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A nation of ex-Pittsburghers loves Steelers
Tuesday, December 07, 2004
By Reg Henry
Are you ready for some football? This column rarely strays onto the gridiron, but the moment is ripe for a discussion of the pigskin arts in a way that may appeal to the intellectually pretentious fan whose needs are so often ignored on the sports pages.
Football, of course, is very much on the minds of Pittsburghers on account of the fact that everything else here is so depressing. Alas, Pittsburgh has been flirting with bankruptcy, and although a plan has been devised to save the city, local residents understand that a crack team of elected knuckleheads lurks in the wings.
Moreover, who wouldn't think about the Bus, aka running back Jerome Bettis, when the real buses plying the area will have a drastically reduced schedule shortly if nothing is done?
Say not for whom the bell tolls, Big Ben, aka rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, it tolls for thee. And he tolls for thee even if you don't live in Pittsburgh.
It has been obvious for some years that the Steelers are really America's team, despite the pretensions of a bunch of show-offs in Dallas. Every Sunday, wherever the Steelers play, the stands are full of people waving Terrible Towels. Just this past Sunday in Jacksonville, it was estimated that at least 20,000 Steelers fans were there on the cheerful mission of irritating the locals.
Only some of these fans would have flown from Pittsburgh for the occasion. What you see here is the result of the Pittsburgh diaspora, the great outward migration triggered by the closing of the steel mills in the late 1970s and early '80s.
As these friendly folk went out into America, dreaming their nostalgic 'Burgh dreams, they impressed other people with their simple Pittsburgh way of life, which is highly attractive, involving as it does large sandwiches and beer.
No wonder people who had never been to Pittsburgh had the good taste to begin rooting for the Steelers.
It is encouraging to think that if the city does descend into fiscal ruin, even more people will have to leave, and the Steelers will be dramatically more popular than they are now. That's something to look forward to.
Of course, it takes more to be a Steelers fan than making eccentric vowel sounds while appreciating the fries on a sandwich. There has to be a love of the values that the Steelers represent.
And what are those values? For that insight I must turn to my old buddy, Prof. Marmot Sinecure at Groundhog College in Punxsutawney, Pa., who has studied this question extensively at the local Woodchuck Tavern, "where a woodchuck would drink beer if a woodchuck could."
Prof. Sinecure argues that the very name "Steelers" denotes strength and hardness. "We are lucky indeed that the polymer industry wasn't big in Pittsburgh, or the manufacture of ladies' corsets or artificial limbs," the professor said. "None of these lend themselves to a handy monicker suggestive of the sort of values held dear by the Pittsburgh fans."
But Prof. Sinecure believes that a name alone cannot build a firm fan base. A team must play in a way that the fans can relate to.
In that regard, it is often remarked that the Steelers are very much a team that establishes the run in order to establish the pass. Football commentators always note this -- it is required by their union -- and they always say it as if they are revealing a great wisdom for the first time.
Prof. Sinecure, being a professional academic, takes a complicated view of this:
"Sometimes," he observes, "the Steelers establish the run so well they say to heck with the pass, but at least the pass has been established by the run if Big Ben decides to take advantage of its establishment. Of course, the corollary must also be true: If you establish the pass, then, ergo, you have also established the run."
But how useful is the run-pass establishment as a paradigm to understanding the cult following inspired by the Steelers?
"It is crucial," the good professor believes. "Pittsburghers are a straightforward people. They don't want to have too many choices to befuddle them. You will note that the Steelers don't have cheerleaders at their games.
That is because the fans don't want to be tempted by scantily dressed girls when they came to watch huge slavering linebackers."It's a matter of old-fashioned priorities. Establish the run. Establish the pass. Establish what type of sausages are available at the concession stands. Finally, establish a steely defense that guarantees we all go home happy, even if home is somewhere far from the three rivers."
Being a Bengals fan I've generally thought of the steelers as "Thugs" my whole life. But it seems "Big Ben" is turning all of that around. You can't help but like the guy. If the Bengals don't make the Superbowl this year (heh heh, if) then I hope the Steelers do. How long has it been since a rookie QB won the SuperBowl anyway?