Steeler fans make trek from Mexico

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DALLAS - They've endured two days on a cramped bus; traversed treacherous, iced-over roads from freak snowstorms; were searched by border guards and imposing German Shepards.

And, perhaps worst of all, spent a night at a cheap motel in McAllen, Texas.

But because the Steelers Nation crosses the borders of actual nations, 42 hearty Steelers fans from Monterrey, Mexico made a 600-mile journey through international checkpoints and dangerous weather to come to Dallas, site of Super Bowl XLV between Pittsburgh and Green Bay.

Even though not one of them has a ticket to the game.

"It's worth it," said Omar Santos, leader of the tour group, which will watch the game at the Austin Avenue Sports Bar in nearby Plano, with members of the Southern Steel Fan Club of North Texas. "We'll be with fellow Steelers fans, supporting the black and gold. That's all that matters."

That sentiment reflects the passion for the Steelers in Mexico, where the team boasts a huge following across a country where typically, soccer is king.

The rise of Los Acereros de Pittsburgh in America's southern neighbor can be traced, like so many Steelers fandoms, to the team's dynastic success in the 1970s. At the time, the Televisa network began frequently broadcasting Steelers games because they were the most successful team. And Mexican fans responded, with the Steelers emerging as a rival to the Dallas Cowboys - a more geographically appealing success- as the most popular NFL team in Mexico.

"Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris and Lynn Swann and all those players were very popular [with] the young boys, young guys who started to see the NFL," said Antonio Valdez, an NFL broadcaster with Televisa since 1982 who is in Dallas this week to cover the Super Bowl.

"When you win you cause impact, with the children you cause impact."

The Steelers' success also can be traced to the father of Mexican NFL broadcasting, Fernando Von Rossum, a known Steelers fan. He wasn't exactly Myron Cope en espanol - Mr. Von Rossum was the broadcaster for all teams, and Mr. Valdez said his mentor was careful to keep his on-air objectivity - but his support of Los Acereros helped the fan base grow.

"He wanted to show the people that the league was very good and that the Steelers were a very good product," said Emilio Leon, a Mexico City-based reporter for ESPN the Magazine and Fox Sports.

Common values didn't hurt either. Esteban Gonzales, a Steelers fan from Monterrey said that not unlike American fans of the team, Mexican Steelers fans identified with the team's blue collar roots as an alternative to the Dallas Cowboys, long the most popular team in Mexico.

"Some media referred to the rivalry as the evil versus the good," Mr. Gonzales said. "But the Pittsburgh Steelers emerged to become an antagonist with its traditional "blue collar approach." It became the rivalry between "America's Team - the rich" and the "hard working class" oriented Steelers. At the time, Mexican fans [longed for] an option other than the Cowboys, and the Steelers just fit well into that new approach."

Santos said that, Monterrey, the third largest in Mexico with a population of about 4 million, enjoys an affinity for the Steelers because, like Pittsburgh, historically it was a center of Steel production until the 1980's when the Asian steel markets became dominant. Two-hundred fans regularly pack a bar called "Mezquite" to watch Steelers games.

Mexican fans' team allegiances, Mr. Valdez said, generally coincide with the team that was having the most success when the fans first started watching the league. That explains the recent rise in popularity of the New England Patriots South of the border and now, perhaps, a second generation of Steelers fans is coming of age.

"The people know very well about this team - [Ben] Roethlisberger, [Rashard] Mendenhall, [Hines] Ward, [James] Harrison, with two Super Bowls in six years," he said.

When Steelers legend Franco Harris appeared in Mexico City two years ago, Mr. Valdez said, an enormous line of fans decked out in Steelers gear was there to greet him.

In 2000 the Steelers played the Indianapolis Colts in a preseason game in Mexico City, where an estimated 90 percent of the 87,145 in attendance were Steelers fans.

Post-Gazette Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette described the scene then:

"This American Bowl game had the flavor of a Pittsburgh steel mill, when they were still around ... They twirled thousands of Terrible Towels as if they had bought them off the rack at Giant Eagle. They booed and hooted the Colts, one time provoking a delay of game penalty because Peyton Manning could not be heard calling the signals above the din of "Deee-fense."

Every major Mexican city have Steelers clubs, Mr. Santos said.

One of the largest, is the Boix Noix Acereros in Mexico City, run by Charly Blanco, who visits Pittsburgh annually for games and has called Pittsburgh, a "holy city." He is in the process of creating a touring service explicitly for Mexican Steelers fans to visit Pittsburgh and take in a game.

In the mean time, they'll have to settle for more periodic visits from the Steelers, like the one in June, when four Steelers -- Daniel Sepulveda, Mike Wallace, Ziggy Hood and Keenan Lewis -- traveled to Mexican City for a youth football clinic at a local college. The turnout was overwhelming, with 500 kids participating and a few thousand fans lining the bleachers for a glimpse of the "Hombres de Acerero" -- "Men of Steel."

The First Lady of Mexico, Margarita Zavala, a Steelers fan herself, who got a tour of Heinz Field during the 2009 G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, also welcomed the team.

On Tuesday, Mr. Sepulveda, a Mexican-American from Austin, Texas, answered questions from Mexican media about the trip in fluent Spanish. Another Texan with Mexican roots in his family tree, Mr. Hood, whose maternal grandmother is Mexican, said he was pleasantly surprised by the number of fans there.

"I had heard that Mexico City was a big Steeler town - I didn't realize how big until I got there."

Mr. Wallace shook his head in disbelief, even eight months after the fact, when recalling it.

"It was crazy - I didn't expect it to be anything close to how it was just because they had so many fans. I never would've thought they'd have so many Steelers fans all the way in Mexico. It was like we were at one of our own games."

"It looked like all of Mexico was out there, they had so many people. We had a lot of love down there. You never think about people knowing who you are when you're in a whole other country, but a lot of people knew me. It was one of greatest times I've had [as a Steeler]."

Daniel Malloy: or 1-202-445-9980. Dan Gigler: or 412-263-1884. First Published February 5, 2011 5:00 AM


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