Arizona looks like the headquarters of Steelers West


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CHANDLER, Ariz. -- The same as so many others of his brethren, Randy Waters isn't hiding his Steelers enthusiasm behind enemy lines this week.

He propped up a huge black-and-gold sign pointing customers along North Arizona Avenue to his gourmet hot dog store inside an eastern-Phoenix antiques mall. He adorned his shop with Steelers and Pirates paraphernalia. He put a Point-view photograph ofDowntown Pittsburgh on his menu, where the fare includes a meatball sandwich, The Great One (for late Pirates star Roberto Clemente), and Klondike Bars ("a Pittsburgh 'n Isaly's original"). And he nailed to the back wall a sign that reads, "Pittsburgh Willy's reserves the right to refuse service to Cleveland fans."

For weeks during this NFL season, he draped a banner above his seating area, to stimulate business: "The Ultimate Super Bowl -- Steelers vs. Cardinals."

Did he believe that dream would come true?

"Hell, no," said Mr. Walters, 55, born in Monongahela but now a 34-year Arizona resident and Cardinals season-ticket holder who one day last week was wearing a smile and a Steelers.com T-shirt. "But I knew Pittsburgh would be there."

Funny how it worked out.

Super Bowl XLIII next Sunday in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium is placing a few displaced fans of the Steelers (14-4) between desert rocks and a hard Superstition Mountains place deep inside Arizona. But you can hardly call this Cardinals (12-7) country, because, as Mr. Walters said, "so many people move out here" and hold onto their hometown allegiances. Another factor is that the Cardinals, the losingest franchise in NFL history, won only two postseason games in 89 years, the past 20 spent in the Valley of the Sun, before dashing off three victories in a row this month to reach its inaugural Super Bowl.

"The Arizona Cardinals are no one's team," said Mike Rossman, 69. The East Liberty native runs a business called Pittsburgh Souvenir and Novelty out of his Scottsdale, Ariz., home, which he bought in 1997 to spend eight months in the desert and four back in Southwestern Pennsylvania. "And I don't sell [Cardinals] stuff at all. In all the years I've been doing this, I've been asked for Cardinals stuff maybe five times."

Sherry Snyder is even more pro-Pittsburgh.

"Yes, it has been so hard these past few days, dealing with people -- the bandwagoners -- around me at my office, and even my so-called friends who are sending me nasty jokes and e-mails... and such. It's ridiculous," she wrote in an e-mail. "I am trying to laugh it off, realizing that these people don't have a clue as to what it means to be a Steelers fan, or sadly a fan for that matter.

"But I'm willing to take the heat. I will never, ever back down from my support. I'm a 'Burgh girl until I die."

Ms. Snyder, 36, a banker, moved from Baldwin Borough to Arizona four years ago and bought Cardinals season tickets to "see my Steelers play here.

"Phoenix is a Steeler town. ... Now, the past two weeks have created the largest grouping of bandwagon members I have ever witnessed in my life. I am embarrassed for them, and I am embarrassed to say I am from Arizona right now.

"I laugh daily when I see the one or two red hats and/or flags on a car. Maybe, just maybe, they will change and be more supportive of their team, even after they lose the Super Bowl. But I doubt it."

It's hard to pin down an accurate number of transplanted Pittsburghers in the Valley, though Mr. Rossman not long ago heard that Allegheny County sent more residents to Phoenix's Maricopa County than any other in America. There are at least 14 establishments that claim to be Steelers' bars. And one of them, the accepted local leader, expects to seat 3,500 Sunday for Cardinals vs. Steelers.

Harold's Corral, in a far-north-suburban outpost of Phoenix called Cave Creek, is owned by Seton-LaSalle High graduate Danny Piacquadio. His father, Dan, who is back in the restaurant business in the South Hills, bought it from the real Harold about the time his son joined him in the desert in 1987. Mostly, they corral Steelers fans -- natives who moved west, people who relocated for work, folks who merely jumped aboard the Steelers' victory train in the Super '70s or later.

"I'm a Steeler fan, so I love this Super Bowl because of that," Danny Piacquadio said. "But I get a second bonus, too" with the local team making it.

His restaurant seats 650, and he sells out those seats for the Steelers' season broadcasts. Some, he said, come from far-flung Tucson or Lake Havasu. Imagine if he sold personal-seat licenses.

To handle the rest of the Super Bowl crowd, Harold's Corral will erect a couple of tents.

Brent Milburn, 34, owns Barwinkle's, another Steelers bar four miles from the Cardinals' University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. He grew up in Mount Joy, Clearfield County, and lived all around the country before settling in the desert and buying the bar three years ago.

"I'm getting a lot of crap" from non-Steelers fans in his bar, Mr. Milburn said. "Not too fun. But I got big shoulders."

He has a big bar, too: 200 seats fill on NFL Sundays, mostly with folks garbed in black and gold.

"Last Sunday was crazy," he said of the pre-NFC Championship game crowd. "We had Cardinals fans in here early, and they were peering at the Pittsburgh fans. I loved it."

One guy truly torn down the middle is Kevin Walter. He's from Clarion and moved to Arizona in 1991 for semiconductor work.

At his Chandler home, he has a 4-by-4-foot Cardinals logo hanging from his garage and the "Steeler Nation" and "Here We Go" cheer signs in his front window.

"I say, I can't lose this Super Bowl," said Mr. Walter, a Cardinals season-ticket holder who considered stitching together half his No. 7 Matt Leinart Cardinals jersey to half his No. 7 Ben Roethlisberger one. "I'm rooting for the Cardinals [because] the Steelers have five Super Bowl rings, and this is the Cardinals' first dance. If the Steelers get No. 6, though, I'm not going to be sad. I just can't lose here."


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com .


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