The 'Terrible Towel' that changes lives

In 1975, Myron Cope introduced the towel that united the Steeler Nation and now supports care at Allegheny Valley School

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When some Tennessee Titans gleefully trampled yellow terry cloth last season -- scenes of which are being hyped by NBC to promote the Sept. 10 rematch at Heinz Field -- their coach said they were unaware of the story behind the Terrible Towel.

"They don't understand the significance or meaning of the Towel itself to the organization, the Steelers history or the Steelers fans," coach Jeff Fisher said at the time, adding that the episode "isn't a big deal to me."

Yes, the Terrible Towel is the battle flag of a city and its football team, and every quadrant of the Steeler Universe is about to throttle up to a setting of Full Towel when the NFL season kicks off.

But since 1996, at the behest of the late Myron Cope, royalties from the sale of hundreds of thousands of Towels have raised $3 million for a school that serves some of society's most vulnerable individuals -- those with severe intellectual and developmental needs who are unable to care for themselves.

"Myron's generosity has been a godsend, and that's no exaggeration," said Regis Champ, president and CEO of Allegheny Valley School. "Every time we sell a Towel, his legacy grows as our special benefactor, and our residents benefit."

The charitable contributions are earmarked for high-end wheelchairs, computer technology that gives voice to those who cannot speak, a mechanized lift in the swimming pool or something as mundane as fixing a leaky roof.

Outsiders may not be the only ones unaware of the story, however, and the powerful threads that connect two of the most colorful figures in the city's sports history.

In a hallway at the school's corporate center in Coraopolis, two displays hang side by side. One has a portrait of Myron Cope -- who had a Hall of Fame career as the color announcer on Steelers broadcasts -- and The Towel. The other depicts the late Bob Prince and his own icon, the Green Weenie, which benefited the school from its earliest days. And it was The Gunner -- as he was known during his Hall of Fame career when he was the voice of the Pirates -- who helped enroll Myron's son Danny into the school.

"Bob Prince raised a lot of money for Allegheny Valley School. It was his favorite charity. Our gymnasium and pool complex is named after him," said Mr. Champ. "This is a story of how Pittsburgh takes care of its own, which makes it the place that it is."

A legacy of voices

Allegheny Valley School was born in 1960 because an orphanage closed. When adoptive families could not be found for 10 children from the Pittsburgh Home for Babies, philanthropist Patricia Hillman Miller established the school.

"Bob Prince was a close friend of hers, and he was a founding member of the board of directors. Whatever money he made from the Green Weenie, he donated to the school," Mr. Champ said in a recent tour.

Baseball fans of a certain age will recall that the Green Weenie, like the Terrible Towel, had special powers, or so its inventor claimed. At crucial moments in a game during 1966, The Gunner would exhort fans to help the Pirates by shaking a green plastic hot dog at opponents. Honest.

The Terrible Towel, meanwhile, became part of the local sports scene in a 1975 playoff game. The blend of color and motion had special powers to lift the Steelers at crucial moments, or so its creator maintained.

Then fate brought the two icons together. In 1982, Mr. Prince heard through the grapevine that Mr. Cope was looking for a new school for his son, who had been living in Philadelphia. Diagnosed with severe mental retardation when he was an infant, the boy required 24-hour care.

There was some friction between the two ego-driven announcers. But when The Gunner pitched Allegheny Valley School as the place for Danny Cope, a friendship blossomed.

"After the ice was broken between them, they became fast friends," Mr. Champ said. "Suddenly, they were supporting each other by raising funds for AVS."

Life works in astonishing ways. Danny Cope, now 41, has never spoken a word in his life. The two best known benefactors of his school were known for their distinctive voices.

Quality of life

Early on, the Cope family came to grips with the heartbreaking reality that the demands of taking care of Danny were too much for them. His father placed him in a home, and it was thought that he would never have a productive life.

"He's pretty much in a world of his own," said Elizabeth Cope, 38, Danny's younger sister who has served as his legal guardian since she was 15. "He has many limitations, but the love isn't limited.

"You can get to know him. He laughs. He cries. And even if he's never spoken a word, he makes his feelings be known," she added. "He definitely has his own personality. He's his own person -- as much as my dad was almost. I know he feels loved."

She's working to get her brother a computerized device that will allow him to speak. Meanwhile, in the years that he has been at Allegheny Valley School, Danny developed skills that enable him to hold down a job, earning a small paycheck for sorting things like parts for electrical switches. He and three roommates live in a supervised home. He goes to some social events, but it would be a stretch to say that he understands what football is.

"Things changed dramatically for Danny. He's leading a quality life," Mr. Champ said. "Myron could not get over Danny's growth. His mind was at ease when he died."

When Mr. Cope passed away in 2008, his daughter draped his coffin with a quilt made from Terrible Towels that were sewn together by a fan. She chose the quilt because it represents the many different people who touched their lives.

"There aren't many things in life that bring people together, but the Steelers are one of those things," Ms. Cope said.

But she wrestles with mixed feelings because twirling towels remind her of the father she lost. Her mother, Mildred, died in 1994.

"There's a mixture of pain and pride," she said. "I miss my dad more than anyone will ever know. I miss hearing his voice at games. He was way more than a towel. But I know [the towel] helps the school, and I'm grateful for everything they've done. I wouldn't be able to take care of my brother myself. He's the only family I have left."

A super donation

The Terrible Towel had become so popular that it was trademarked, mass produced and sold as an officially licensed product for 20 years.

Then one day in 1996, its creator visited the school that cares for his son and casually tossed a packet of legal papers across the president's desk.

Mr. Champ remembers the conversation like it was yesterday.

"He said, 'I'm giving you The Towel.' I said, 'Thanks, Myron, but I already have a couple of them.' Then he said, 'No, no. I'm transferring the trademark.' It took me one second to understand what he was doing and what it would mean for us. It was incredibly generous and thoughtful," Mr. Champ said.

The only instructions were to preserve the dignity of The Towel, and that the money from the royalties should be used to improve the quality of life of the school's residents.

"We take that responsibility very seriously. We owe it to Myron to do that," Mr. Champ said.

The school has grown into a statewide network, serving about 900 children and adults in nine counties. Its mission is to have them live with purpose and dignity and to function as independently as possible.

Allegheny Valley School operates as a Medicaid program with an annual budget of $130 million in federal dollars.

The Terrible Towel has provided $3 million extra in the past 13 years. When the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, it meant a windfall of $1 million in royalties from The Towel and related items. Spurred by the winning of a sixth Lombardi Trophy in February, this year's sales have approached that amount.

"Detroit was phenomenal. Tampa is close. We couldn't be more pleased," Mr. Champ said.

And the way Mr. Cope set up the legacy, all the marketing is done by the Steelers.

"We get a check from them every month," Mr. Champ said. "We could not have a better partner than the Steelers. They make us feel like part of their family. It's not a business deal. It's a family deal."

Towel power

The last time the Steelers lost was Dec. 21 to the Titans. The lingering images involve Keith Bulluck and LenDale White doing the Tennessee two-step on the terry cloth, and Jevon Kearse blowing his nose in it.

Network analyst Bill Cowher said at the time that if he were still coach of the Steelers he'd keep the videotape handy for when the two teams meet again. "I know what I'm pulling out the night before the game," he said.

He's not the only one who sees a lesson in being careful about what you step in. Tackle Max Starks tucked the memory into the back of his mind.

"It's a matter of respect. I guess teams feel like they're getting back at us by beating up on a lifeless object," he said. "Their time will come. It's not exactly bulletin board material, but you don't forget."

Those associated with Allegheny Valley School and the Cope legacy are magnanimous about it.

For one thing, the desecration backfired, as did the act of Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon wiping his nose in a Terrible Towel before the Super Bowl.

"No offense was taken," Mr. Champ said. "The stompers actually did us a big favor. That stomp got us a lot of national publicity. It did nothing but keep us in the public eye. I have to say thanks. It was one of the best things that ever happened to us."

Ill feelings aren't something that Elizabeth Cope wants to carry around either. "I am so not offended," she said. "This was something that happened in a football game. There was no evil intent. They didn't mean any harm to my brother or Allegheny Valley School or Bob Prince. They don't know the huge story behind the Towel."

Besides, look how things turned out.

"The Towel cannot be beaten. When you see all those people waving towels, it's like a wave of consciousness," Ms. Cope said. "There are some forces greater than ourselves. I think the Terrible Towel is one of those things."

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at .


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