When a good part of Steelers Nation packs up and makes its pilgrimage to the Holy Land on Super Bowl weekend, it will not be heading to the sunny shores of the Gulf Coast, but the ice floes along the three rivers.
Never mind the huge costs that come with traveling to Tampa and buying $1,000-plus Super Bowl tickets. Some out-of-town fans would rather just soak up the atmosphere -- and the beers -- at Steelers ground zero. Some have Pittsburgh roots and want to see friends and family. Others have no connections to the city other than their adopted team, and plan to make new friends once they get here.
"I'd much rather be in Pittsburgh if they win than in Tampa. I want to share that feeling with other people who really appreciate it," said Cem Akin, 36, who is flying into town from San Francisco. "No expense is too great for the Steelers. It's a lifelong condition."
Pittsburghers suffering through a freezing winter might call that condition insanity. Plenty of people from outside the city see something special in being in town for the big game -- and are coming from as far away as China, the Persian Gulf, the West Coast and Florida itself to prove it.
Dean Vlaovich grew up a Steelers fan in New Jersey and now works for a trucking company in Arkansas. He and his wife, Cinthia, made the 14-hour drive to Pittsburgh for the Super Bowl in 2006, where they found themselves dancing on South Side streets with strangers after the win. They're making the drive again next week.
"Originally people down here thought I was nuts three years ago when we took the trip. But I told my new boss in October during a departmental meeting, 'I will require off the Monday and Tuesday after the Super Bowl if the Steelers are in it.' Everyone laughed," said Mr. Vlaovich, 35. "I said it again every Monday in the same meeting. Until this week. The boss beat me to it and said 'We know, you're off.'"
Marine Corps Major Mark A. Paolicelli of Mt. Lebanon watched the Steelers lose the AFC championship in 2004 during his second tour in Iraq, and during the 2006 Super Bowl was assigned to military exercises while stationed in Guam. He and other Marines were patrolling an airfield for hours, tasked with protecting Naval personnel during an exercise where they were portraying civilians.
Except the Navy guys never showed -- they were watching the game.
"The word didn't filter down to our unit that the exercise was canceled â€¦ Some of my Marines were from Pittsburgh, so needless to say, we were pretty upset that we missed the game," he said.
Seeing digital pictures of the parties on Carson Street after the game sealed it -- he'll be traveling from his job at the Pentagon next weekend. "I promised myself that, if I wasn't deployed, I would head back to Pittsburgh to watch the game and (hopefully) celebrate with my friends and family," the 34-year-old wrote in an e-mail.
Kiko Restrepo, an architect based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is flying to Pittsburgh the day before the game to try to duplicate the good time he had on game night in 2006, while a student at Carnegie Mellon.
"We watched and chanted as Oakland went up in a crazy enthusiasm," he said via e-mail.
Brad Wilcock and his fiancee are both ex-Pittsburghers working in Hong Kong. "We scheduled a two-week vacation back to the states around Super Bowl Sunday with a quiet confidence that the black and gold would be playing," he wrote. "We finally get to watch a game at normal hours after watching the last 18 at absurd hours on Monday and Tuesday mornings."
Mark Rosenblatt, 46, is a lifelong Toronto resident who got hooked on the Steelers at age 12, sometimes following them on French-language broadcasts. He turned his father and two sons into fans, so three generations of Rosenblatts will fly to Pittsburgh Super Bowl weekend.
There is the sensitive matter of a family bat mitzvah that Saturday to contend with, which the immigration lawyer has been up-front about missing. "I'm not going to lie and say I'm sick," he said.
On Wednesday, the Post-Gazette asked out-of-town readers of its Web site to call and write with their Pittsburgh Super Bowl travel stories. The newspaper had to take down the request shortly thereafter, due to the flood of replies.
Many of the fans traveling to the Pittsburgh area have family here, and coming back for the big game is as much a well-worn Sunday ritual as church and a big family dinner.
New Jersey fifth-grade teacher Ben Clark, originally from Beechview, is coming back with his two girls -- ages 5 and 8 months -- to watch the game with his parents. As part of his quest to keep them from becoming Eagles fans, he wants to show them how deep Steelers fervor goes.
He was his older daughter's age when the team won its first title in 1975. "I can still hear the fireworks, banging pots and shouts. It was the first time I saw my father cry. Then came the next three titles, each one with its own memory."
Sam Scialabba, 60, formerly of Whitehall, is coming from Clovis, Calif., and plans to introduce his wife to the Strip District, the South Side and other sites before watching the game.
"My primary purpose is not to watch the game but to inter my father who passed away last month in Florida," he wrote. "The game is an unplanned highlight of an otherwise subdued trip."
It should be said that as fun as Pittsburgh can be on Super Sunday, it can be horribly depressing place if the Steelers lose, as they did in to the Cowboys in Tempe, Ariz., in 1996. Some out-of-town fans sheepishly say they want to extend their trips next week if there is a Downtown victory parade. Others are too superstitious to mention it.
Mr. Akin, of San Francisco, a Squirrel Hill native, had a premonition the Steelers would lose to the Cowboys so went with his girlfriend to Florida instead, thinking the beach would keep his mind off a loss. "I was so miserable that for several days I couldn't get myself to come back," he said, noting that the delay cost his girlfriend her job.
The most difficult journey could be by Paul Malec, 37, who, despite being in a cast and on crutches, plans to fly in with his girlfriend Melanie Webb. A lifetime Steelers fan despite being raised in New York City, he was walking his dog Big Ben in November when he was struck by a car on Long Island, breaking multiple bones and ripping his Steelers sweatshirt and flip-flops to pieces.
When he awoke in the hospital, Mr. Malec said he now knew how bad Ben Roethlisberger felt after his 2006 motorcycle accident. Later, Ms. Webb recalled, he asked if he was in hospital bed 7, and was told he was in number 12 instead.
"Oh that's good -- Bradshaw," he replied.
See Weekend Magazine Jan. 29 for a list of places to watch the game.
Tim McNulty can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1581.