A Steelers love story at Heinz Field
Some of the nearly 500 women attending last week's Ladies Night Out at Heinz Field cheer for their friends as they attempt field goal kicks.
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Some drove for hours and rearranged schedules to be part of it. Some left the children at home in the care of their spouses. Wearing team colors was the order of the day, and none seemed to mind waiting in line under drizzly skies well before Heinz Field opened its doors.
This was not, however, a queue of men showing up for a football game. The line was part of the record turnout for the fifth annual Ladies Night Out sponsored by the Steelers as a way of catering to the NFL's largest female fan base.
In one group of eight that motored by van from St. Clairsville, Ohio, was Cindy Broadwater, undeterred at having to use crutches because of a fractured bone in her right foot.
"I wasn't going to let it stop me," she said.
To which Carol Jones, also in the party and wearing a Steelers tiara, chimed in: "Broken foot? You would have had to embalm me to keep me from being here. I was so excited I didn't sleep all night."
This type of passion was evident throughout the Wednesday night affair at Heinz Field. For $95, nearly 500 women of all ages and from all walks of life got the chance to eat dinner, ask questions of Steelers, visit the inner sanctum of the locker room and attempt field goals while their images were shown on the scoreboard.
In a figurative sense, it was a Cinderella-like outing. But instead of dancing at a ball with a handsome prince, they got to kick a ball and become immersed in football. And a Steelerella never has to worry about glass slippers.
Speakers for the evening were rookie defensive lineman Ziggy Hood and backup quarterback Charlie Batch. They fielded questions ranging from the adjustment from college to pro ball and why the Steelers don't use the wildcat formation more ("It would take our best player off the field," Batch noted, referring to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.)
But there also were questions never asked by the football writers, like this inquiry from Devona Edmond of the North Side.
"Ziggy, do you have a girlfriend?"
"Yes, she's seated right over there."
"Do you want another one?"
The exchange produced a playful laugh, but it also showed the depth of passion by a segment of the fan base that brings its own unique charm to following the Steelers.
Ms. Edmond has the team logo tattooed on her back along with her date of birth -- June 2, 1986.
"I have literally been a Steelers fan since birth. I'm a die-hard," she laughed. "I watch games with my great-grandmother. We're all part of the same family. It's in our blood."
That the Steelers have women fans is hardly news. When the franchise adopted its name in 1940, one of the 21 winning contest entries was submitted by Margaret O'Donnell. Yes, a woman named the Steelers.
Two years ago, a survey by Scarborough Sports Marketing noted that the Steelers have a larger female fan base than any other NFL city.
Women love the Steelers for a variety of reasons. Everybody loves a winner. Families get together to watch and talk football. The uniforms and the color scheme make a bold fashion statement. Team loyalty spans generations, and offspring are born into it. Hines Ward has an infectious smile, and Troy Polamalu has a magnetic personality. And the Steelers are all about football, not the sizzle.
"The Steelers officially don't have cheerleaders. They don't need them," said Robin Thomas of St. Clairsville. "They have a million of them."
As a quick aside, she is formerly from Texas and had an epiphany about the Steelers when her relationship with a Pittsburgh fan started to get serious.
"He said his mother had a problem with us getting married because I wasn't a Catholic. He didn't have a problem with that, but he did have a problem with me wearing a Cowboys jersey. Once I took that thing off and converted to being a Steelers fan, things worked out fine. That was over 20 years ago," Ms. Thomas said.
Of course, every sports team in the area has its female side. The Penguins have Hockey 'n Heels events for their fans, the Pirates have ladies nights and the Pitt Panthers have a Football University for Women with Jan Wannstedt. The late Howard Cosell captured the essence of the sports following here when he noted that when you play Pittsburgh, you play the entire community. He said it nearly 30 years ago, and he didn't make any gender distinctions.
There were a few of the pink jerseys in the audience, but the overwhelming majority of women prefer to wear black and gold.
Not surprisingly, however, support of the Steelers is inextricably linked to family and relationships.
Cindy Molinick of the Johnstown area was at the event with two of her four daughters.
"My husband got me interested in the Steelers during the '70s, and I passed it on to my daughters," she said. "He's home by himself tonight."
Some franchises might have football widows. With the Steelers, there are football widowers.
Two Greensburg women whose husbands have passed away keep up their friendship through the Steelers.
"My daughter got me a ticket for my first Ladies Night Out as a birthday gift, and this year, I bought my friend a ticket as a birthday present. We went to Tampa for the Super Bowl," said Maryann Popovich, 69.
Her friend, Rae Martchek, was having a grand time.
"Why do women love the Steelers? It's fun. How many things in life do you get to do that are fun? When the Steelers lose, everybody's in a bad mood. When they win, everybody wins with them. I can't explain it."
There was more than one mother/daughter team in attendance.
Cheryl and Allison Reinhard of Charleroi wore matching Troy Polamalu jerseys.
"Being a Steeler fan truly does span generations," Mrs. Reinhard said. "It's bred into you."
Kasey West, who was with her mother in the St. Clairsville group, explained how the Steelers keep families together even if some members are thousands of miles away.
"My dad works for U.S. Steel in Kosice, Slovakia, so I text message him with the highlights during the games so he knows what's going on. I watch every game religiously," she said. "Some Slovakian kids don't know how to speak English, but they wear Steelers stuff."
Steelermania also has the ability to overcome.
Consider the plight of Lynn Kelley, originally from Upper St. Clair. She married a man from Sandusky, Ohio, and they had two sons. But when the marriage soured, he wanted the boys to follow the Browns. To rescue them from such a bleak future, she sought the intercession of Ziggy Hood.
"Would you autograph these two Steeler hats so my sons won't have to follow the Browns?" she said.
Having secured the healing objects, she later explained, half-jokingly: "We got divorced around the time of Super Bowl in Detroit. It was then that the boys began to see the error of their dad's ways, because he was a Cleveland fan. I want them to grow up with the Steelers."
On the other hand, the Steelers can help identify a suitable life partner.
Cori Cheairs, who drove in with two friends from Frederick, Md., was studying architecture at the University of Houston when she spotted a man in a Steelers jersey in a Texas bar.
"I said to myself, 'I'm going to marry that guy.' I did, and he took my three kids to the dentist today so I could be here," she laughed.
"I grew up in Morgantown. And my dad and my uncles raised me to watch the Steelers on Sunday. We were watching together when the Steelers won their first Super Bowl, and my dad told me that if they could win a championship, I could do anything. I want my kids to have that, too," said Mrs. Cheairs, who is president of a consulting company.
"We go to an informal church, so on Sundays, we wear our Steelers clothes to church before we go to watch the games," she added. "The Steelers are a Sunday religion."
First Published November 2, 2009 12:00 am