Sunday, February 05, 2006

A Burgh Thing

The Pittsburgh Steelers play in Super Bowl Extra Large later today. It’s their first trip there since 1996, but there was a time when seeing the Steelers playing in, and winning, the Super Bowl was almost as common as seeing a Baltimore Raven taking a perp walk is nowadays. Four times in six years the Steelers took home the big silver football during the 1970s, the high school and college years for yours truly. “Coming of age” years in many ways.

This isn’t going to be some trivial rant about how the Steelers will kick Seattle’s ass this evening. Today’s game is just a reminder about how many people can grow up in or near Pittsburgh, live away for a long time, (twenty-six years and counting in my case), but always be Pittsburghers, even if they have no desire to live there again.

Evidence of this can be found in the oft-cited fact that the Steelers “travel well.” In football-speak, that means that no matter where they play, a large contingent of Terrible Towel-waving Burgh-heads will be there; tailgating, singing, generally making the home team wonder where all this black and gold came from. Does anyone really think Steelers fans by the busload took the week off work to drive to Detroit so they could revel in the Super Bowl experience? Half the people in the Pittsburgh area are either un- or under-employed, or too old for that shit. Where did they come from?

The answer is easy: most of them live in Detroit now. Or Denver. The coaches and mayors of Cincinnati and Indianapolis felt compelled to make public requests to the local fandom not to sell their tickets to anyone from Pittsburgh, lest it seem as though the Bengals and Colts were the visiting team. Several years ago the Washington Capitals hockey team wouldn’t take online orders for playoff tickets for their series against the Penguins unless the order was sent to a local zip code. This was solely to keep Pens fans from packing the MCI Center as they did during the regular season match-ups. I live locally, bought a pair, and still sat in a section full of black and gold.

Pittsburgh’s three teams maintain post-Burgh fandom in proportion to how easy they are to root for. The Pirates were almost as successful as the Steelers in the 70s. Drug scandals and a series of lackluster owners have led to a decade of losing with no real light at the end of the rainbow. Pirate fans don’t hitch their wagons too closely to the team, or any one player. They know as soon as he gets good enough to make real money, they’ll trade him for ten cents on the dollar.

The Pens have struggled of late, but the presence of Mario Lemieux in his adopted city kept the team afloat for over twenty years. Mario wasn’t sure he wanted to come when he was drafted; now he lives there full-time. The affection of even transplanted Burghers is so strong it’s felt by those who had already left before Mario got there.

It’s still the Steelers that have the strongest hold. The Rooney family has owned the team since its inception. They don’t pay the most money, never have, but they keep a core of people together that allows a depth of commitment and personnel rarely seen. The Steelers absorb as many injuries as other teams; they just always have someone ready to step in. No star makes a disproportionate salary, and certain types of conduct aren’t tolerated; responsibilities go along with the perks of being a professional football player in Pittsburgh.

Notice I said “core of people.” Not just players. Sure, Joey Porter runs his mouth and they may have to open the vaults one day to keep Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers have a certain type of individual they look for, besides being an excellent player. The media focuses on the number of former quarterbacks they keep around, helpful for flexibility and trick plays. The caliber of people they keep around shows even more.

The 1995 Super Bowl team had Carnell Lake, who was willing to sacrifice a perennial Pro Bowl berth (and accompanying bonus) as a safety to play cornerback while Rod Woodson rehabbed his seriously injured knee. (Woodson missed the entire season except for the Super Bowl; the Steelers kept him on the roster, just in case. Pro Bowl voters appreciated Lake’s selflessness enough to send him to Hawaii, anyway.) Jerome Bettis took less money to stay in Pittsburgh. Hines Ward cut short his holdout without a contract because he wanted to stay, and Bill Cowher said they’d take care of him. Duce Staley took less money to come to Pittsburgh; he was injured early this year and lost his job to second-year back Willie Parker, yet not a game goes by you where you won’t see Staley on the sidelines with Parker and Bettis, encouraging, making suggestions. A reporter found Ward crying after losing last year’s AFC Championship game. When asked why, Ward said it was because they’d blown their last opportunity to get Bettis to the Super Bowl.

Bettis gave them another chance. The Steelers will have the majority of the crowd with them today. In addition to traveling well, Detroit is Bettis’ home town. I’ll be with a small group of native and adopted Burghers, eating kolbassi (no one spelled it kielbasa when I was a kid), pierogies, Clark bars and Klondikes, waving our towels and wearing black and gold. Part of me will be a little homesick, but another part will realize that I never left.

Sports holds disproportionate sway in our society. But for a Pittsburgh native, the phrase “you can’t go home again” only applies until the next Steelers game. It doesn’t matter where you are when you see the Terrible Towels, you’re home again.

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