Steelers Nation is global

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PITTSBURGH -- Steeler fan walks into a bar. Bartender says, "Qu'est-ce que vous avez?"

Oh, you heard that one?

No problem. Got a million of 'em.

Steeler fan walks into a bar. Bartender says, "Come posso aiutarlo?"

In Paris and in Rome, those exact things have happened, no joke, in at least two languages not counting Pittsburghese. That there are Steeler fans in Europe is a cross-cultural fact that hardly even stretches credulity anymore, but what about the likelihood of, say, authentic Steel Curtain gee-gaws behind the former Iron Curtain?

That's right.

Ladies and gentleman, Andy Russell.

"This is maybe three years ago," said the '70s-era linebacker-turned-international businessman. "I'm in this outdoor shopping mall in Moscow and there are various kiosks and I see some black-and-gold merchandise, so I walk over there.

"And here are these Russian nesting dolls, black-and-gold nesting dolls, and each doll is a replica of a famous Steeler player. All Hall of Famers I think. I look around. I see no other teams shown at any kiosk."

In Moscow.

Not Moscow, Ohio. Moscow Moscow.

The biggest doll was a likeness of Mean Joe Greene, Mr. Russell reports, which held a succession of smaller dolls leading to the eventual emergence of a tiny Lynn Swann.

"I told Lynn," Mr. Russell laughed. "He didn't like it that he was the smallest, or that they were using his likeness without authorization, for which I don't blame him."

As Steeler Nation prepares for its Super Bowl 45 close-up, its mirror image is no longer reflected nationally. In geographical and cultural scope, that image is closer to something better described as Steeler Planet.

"The one that caught me a little off guard," Steelers president Art Rooney II was saying the other day, "was once when I was in Paris and we were walking past the Moulin Rouge, and there's a guy out front in a Steelers T-shirt. I don't believe he was a Pittsburgher."

Mr. Rooney said his friend and former Steelers public relations ace Joe Gordon once showed him a Vietnam-era photo of a forced march of Viet Cong prisoners.

"The second guy in line," Mr. Rooney said, "was wearing a Steelers shirt."

There was a time just prior to that Viet Cong fashion show when the only place you could reasonably expect to find a Steelers T-shirt was in Art Rooney's basement on North Lincoln Avenue, if at all, but an overflowing fistful of Super Bowls later, the phenomenon has not only broken through national boundaries but invited serious examination of the cultural and social roots of its identity.

It's one thing to fly the colors and extol the loyalty, but finding out the "why" beneath Steeler Planet can for some be as satisfying as a cold draft and a Steelers touchdown.

"It's hard to see and understand your own culture sometimes," said Maggie Patterson, associate professor of journalism at Duquesne University. "It has a taken-for-granted quality that makes it somewhat invisible, but when you see it out of its context, it's really a remarkable thing. I was in Hawaii once and I got on a bus going to a luau. The bus driver, a Hawaiian man, had a terrible towel hanging from the mirror and he was blasting the "Steeler Polka" on this 45-minute drive to the complete mystification of the everyone on the bus."

Ms. Patterson, who with her husband, historian Rob Ruck, co-authored "Rooney: A Sporting Life," a comprehensive examination of the life and adventures of the franchise's founder, reached in that process an understanding of the Steeler audience's collective identity that few have previously.

"I think it starts with a kind of responsibility and wholesomeness," she said. "I think it offers a part of American culture that people want to be associated with. It's very much wrapped up in blue-collar values, the family ownership, and the idea that you prove yourself by doing things rather than by your rhetoric."

That part of the gospel was recently celebrated and dichotomized in the AFC championship victory over the New York Jets, who started talking about the Super Bowl in July and never backed off by one syllable even when they were down 24-0 to the Steelers last Sunday.

"That's not only the history of the franchise," Ms. Patterson said. "It's the history of its founder. Art Rooney was not a speaker. He was a doer."

The Chief, as Mr. Rooney would become known, begat multiple generations of doers not just in his football-savvy family but in the players and employees who loved him. It was soon evident to people like Mr. Russell what could be established with Steelers momentum.

"Ray Mansfield [Mr. Russell's late teammate] and I discovered after that first Super Bowl that we could use the Steelers' notoriety to fly around the world, to speak and clinics and such," Mr. Russell said. "We went to Tokyo to teach the game to some kids. We figured we'd get 10 or 20 kids out there. We got 400 standing in perfect formation.

"Those kids have grown up. I'm sure they're Steeler fans. We went back the next year to play a flag football game. Later we went to Seoul, Hong Kong, Bangkok, New Delhi, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait City. We went to Frankfurt and London five years in a row."

So no, Steeler Planet didn't spin into this galaxy from zero propulsion, but plenty among its far-flung populace are Steeler fans for reasons not easily explained. United under the totemic Terrible Towel, they are rich and poor, powerful and disenfranchised, Western and Eastern, young and old, liberal and conservative, and somehow all the sport-spiritual cousins of Blawnox Bob and Baldwin Betty.

At the epicenter last weekend, as the big Heinz cathedral rocked around the fading game clock and the iconic "Here We Go" song bled into its chorus -- "Pittsburgh's Goin' to the Su-u-per Bowl," -- the feeling that some inevitable truth had been re-established was both palpable and really, really loud.

But it's not just Pittsburgh that's goin'. When it comes to the Steelers, the whole world goes.

Gene Collier: .


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