BETHESDA, Md. -- Just a few of us left now. It's cold outside and getting dark. The beer's flat, the nachos are half eaten, and the Steelers have lost. Another depressingly familiar Sunday at Union Jack's British Pub in Bethesda, Md. This was the infamous Miami game of Dec. 8.
Fast forward two weeks -- an improbable win in the snow in Wisconsin. Playoff hope pretty thin, but there is hope nonetheless.
Union Jack's is a popular British-themed bar and restaurant in the heart of downtown Bethesda. On football Sundays it sheds its identity and shifts into full Pittsburgh mode -- a Steelers flag flies outside the entrance, most of the screens are tuned to the Steelers game, as is the audio feed.
The bar shows most other games; of course one screen has the Ravens. But it's usually quiet in that corner -- being Baltimore fans, they're typically slumped in the chair with their mouths open by the second quarter. This bar is pure Black and Gold, although this year, with the team sitting at 7 and 8, the mood has changed -- despite the late season wins.
"The world has flipped," says Bill Davis. "Here we are during the Steelers season and I'm thinking about the Pirates and whether we'll sign A.J. [Burnett]. That's just not the way it should be. I should be thinking about the Steelers playoff position this time of year."
Mr. Davis, a Pittsburgh Allderdice grad who grew up in Squirrel Hill, is an attorney (this is D.C., after all) with Mintz Levin. A faithful devotee of Steelers bars, he has missed just a handful of games in the 25 years he has lived in D.C.
"This year's just different.You knew the season was over weeks ago," he says. "If I miss a game now, it's just no big deal."
Still, there's nothing quite like watching a Steelers game at an out-of-town bar. There are more than 700 Steelers bars across the country. The decline of Big Steel in the 1970s and '80s forced many Pittsburghers out of town to look for work. D.C. was a ripe target and unlike steel, D.C.'s industry, the government, never goes into recession.
Smart tavern owners here recognized that the typical Steelers patron wasn't going to pick on a slice of brie or nurse a Chablis all afternoon. They drink, eat and drink some more.
"Steelers fans are the best, most loyal fans in the world," says Matthew Snee, regional director of Union Jack's and himself a Redskins loyalist. "They always come back -- they love their team, they order a lot of food, [drink a lot of] beer. They make an event of it. As an operator in this business, you love people like this. And the fans are a lot of fun. No team turns them out like the Steelers."
Pittsburgh expats have an immediate kinship with the crowd upon walking in the door. Through the years they have felt a surge of hometown pride with every James Harrison hit or Hines Ward score.
But those guys are gone. And so are the raucous times at Union Jack's. Mr. Davis' gloom is seen on the faces of the remaining Steelers faithful at the bar. In the good years the place was loud, festive, fun. But as the clock ticks down and the Steelers defense makes Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill look like Dan Marino, the place has all the fun of a trip to the dentist.
Jack Mitchell, a Senate investigator, grew up in Beaver but came to Washington years ago to work for legendary journalist Jack Anderson. Mr. Mitchell, a veteran reporter and author of a book on presidential corruption, has witnessed the ugly part of our nature. But he has seen few things uglier than watching backup Miami tight end Charles Clay run over Troy Polamalu and Cortez Allen in the Pittsburgh snow to beat the Steelers.
"Worst tackling I've ever seen from the Steelers," he said, adding that he has been going to games since the 1960s when the Steelers were consistently bad. "It's dispiriting and depressing. Steeler fans, we're loyal and there's lots of us, but there's a lot less enthusiasm at the bars than there used to be."
Things actually hit a low point a few weeks ago when the biggest sounds in the bar came from a group in red and white screaming for the Chiefs -- yes, those Chiefs, from Kansas City. People from Missouri, of all places, were out screaming at us in our own saloon.
"We have seen a noticeable drop off in Steelers business, but it is still pretty good," says Mr. Snee. "But these are the Steelers. They will bounce back, and we are actually going to see more fans. The second and third generation are starting to come in."
So true. People are no longer leaving Pittsburgh as they once did to look for work. The town is fun. Still, out-of-town Steelers fans continue to swell. It's in the genes. My kids grew up in Bethesda but have rooted only for Steelers, Bucs, Pens. Last year, I toured colleges with my son. We did the typical routine, saw the library, dorms, met with academic advisers. But equally important, we looked for the closest Steelers bars.
Tuscaloosa, Ala., by the way, has two.
I knew my son was hooked by the time he was 8. We walked to a local bar and restaurant to watch the game. There were no tables. I knew the bartender, so we sat at the bar. We ordered burgers. My son had a ginger ale, and I had a grown-up drink that looked a lot like ginger ale. I went to the bathroom and came back to find my son almost retching.
He'd mistakenly taken a drink from my glass. Sick from the drink, he nevertheless insisted we stay and watch the game.
I realize that incident probably knocked me off the shortlist for father-of-the-year honors, but I also knew then my son was a Steelers lifer. And it doesn't get much more important than that.
Robert Carden, who grew up in Mt. Lebanon, is a television producer and writer in Washington, D.C.