Ten Reasons to Like the Pittsburgh Steelers

After the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York, a lot of people wrote or called to ask if my family and I were O.K. Some of these people were casual acquaintances at best but, for many of them, I was the only person they knew who lived in New York. Their concern was extremely moving even if, at first, a bit surprising.

I’ve been reminded of this outpouring over the past two weeks, as I’ve fielded e-mails and calls from people congratulating me on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ making it back to the Super Bowl. I figure that, once again, for many of these people I am the only Steelers fan they know.

I feel sheepish accepting congratulations for an accomplishment as weak as this — simply rooting for a team that happens to win a bunch of football games. Plainly I can claim no credit. While it is true that I have brought my young son, a devout fan, to Pittsburgh for a game in each of the past three seasons, the Steelers lost all three games! Considering that their overall home record during that period was 13-6, I am obviously no good-luck charm.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONA family affair: taking in the annual Steelers game at Heinz Field.

But with great fortune comes great responsibility, and so, in return for this great fortune, let me accept the responsibility of laying out a few reasons to like the Steelers. I am not trying to convert anyone here; I’m only dispensing some ammunition for the undecided.

1. While the Steelers are attempting to win their record sixth Super Bowl, they were for the first 40 years of their existence almost incomparably bad. So whether you gravitate toward prolific winners or lovable losers, the Steelers can satisfy your needs. Back in the 1930’s, they paid big money to sign the college star Byron “Whizzer” White. He played wonderfully but stayed only one season; he went on to a slightly more impressive career as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

2. The Steelers have been majority-owned by the same family, the Rooneys, since the team’s founding in 1933. The story goes that Art Rooney bought the team for $2,500 with the winnings of a great day at Saratoga Racetrack — he was a vigorous gambler and a beloved rogue — but that is probably apocryphal. The team is now onto its third generation of family management and, as families go, the Rooneys are pretty exemplary: honorable, charitable, humble, and more. (If you are pleased with Barack Obama, you have extra reason to like them. Dan Rooney, the team’s 76-year-old chairman, is a lifelong Republican who last year got behind Obama early and campaigned hard throughout Pennsylvania. It’d be a stretch to say that Rooney pushed the election toward Obama, but there are few brands in the state as strong as the Steelers, so it certainly didn’t hurt.) The family prides itself on running a football team that reflects its values; the Steelers are known as a “character” team. Which makes it interesting to see what happens when a player exhibits some bad character. Earlier this season, when starting wide receiver Santonio Holmes was pulled over by the police for marijuana possession (he used to sell drugs as a teenager, it turns out), the team suspended him for a week. This was hardly mandatory; Holmes hadn’t even been arrested. But it sends a signal.

Meanwhile, a starting wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers, Vincent Jackson, was arrested for suspicion of drunk driving a few days before the Chargers recently came to Pittsburgh for a playoff game. The Chargers issued one of those pro forma “we-will-monitor-the-situation” press releases, and Jackson played as usual.

3. Myron Cope. He was a talented writer who became a Steelers broadcaster despite having a voice that sounded like gravel and Yiddish tossed in a blender. He was relentlessly unique; among his on-air exhortations: “Yoi!” or, if something really exciting happened, “Double Yoi!” (Here’s his memoir; Cope died last year.) He deftly blended boosterism with realism, which made him an institution in Pittsburgh. But the accomplishment for which he’ll remain best-known is inventing the Terrible Towel, a Steelers-gold terry cloth rag that will be widely seen, waving madly in the Tampa sunshine, on Sunday. Many other teams have copied the Towel, but nowhere does it have such resonance as in Pittsburgh — in part because Cope donated the considerable profits to the Allegheny Valley School, a home for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, whose residents include Cope’s own son.

4. The fan diaspora. Even though Pittsburgh has transformed itself nicely from a manufacturing town to a service town, it has lost about half its population in the last few decades. This has created a diaspora of fans all over the country and beyond, Steelers lovers who had to leave the ‘Burgh for better jobs and who then taught their kids to be Steelers lovers even though they lived in Arizona or Florida or Alaska. As a result, there’s a “Steelers bar” — a place to watch the game on Sundays with like-minded folks — in just about any good-sized city in America. The Steelers may not be “America’s Team,” as the Cowboys claim, but perhaps they should be.

5. Franco Harris. One of the most interesting and enigmatic football players in history, so much so that somebody even wrote a book about his strange appeal. Franco was also, of course, the star of the football miracle known as the Immaculate Reception (whose name was popularized, naturally, by Cope). Also, his teammate Mean Joe Greene was the star of one of the best TV commercials ever — which is being remade this year, with the extraordinarily appealing Troy Polamalu in the lead.

6. The Steelers are good assessors of talent, both seen and unseen. Consider their first-round draft picks since 2000: Plaxico Burress*, Casey Hampton, Kendall Simmons, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Santonio Holmes, Lawrence Timmons, and Rashard Mendenhall. Aside from Burress, all but two are valuable Steelers starters. Timmons is on the verge of being a valuable starter and it’s too early to tell about Mendenhall, the rookie whose shoulder was broken in mid-season by Ray Lewis. And, even more impressively, consider the fact that two of their very best players, Willie Parker and James Harrison, were undrafted.

Harrison, recently named the league’s defensive M.V.P., is the only undrafted player in history to have won this award. (Granted, the Steelers’ opponents in the Super Bowl, the Arizona Cardinals, are quarterbacked by Kurt Warner, a potential Hall of Famer who was bagging groceries for a living before he made it as a football player.)

INSERT DESCRIPTIONRoethlisberger warming up to play the Giants at home. Yes, the Steelers lost …

7. The Steelers are a small-market team (Pittsburgh’s population is less than 350,000) that manages to always play big. Compare them to Pittsburgh’s baseball team, the Pirates, which hasn’t had a winning season in 15 years. True, small-market teams have an easier time in football than in baseball because of the N.F.L.’s revenue sharing policy, but it’s also true that the Steelers are a fiscally prudent organization. This can especially be seen in their willingness to let their own high-priced free agents go (Alan Faneca, Joey Porter, and Plaxico Burress are recent examples). Nor do they purchase the rights of aging superstars who won’t fit their team anyway.

8. Especially when compared to baseball, there is a real paucity of great books about football. One of the very best, however, Roy Blount Jr.‘s About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, is about the Steelers.

9. Mike Tomlin, the current head coach, is a young and impressive man brimming with smarts, balance, dignity, and surprise. (At the press conference immediately after the Steelers beat the Baltimore Ravens to gain the Super Bowl, he quoted Robert Frost.) Tomlin was hired just two years ago. The Steelers’ previous two head coaches, Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, lasted a combined 37 years. These days, N.F.L. coaches are chewed up and spat out with abandon, often within two or three years, but I have a feeling Tomlin may end up threatening Cowher and Noll for longevity awards.

10. The Steelers are one of the few pro sports teams named after what their respective cities actually do or did. Pittsburgh made steel just as Green Bay packed meat; the cardinal, meanwhile, is a perfectly nice bird, but it doesn’t do squat for Arizona (nor did it previously for St. Louis). Furthermore, the Steelers’ logo isn’t a cartoonish bird or patronizingly noble “redskin”; it is the actual mark of steelmaking — a trio of red, blue, and yellow hypocycloids in a black circle. Plus, the Steelers wear it only on one side of their helmets. Legend holds this is because the team was so frugal that it didn’t want to use up two decals on each helmet.

You are free, of course, to ignore all of the above and root for the Cardinals (a team that happens to comprise a bunch of former Steelers coaches, players, and even a onetime ball boy). But if you do choose to cheer on the Steelers, know that there are some good reasons for doing so.

*Rumor of an early scouting report reading “hands are suspect; tends to lose sight of the safety” are apparently not true.

[NOTE: I discussed this topic recently on The Takeaway.]


Chris

The Steeler haters kill me. They have great fans, a great team and great people running it. How could you possibly hate them? Oh, now I know...because the Steelers keep on beating THEIR team. It's like the old Patriots, you hated liking them. They were a class team. Now the Cowboys are something totally different. They have a crap team with no direction. If anyone says Romo is their answer to their prayers, I'll ALWAYS laugh in their face.
I love and will always love the Steelers. They are giving, loving, passionate and are down to earth guys. I literally feel like a better person for rooting for them. GO STEELERS!!
P.S. All you Seahawks fans, GET OVER THAT LOSS(and it was a LOSS!!) Everyone knows that your only shot ever was in 2005 and you blew it(not the refs). Deal with it.

Angel Brownawell

I grew up in Western Pa, and it's true. The Steelers mania in the region is high. And it's not just during football season. In the summer, people wear Steelers hats and shirts around town without a thought. It was actually overwhelming for me, and while I I liked the team, it was tough keeping up with the fans.

BUT when I moved away, that's when I began to really love and appreciate the team and its fans. It wasn't in my face all the, but I was had to go too far or too long before finding another Stillers fan. I love the team and I love the fans. And I'm so proud of the team's traditions. I thank my God that the team was not sold out of the Rooney family.

Laura

The Steelers actually did have cheerleaders for a while, but disbanded them in 1969 or 1970. They all came from a local university, and had hard hats as part of their uniforms!

When The Burgh was Young

Nice article but too many feel good vibes about the Steelers. It might create a jinx. Can you take it back? A little underdog karma never hurts. The story of the Steelers is about achieving victory when least expected and overcoming great odds to win.

Dave D

Here's a reason to dislike the hypocritical Rooney's. When Cedric Wilson hit his girlfriend and was charged with domestic violence-he was cut.When ALL PRO LB James Harrison beat up his girlfriend--the Rooneys did nothing. Oh-and Santonio Holmes-he's beat up women, sold drugs, driven drunk and he's still ont he team--so save that BS on how they are so freakin better than the rest of the league. Oh yeah-lets not even talk about all the money they've made through the gambling industry-while owning the Steelers-which is against the rules of the NFL.

Scott

I hate how people perpetuate this myth that Kurt Warner was really a grocery bagger before he played in the NFL. He started in the Arena League, then went to Europe, and then got into the NFL. When asked about it Kurt said he bagged groceries for probably a couple of weeks. Cracked.com can get this right and the NY Times can't? Oh well, go steelers.

amm

You forgot a really important reason -- no cheerleaders. The Steelers are all about football in its purest sense, and don't need cheerleaders to appeal to prurient interests.

Jack

I am so sick of everyone swinging on the steeler's nuts...seriously, I just hope the refs don't hand them the game like they did against the seahawks...what a charade...roethlisberger is almost as overhyped as tim tebow...makes me want to throw up

dirtydog

i lived in california my entire life moved to greenbay work part time for the packers everyone knows my life committment to the steelers why they ask because they

pure pride since the steel curtain day guts and steel

pr9000

One minor point, to a commenter a few pages ago: Tomlin quoted Frost in his postgame press conference ... and he knew from whom he was quoting. This is taken verbatim from his comments:

"I just told that group 'we have miles to go before we sleep' -- a little Robert Frost ..."

I think it's more than just Tomlin knowing cultural cliches.

And yeah, I'm a homer. :)

rwprof

"the correct market is actually the "Greater Pittsburgh Area" which is more like 2.4 million."

Actually, Steelers Country covers all of Pennsylvania except for the band along the east, and runs well into Ohio, as I notice every time I drive west. A friend of mine from Philly who lives here often says, "You know that only car with an Eagles sticker you've seen in the county? That's mine."

As for bad fans, the worst are in Philly -- then, the worst of everything is in Philly.

linda

One of my favorite memories of my Dad,who played college ball,was watching him watch the Steelers.He 'd
sit in his chair grunting them down the line.Gerrrhump .GERRRHUMP. long time ago.

DJH

Now that the Steelers have won, is that guy with the ridiculous hair going to get it cut, finally? Does he know how unoriginal the voluminous, unruly-hair thing is, anyway?

Jeffrey

If diaspora is a reason to like the Steelers, it's an even stronger reason to like their rival Cleveland Browns. Stronger diaspora--and without any fair weather fans due to our horrid success since the merger.

That said, virtually everything else about the Steelers is attractive, except where they play.

april

I have lived in Pittsburgh my entire life and let me tell you the Pittsburgh Steelers are the very best reason to live here. Walk down the street any given Sunday and you wil see an obscene amount of black and gold, and smiles on everyone's face. The Steelers unite an entire city and make us all family. I will bleed black and gold until I am buried with my terrible towel! For all you haters you're probally from Ohio!

Nancy

We are the Steeler Nation, cast out of our ancestral homeland a generation ago, with only the black and gold to bind us together. Everywhere you go in America, there we are.

Emily

I also appreciate that the Steelers don't have cheerleaders (the only team in the NFL without them, I believe).

Bill Saylor

I became a Steeler fan many years ago. It was tough, living in Eagles territory, but the way Steelers play the game is inspiring. There is no quit in their game and so many unlikely heroes become stars under ther system. A couple of years ago Some friends and I took the trip across the state to see the Steelers face the Jets at Heinz field. The Steelers won, but the biggest memory was the fact that my friend made the trip just to see Jerome Bettis play. When we got to Pittsburgh we heard that he would miss the game because of an injury, As we were walking toward our gate, my friend was about 50 feet ahead of me. I looked to the side and there was the "bus" about to enter the stadium. I shouted, "If you want to see Jerome, here he is." He didn't believe me, but there he was taking the time to talk with a bunch of kids who surrounded him seeking autographs and a few words. He was in no hurry to leave the kids and later he drew our attention as he walked the sidelines in civilian clothes. No big story, but a lasting memory.

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Frank

Emily, lots of NFL teams don't have cheerleaders. To wit this page from NFL Team History:

Green Bay Packers Cheerleaders

The Green Bay Packers have no official cheerleaders. The Packers haven't had official cheerleaders since 1988, however cheerleaders from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and St. Norbert College appear at home games throughout the season. The Packers discontinued their squad of official cheerleaders in large part due to fan indifference. There are no plans to return to official cheerleaders.

GMT

Congrats on the the big win! "One for the other thumb!" I am also a Steelers fan though not a native of the area. And in case you don't know, the Steelers are playing the Bears in the 2009 season at Chicago. The date hasn't been released yet but tickets should go on sale in July. I'll be there for sure!