The Zak Zone

This time of year, my focus has usually turned to football season, as my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates have usually been statistically eliminated from the playoffs. And while this year is much different, and the battlin' Buccos are still dancing atop the National League Central standings, I'm starting to feel a little bit of the football itch.

I can never get too much baseball, and covering the All-Star teams in Punxsy gave me plenty of baseball and softball to watch this year. And with the VFW teams advancing to the state tournament in the 13- and 14-year-old bracket, the Youth Legion Western Regional tournament coming to town next weekend, and the Rossiter Miners still alive and well in the Federation League playoffs, there's still plenty of exciting baseball action to look forward to.

But as much as I enjoy a NASCAR race, I'm beginning to miss Sunday afternoons — and evenings — filled with NFL football action and Saturday afternoons filled with Penn State football.

And while my Nittany Lions' season may be in jeopardy in the aftermath of the tragic events that have made Happy Valley a much sadder place of late, one thing is a certainty: Steelers football will go on as scheduled.

There is no talk of lock-outs; there is no player strike. The season is slated to begin with a rare Wednesday evening game when the New York Giants host the Dallas Cowboys, but the real reason I watch won't even kick off until 8:20 p.m. the following Sunday with a prime time game between our beloved Steelers and the team that knocked us out of last season's playoffs: The Denver Broncos.

Then-Bronco's quarterback Tim Tebow — who is often criticized for not being able to throw the football — torched a league-best secondary for far too many yards, including an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime to down the Steelers.

Unfortunately, the Steelers won't have their opportunity to seek revenge against Tebow until Week 2, as the Steelers will face off against his new team, the New York Jets, in a late afternoon game.

The task at hand for the Steelers in the season opener, though, is not one to be taken lightly, with the man who chased Tebow out of Denver newly atop the Broncos' offensive attack in All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning.

There are a lot of question marks circling Manning's return — with the former Super Bowl champion coming off a season-long layoff for a neck injury that no one is sure has healed properly — but those in the Manning camp have said he'd be ready to return, and if I know him as well as I think I do from watching over the years, he'll be out to prove something against the Steelers Sept. 9.

There are enough story lines to fill sports sections for days, and yet I've only even mentioned the first two weeks' games.

The Steelers will spend plenty of time in the spotlight this year with a total of four other starts scheduled for 8 p.m. or later — including a Thursday game against the Titans, Sunday night games against division foes Cincinnati and Baltimore and a Monday night game against the Chiefs. And while the Sept. 9 date seems quite far away on the calendar, the preseason — which is worth watching, at least at times — kicks off for Pittsburgh with an Aug. 9 game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

That kickoff is exactly three weeks from today.

And for those of you who aren't big fans of the NFL, the Punxsutawney Chucks' football season is slated to start at the beginning of September, as well.

The fun part of being a sports fan is that while I'm engulfed by hoping and praying that the Pirates pull off the miraculous run and make the playoffs — or at least finish with a .500 record — I still get to look forward to the next coming season.

And once football season begins, it's a quick turnaround to hockey season, which feels like it just ended. There's always something to keep the sports fan happy, and I'm certainly glad for it.