Birth of champion Steelers created a new attitude in Pittsburgh



Carol Watkins was supposed to have her baby the second week of January. So much for that. On the morning of Dec. 23, 1972, she and her husband drove to Latrobe Hospital, expecting that the successful premature birth of their child would be the doctors' top priority.

But around 8 a.m., when she gave birth to little William Jr., it seemed the physician was in a bigger hurry than even her baby boy. The man wearing scrubs quickly left the delivery room, finding William's father outside.

"Congrats, you have a son," he said.

William Sr. wanted to know more. Was the boy doing all right?

"He's doing fine," the doctor said.

What about his wife?

"She's doing fine," the doctor said.

The terse answers felt odd considering the worry that had accompanied the early labor. What was the rush? Well, the doctor explained, he and a friend had tickets to the game.

Of course. The game. The formerly sorry, good-for-nothing Steelers finally had a winning team, and all of Western Pennsylvania was losing perspective over it. They were hosts to the Oakland Raiders in a playoff game that afternoon at Three Rivers Stadium, and Pittsburgh was looking for its first postseason victory in 40 years.

Still, life was happening, and in some cases like William Watkins Jr.'s, it was only beginning.

That afternoon, Azell and Pat Whatley were busy moving from their home in East Liberty to the St. Clair Village projects when she began to feel pain. She rushed to Suburban General Hospital in Bellevue. Azell had to work that afternoon driving a jitney cab, and men weren't allowed to be present for a birth anyway. While he waited to hear word, he listened to the game.

The Steelers trailed the Raiders, 7-6, late. They were probably going to lose. Then there was this crazy play and incoherent shouting. Something about Franco Harris catching a deflection off a Raiders player. The Steelers won? What? Azell was confused, trying to make sense of the details through the crackle of the radio.

At the hospital, his wife was having a tough time. She had to undergo a cesarean section to have their daughter, Anice, and it nearly killed Pat. She swore she would never have another baby.

Later, that night, on the city's North Side at Allegheny General Hospital, Steelers fans Eugene and Jo Ann Pelino were oblivious to what had happened earlier at nearby Three Rivers. As fans clad in black and gold poured into the North Side bars to celebrate their Christmas miracle, the Pelinos waited on theirs.

Just after 8:30 p.m., Jo Ann knew it was time. Too bad she couldn't find her doctor. He was outside in the waiting room with Eugene, watching the replay of the game on TV.

"I'm having this baby!" Jo Ann yelled.

Beth Ann Pelino was born at 8:38, a child of the Immaculate Reception.

The city she would grow up in had changed forever with a fortuitous bounce. That day's babies were the first to form a new generation, one that would know Pittsburgh only as a city of champions, a place where Sunday afternoons made and ruined entire weeks, where football fates had the surprising ability to mask the plights of a sometimes-grim reality.

During the next 40 years, these children born that day would walk in parallel universes, sharing a greater experience while simultaneously forging their own paths through this new Pittsburgh life.

A dynasty through a child's eyes

Beth Ann Pelino knew that the Steelers were important because, each fall, she could look forward to the windows of her mother's beauty salon in downtown Bridgeville being adorned with paintings of the players' jersey numbers and visages. There were Franco, "Mean Joe," Bradshaw, Lambert -- names that youngsters had better learn if they were going to be able to have adult conversations.

Jack Lambert was Bill Watkins' favorite. His father was always talking about defense, and he bought his son a Lambert jersey and posters. When Bill opened up a pack of football cards, he would hope to add to his Lambert collection.

To Anice Whatley, the Steelers were a minor annoyance. One night, she stayed up late taping "The Wiz," a movie featuring pop star Michael Jackson. The next day, her daddy taped over it so he could watch the football game.

For so many families, it had become a matter of ritual. Children looked on as adults crammed into basements and acted like, well, children. At Melissa Veltum's house in Elizabeth Township, when the Steelers scored a touchdown, they would pop a balloon. On the best Sundays, deflated balloons littered the room.

Those days felt so different from the others. Like Christmas, but more frequent. Veltum's father worked long hours in a steel mill just like her grandfather. Nicky Allison's stepdad was a coal miner in Indiana County whose idea of a vacation was taking time off to redo the back porch. Stephen Simpson's father worked at Wheatland Tube in Grove City, and taking the family to Myrtle Beach, S.C., meant saving for years.

By the time the children of the Immaculate Reception were 8 years old, the Steelers had won four Super Bowls. When the Steelers beat the Rams in 1980, the kids were just old enough to remember the parties, the way their parents laughed a little harder, the celebratory mood of their teachers at school. The Steelers sure were fun to root for. Why did it ever have to end?

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Stephen Simpson, Mt. Lebanon, works in pharmaceuticals: You know "A Christmas Story," the movie? That was my dad. He sort of had a temper. The food was on the table when he came home. Meat and potatoes. Italian was really ethnic food for him. He was a typical blue-collar dad. My mom was supposed to do certain things, and I think that's why my mom ended up divorcing him.

I didn't really like sports. One year, I wanted to watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas," but he wouldn't let me watch it. The Steelers were on. This is the time you had one TV in the house. I threw a fit and cried. I remember my parents fighting about it.

James Satterfield, Swissvale, exhaust engineer at Neville Island Coking Plant: In Donora, we played this game called "killer man." You'd name which Steeler you'd want to be. "I'm Franco Harris!" You'd throw the ball up, and probably about five guys would go for it. Whoever got the ball, go kill the man. He had to try to score a touchdown.

Nicky Allison, South Hills, wedding videographer: One of my earliest memories is watching them beat the Rams. At that time, everyone was football crazy. The Steelers were beating everybody. My dad got tired of watching the Steelers because he got tired of watching them win. It wasn't exciting anymore.

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Tough teenage years

Every weekday, Melissa Veltum's grandmother would drive into McKeesport to drop off a freshly packed lunch for her grandfather at the mill. The place had given their family a good and steady life, and so he would get his son a job there, too.

Veltum's father wouldn't last as long there as her grandfather. U.S. Steel shut down the plant, along with many others in the Mon Valley, in the 1980s, and Veltum's father was let go. He would struggle to find work in the years after, so Veltum's mother went to school to study nursing out of necessity.

Many kids weren't touched by the demise of the steel industry as directly as Melissa Veltum. But, even wearing their teenage blinders, they couldn't escape a sense that their city and towns were in trouble. Stephen Simpson's neighbors were moving to places like North Carolina and Indiana. Kristine Tiongco's best friend's father lost his job, which was hard on everybody.

It didn't help that the Steelers hadn't been able to replace the retired stars from their '70s dynasty. Starting in 1985, Pittsburgh went through four cold winters without cheering a playoff team, at the exact time when the city truly needed one.

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Melissa Veltum, Bethel Park, works in the oil and gas industry: It was really tough for my dad for a while. He was like 21 when I was born, didn't go to college or anything like that. When it all shut down, he was one of the first to go, because he had just gotten in. I remember him doing different things, none of them really glamorous. Pest control was maybe the third or fourth thing he got into. That stuck.

Bill Watkins, Crabtree, public safety: It all went bad at the same time. The Steelers were the thing, and I actually remember in the '80s it was easy to get Steelers tickets. They were on a downswing. There was a big bandwagon of firing the coach, Chuck Noll. My uncle was one of the big ones. Anytime he talked about the Steelers in the '80s, it was, "Get rid of Chuck Noll."

Stephen Simpson: My dad was very anti-Reagan. He was president of the union at one point. I can remember him complaining a lot about management. He had periods of layoffs, but they weren't permanent. At that point, I didn't get to travel a whole lot outside of Pittsburgh, so I didn't realize how bad it was. I can remember buildings Downtown being sort of abandoned, but I had nothing to compare it to.

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Stay or go?

Stephen Simpson was going to college, but where? One of the achievers in his senior class, he applied at mostly the usual regional schools: the University of Pittsburgh, Gannon, Kent State. George Washington, in Washington, D.C., was the one outlier. When he visited D.C., he got sucked in by the buzz of the city. It was time to leave home behind.

Anice Whatley wasn't ready to say goodbye just yet. But, after getting a degree in hotel and restaurant management at Indiana University, she looked at her city and envisioned her future elsewhere. She left for Miami, to work on a cruise ship, and would be gone for the next 13 years.

Eventually, all of the children of the Immaculate Reception would have to ask themselves if this current incarnation of Pittsburgh was for them. For some, it was all they'd known, and that was OK. For others, they couldn't deny the urge to plunge into something new.

Drew Lengyel left behind Hermitage to study architecture at Kent State. It was a safe decision, only an hour from home. He brought his Steelers pride with him there, where he would go to battle twice each fall with the majority Cleveland Browns contingent of fans, and later to Charlotte, N.C., where he moved after graduation to start his career. Tons of Steelers fans walked the streets in North Carolina, proudly wearing black and gold, which was surprising. Why weren't they back at home? The answer, of course, was many of them had joined the Pittsburgh diaspora because there had been no other choice.

Kristine Tiongco's husband was in the Navy, so, at 26, after living most of her life on the North Side, she moved with him to Seattle. The first order of business after that move, and every one thereafter, was to order a National Football League satellite TV package. They may have been living across the country, but they were going to watch the Steelers as if they were still in Pittsburgh.

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Stephen Simpson: At George Washington, I was so aware of my accent. I did "yinz," "pop," "n'at." They were picking up on it. I became aware of my background and my roots, and that's when I sort of became ashamed of it to some degree. I wanted to be like those Northeast elites. It became so ingrained in my mind that I lost that dialect.

Anice Whatley: When I left, I said I would never come back. There was a point in time when Pittsburgh seemed to be so dark and dismal and down and it just looked ugly. I was like, "Oh, I'm going to Miami, where it's beautiful and sunny all the time." Of course I always came back to visit. Then I started to see a change.

Kristine Tiongco, Memphis, Tenn., works in real estate: When we lived in Seattle, we'd drive an hour to have beer and eggs at a Steelers bar at 9 o'clock in the morning. When they took down Three Rivers Stadium, my dad made sure to get us two of the stadium seats. Wherever we live, my husband erects them on the back patio so people can sit in them like they're in the stadium. No matter where we've gone, we've always found Steelers fans. There's nothing better than a Steelers football Sunday. Especially when they're winning.

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Rising from the ashes

Drew Lengyel moved back to Pittsburgh in 1998 and bought a home on the South Side. He watched as the neighborhood put itself back together and joined several committees that encouraged economic growth. Young and single, he enjoyed the night life and taking in Steelers games with his buddies at the many pubs along East Carson Street.

Anice Whatley thought about coming home in 2006. Her brothers owned some real estate, and their portfolios were thriving. She had seen other signs that things were changing. The rejuvenation of the Homestead Waterfront area was shocking. Those tall smokestacks along the Monongahela now represented a city that valued its roots but wasn't content to let the foundation stubbornly wither away. In 2008, pregnant with her daughter, Whatley decided this was a place where she could raise her Olivia.

Stephen Simpson came home that year, too, after living in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Indianapolis. His father was sick with diabetes, and he wanted to be closer to him for his last years. It meant everything to Simpson that his father, this tough, blue-collar guy, accepted him as an openly gay man, and it made it that much easier to return to Pittsburgh. The two would go to a few Steelers games together before his father died.

Holly Hippensteel made it to Pittsburgh by way of the Central Pennsylvania town of Chambersburg. Born on Dec. 23, 1972, to a family of Steelers fans, she felt destined to end up there. She attended La Roche College, and got a job at Carnegie Mellon University, working her way up to assistant dean of student affairs. She would deal with brilliant students every day from all over the world who would make Pittsburgh better with their constantly churning minds.

Conventional wisdom is that Pittsburgh, with a healthy dose of karma on its side, escaped the recession. But that hasn't been the case for everyone. Melissa Veltum and James Satterfield see the towns that made up their childhood in the Mon Valley struggling along with seemingly no help. Nicky Allison got two degrees from Indiana University of Pennsylvania but he hasn't been able to find steady work.

In areas like the South Side, though, one could walk for miles and feel the positive vibes of a city on the way up. When the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2006 and 2009, Lengyel made sure to walk out of his house and go to East Carson Street to join the thousands of revelers. For the first time since his childhood, his city and its football team were riding the crest of a wave together.

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Stephen Simpson: In geography class, you learn about Pittsburgh being in the Northeast. But I realized when I went to D.C., Pittsburgh doesn't quite have the energy of D.C., Philly, New York. Then I realized when I was in Indianapolis, it's not Midwest, either. It's definitely a mix. It's sort of quirky. There's a lot of different things you can be. My contractor that's working on my sidewalk knew that me and my partner were living together, and he said, "Pittsburgh is a place where we don't really care what you look like, what you do, as long as you work hard and don't bother anybody."

James Satterfield: Pittsburgh's a blue-collar city. Everything's hard. These people work hard for their money, just like the Steelers go out and play hard. Anybody who's out there putting in hours and loves what they do, that's how they feel about the Steelers around here.

Holly Hippensteel: The team for me is symbolic of the city. I see it so tied. I think the Steelers are successful because Pittsburgh's successful, and Pittsburgh's successful because the Steelers are successful. That might be totally crazy, but there's a connection there. That's what I believe.

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Turning 40

Today, the children of the Immaculate Reception turn 40 with varying degrees of excitement. Nicky Allison knows the 40s as the years when his parents had more fun and rode Harleys, so he's approaching this symbolic birthday with optimism.

For those who woke up this morning dreading the milestone, the Steelers game against the Bengals, packed with playoff ramifications, will serve as a welcome distraction. Fitting, because that has always been the franchise's main civic duty. No matter how much or how little attention one tries to pay to the Steelers in Pittsburgh, their fortunes continue to play on as life's background music.

Outside of Western Pennsylvania, it takes more effort. In Tennessee, Kristine Tiongco and her husband have it down to a science. They'll watch the game today with their two daughters and all of the superstitions they've started over the years, like wearing a winning jersey repeatedly until the Steelers lose, or switching jerseys at halftime when things aren't going well.

Back in Pittsburgh, for a man named Bob Sforza, the game will take on greater significance. Today would have been Beth Ann Pelino's birthday, and he will wear her Jerome Bettis jersey as he watches at home. Beth Ann died in July at the age of 39 from complications due to diabetes.

Bob and Beth Ann became sweethearts in 2001 and watched most of the Steelers games together. She loved Jerome Bettis, "The Bus," and, when times were particularly trying with her health, she really looked forward to those Sundays.

After Beth Ann died, Bob felt lucky to have gotten her jersey from her family. Wearing it makes him feel close to her again, as though he can still hear her unreasonably high-pitched shrieking at the first sign of distress for the Steelers.

When Bob tells people about his girlfriend, he always has an easy fact ready, one that shows how special she was. He'll say, "Beth Ann was born on the day of the Immaculate Reception."

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Melissa Veltum: My husband works on the railroad as a conductor. He'll go for days at a time, and it's really hard to get him to not work for any reason. If they say to take a train to Harrisburg, if you're going to get paid, you have to take the train. He's missed birthdays, all kinds of stuff. But he's asked off for Steelers games. He'll say, "I've missed three Steeler games in a row. I'm asking off."

Nicky Allison: I have friends who don't like football and don't care about the Steelers, but they pay so much attention to the Steelers. If they're playing, that influences traffic, shopping, everything. I think it's funny that I'm not a huge football fan, but when I watch a Steelers game, if they lose, I take it hard. It still surprises me. I say to my dad, "How do you do this every week?"

Bill Watkins: My in-laws live in Ohio, and they have Cleveland Browns season tickets. He's gone to Steelers games at Three Rivers and Heinz Field, and he says there's nothing like that. Going to Cleveland for a football game is blah. There's no excitement. People live for Steelers games around here. No matter where you go, you see Steelers flags hanging, everybody in their Steelers garb, Steelers license plates on cars. Take all that away, and you're ... Cleveland.

Steelers

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published December 23, 2012 5:00 AM


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