine-Richland football coach Eric Kasperowicz and his staff would not be returning for the 2021 season, after the team won a WPIAL and PIAA Championship in the 5A classification the prior fall.

District officials at the time said that a 3-month investigation looked into allegations of misconduct involving the football team consisting of hazing, bullying, intimidation, rites of passage. Kasperowicz denied the allegations.

Students and parents would repeatedly rally around Kasperowicz in efforts to have him reinstated, but the district ultimately decided to move forward with a new coach.

(Photo Credit: KDKA/Lindsay Ward)

Multiple lawsuits were filed by Kasperowicz, including a federal defamation lawsuit.

Kasperowicz would end up joining Pat Narduzzi’s staff at the University of Pittsburgh as a volunteer assistant.

No Quitting For The Quips

Elsewhere in the world of Western Pennsylvania high school football, the PIAA’s competitive balance rule would be brought to the forefront in Beaver County.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

“There’s not another team in the state, for sure, and there might not be another in the country that is being forced to play up three classifications.” – Head Coach Mike Warfield

For the Aliquippa Quips, 2021 was a year of championship football. The team claimed the 4A WPIAL Championship with a win over Belle Vernon, followed by the 4A PIAA Championship with a win over Bishop McDevitt. 

Aliquippa, a small school from Beaver County, has been playing “up” in classification for several years, qualifying for the WPIAL Championship game for 14 consecutive years, across multiple classifications.

(Photo Credit: Mike Darnay/Mon Valley Independent)

Several years ago, Aliquippa chose to play in the 3A classification, despite having an enrollment that would place them in the 1A classification. After success in 3A, and what were deemed transfers by the PIAA, the Quips were forced to move up and play in 4A.

In 2020, the Quips again qualified for the WPIAL Championship game, but were defeated by reigning state champion Thomas Jefferson.

After winning the WPIAL and PIAA Championship in 2021, Aliquippa now faces having to move up to class 5A, but school officials say they will appeal the move. 

(Photo Credit: Mike Darnay/Mon Valley Independent)

The state’s competitive balance rule was intended to keep teams from bringing in talent via transfers, which is something head coach Mike Warfield said is not happening.

“Our kids are transient,” Warfield said. “They’re trying to survive. It could be a family situation where they had to move in with an auntie one week, then come stay with mom or grandma next week. They’re just trying to survive.”

If the state does force Aliquippa to move up into 5A next season, its superintendent has hinted at pulling out of the WPIAL and PIAA to play an independent schedule. But if the team did so, it wouldn’t be able to compete for championships like the ones in Hershey.