Fans, players have connection that drives both to super heights


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TAMPA, Fla. -- From Station Square to the space station, from Mount Washington to Mount Everest, from Polish Hill to the South Pole, Steelermania is at its peak.

But it turns out the feeling is mutual.

From owners to starters to players on the practice squad, the Steelers are just as awestruck by the support they receive from their vast and varied fan base in their quest today to become the first NFL franchise to win a sixth Super Bowl.

"I feel that sometimes we're the heartbeat of the city," said defensive captain James Farrior. "They love us to death, and we love them the same way. We definitely feel like they're a part of this team. They want to win as badly as we do."

After the Steelers punched their ticket to their seventh Super Bowl appearance, Mr. Farrior was among the players who took a victory lap around Heinz Field to embrace the fans. It wasn't a show of vanity, but a way to share the accomplishment with those who brave the snow and the cold as well as those in a global network who scream at the TV and risk their hearts for a football team.

"I definitely wanted to show my appreciation for what they've done," Mr. Farrior said. "It was the biggest crowd we ever had. That's the loudest I ever heard that stadium."

The bond between this team and its frothy following is a phenomenon worthy of sociological study, a bond that's stronger than the strongest steel.

On one side is an amalgam called The Nation, which is more like an extended family or a tribal community that crosses political, religious, economic and geographic lines.

President Barack Obama and Rush Limbaugh aren't exactly on each other's speed dials. But the Democratic leader of the free world received a game ball from the AFC championship game while the mouthpiece of the political right cheered in person from the sidelines of the same game.

And now it's gone otherworldly. Lt. Col. Mike Fincke, of Emsworth, smuggled a Terrible Towel aboard a rocket ship and then claimed the International Space Station as Steeler Country. You can look it up in cyberspace.

There isn't enough canvas to make that large a tent.

On the other side is a team that knows it touches people so deeply that the psyche of the city depends on whether it wins or loses. The players are honored to have such zealotry on their side.

"It's just amazing to have such allegiance," said offensive lineman Max Starks. "I like to think we have the best fans in the entire sporting industry. You can go almost anywhere and there's a Steeler fan with a Terrible Towel somewhere, and now it's gone intergalactic.

"This team's always kept a blue collar mentality and a blue collar attitude. Never is there a flashy guy on this team. We work hard, do our jobs, do it best we can. I think that speaks to our fans," he added. "This team represents the work ethic and the personality of Western Pennsylvania. That's why it's easy to identify with us. It's similar to their own personal values. It doesn't matter where people are, their hearts are still in Pittsburgh."

While football has long been part of the fabric of Western Pennsylvania, the professional game was actually born on the dirt lots of what was a gritty industrial hub.

A ledger entry from the Allegheny Athletic Association records a payment of $500 in 1892 to Pudge Heffelfinger to play in a game, and the Hall of Fame in Canton considers it to be the birth certificate of professional football. Pudge scored the only touchdown in a win over the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, by the way, in a game played not far from the site of Heinz Field.

Then the football connection morphed into community delirium when the Steelers won four titles in six years during the Super Seventies. Even then, they never felt they went into a fight alone.

"There were games when I thought if we didn't win, the fans were going to come down out of the stands and win it for us," said Andy Russell, defensive captain of the first two Super Bowl teams. "We have the best fans in the world. I've been in Steeler bars in Moscow."

Current players describe the relationship as mutually beneficial.

"We feed off them. They feed off of us. They're happy when we win, sad when we lose," said defensive lineman Brett Keisel. "Steeler Nation is one of a kind, and I'm glad to be a part of it."

Teammate Aaron Smith has a personal and professional connection to the fans. When his son was diagnosed during this season with a rare form of leukemia, Pittsburghers turned out en masse to help by giving their blood through the American Red Cross.

"The city lives off of us," Mr. Smith said. "You know they're going to be behind you. They're going to show up and cheer you on. This is their team, and they're going to do whatever it takes to get to the game. This city takes care of its own. I can't imagine playing in a better city."

A fresh perspective can be supplied by those who have seen it from the outside and are now immersed in it.

Quarterback Byron Leftwich, who began his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars, said the fans can actually change the course of a game.

"I remember a game on a Sunday night or a Monday night when I was with Jacksonville. We were at home, and we had to use the silent count," he said.

"Did y'all hear what I just said? We were in our own stadium, in Jacksonville, and there were so many Pittsburgh fans that we had to go on the quiet cadence like we were on the road," Mr. Leftwich added. "When you play for Pittsburgh, with the support we get from our fans, it's priceless.

"You're in somebody else's stadium and you have 10,000 or 20,000 of your owns fans supporting you? You score a touchdown in somebody else's house and you steal his cheers? There's something special about that, because that doesn't happen. I don't know of anywhere else where that happens. Nowhere else. That's what makes this place so special. I'm just happy to be a part of it, to be on this kind of football team, to have the opportunity to win a Super Bowl."

In Detroit, when the Steelers won their one-for-the-thumb Super Bowl in 2006, Ford Field was anything but a neutral site. The counterclockwise twirling of gold towels was like visual applause to go along with the roar.

And the Steelers expect Raymond James Stadium here to be their domain today as well, even in a bad economy.

"Everywhere we go, it's going to be a home game," said Hines Ward, the MVP of the last Super Bowl. "Our fans will take out a mortgage on the house to get there."

Because the Cardinals are the NFC representative, their logos have adorned the facilities of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But Bucs owner Bryan Glazer, a neutral observer, knows what's coming.

"Whenever I watch a game the Steelers are playing in, I always see a lot of Terrible Towels. I'm always wondering how [their fans] get that many tickets for those stadiums. They travel as good, if not the best, as anybody in the league," he said.

While the franchise dates back to 1933, the Steelers are connected historically to the deepest roots of Pittsburgh. An imaginary line drawn down the length of Heinz Field would align to the fountain at The Point. Coincidentally, it was 250 years ago that British and colonial troops were huddled against the winter chill to build a permanent settlement they named "Pittsbourgh." What better present could the city receive during its 250th birthday year than a sixth Lombardi Trophy?

As team Chairman Dan Rooney explained in his autobiography last year, the Steelers belong to the city of Pittsburgh, and his family merely shepherds the franchise.

"Oh, yes, I believe that. Our fans are everything.

"That's why we're here. That's why it was so important for us to get our ownership structure worked out," said Mr. Rooney, who still can be seen walking to games from his family homestead on the North Side.

"The relationship is something special, very unique. On Sunday, if you drive down the streets of Pittsburgh, you won't see anybody out."

Team President Arthur J. Rooney II, grandson of the franchise founder, may not be able to explain this affair of the heart. But he treasures the boost his team gets from its following.

"It gives you goose hairs on the back of your neck, really, when you walk out onto the field and you're in a foreign city and you see all those Steeler fans and all those towels waving," he said. "There's no question I think it does inspire our players."

One player who will attest to that is second-year linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

"Our fans are part of this too. They're not out there playing, but they're in the game with us. By making all that noise, they don't know how much that means to us," he said.

Along with the inspiration he receives, safety Ryan Clark feels a need to hold up the team's end of the bargain.

"The mood of the city is set by what we do. If we lose, Monday's a terrible day in the city. It's a heck of a responsibility. We have to do well for them," he said. "The Steeler Nation, man, it's amazing."

Wide receiver Marvin Allen is on the practice squad and won't suit up for the Super Bowl. But as a native of Dorking, England, he has witnessed the passion of European soccer fans and the frenzy of the Steelers' following.

"I think it's gotten to the point where the fans are a part of our success. They don't cheer the same way soccer crowds do, but they are just as fanatical as a soccer crowd. When we're at Heinz Field, and they play "Renegade" by Styx, there's a charge. When you're playing, you feel that and appreciate that."

Steelers who grew up in football-obsessed Pittsburgh have a first-hand knowledge of the economic hard times that threw steelworkers out of jobs and forced them to relocate to find employment. But as they scattered to the winds, they remained connected to home by the sturdy threads of terry cloth that proclaimed their allegiance to the Steelers.

"Wherever we may play, our fans are already there," said Homestead native Charlie Batch, who is on injured reserve and can't play in this Super Bowl.

"At the same time, we still have to handle our business at hand, which is winning the football game, regardless of how many people we have in the stands. We had a lot of people at the Tennessee game, but we lost," he added. "We have to give them a reason to cheer."

Ryan Mundy, a practice squad player, recalls that 15,000 people once showed up to see his Woodland Hills High School team win a triple-overtime game against Central Catholic. It doesn't surprise him that Steeler fans have a sense of ownership in the team.

"They are a part of it. As a player, it's comforting and it's rewarding to know that so many people are behind you. That's great motivation for us. Not only do we want to win the Super Bowl for us, but for the fans," he said.

"You'd have to look long and hard to find anything that matches this. We get pictures of guys serving in Iraq and Afghanistan or flying in jets showing off the Terrible Towel. That's very important to us," he added. "That's why we're so selfless. We realize it's bigger than us. It'll always be bigger than us."


Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com . First Published February 1, 2009 5:00 AM


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