First Person: Postcard from the diaspora
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It was before the Steel Curtain, and before Bradshaw, and before Franco, and way before the Immaculate Reception. But even then, it was Steelers football. It was sometime in the late '60s.
The Steelers, then routinely referred to as "Rooney U" by a sports writer at the Post-Gazette, were playing the Green Bay Packers at a stadium that no longer exists, Pitt Stadium, up cardiac hill in Oakland. The crowd was heavily male, hard guys, living hard lives, watching a team that never won when it needed to.
The seats were made of wood and had splinters, and guys would bring hip flasks and copies of The Pittsburgh Press to sit on -- not to read.
Dick Shiner was the Steelers quarterback and a guy named Kent Nix was the backup. I remember Shiner went down with an injury during the game, and Nix rose, pulled his helmet on, and got ready to trot on to the field. The Steelers fans booed him. Before he did a thing. He threw one pass, incomplete, and they booed again.
The Steelers lost. The only play I remember is an interception by Herb Adderley, the stand-out defensive back for the Packers. It was a thing of beauty.
Didn't matter to the fans. They knew the Steelers would lose. That might explain why, by memory, there were lots of empty seats in the stadium that day.
A few years later, all that changed.
Chuck Noll arrived and worked the draft like the maestro of a great symphony. Greene, Bradshaw and the other legends of the '70s began arriving.
My sons still tease me about getting splinters in my butt at Pitt Stadium.
They were young children as the Steelers grew into the dynasty of the '70s. They're grown men now, and live in distant places.
So do I, for that matter. But the three of us still carry part of Pittsburgh in our hearts. It would be great if I could say that our affection is for the lovely hills of Pittsburgh, or the cultural landmarks, or the rivers and bridges. But it's not.
We cling to the city because of the Steelers. For us, the team represents an era in our lives. We watch every game on TV, sometimes being forced to drive to sports bars where they have a full line-up of NFL games, not just what the networks show in our adopted cities.
The boys grew up on the Steelers. To this day, we quiz each other about the numbers on Steelers jerseys. We try to remember who had those numbers back in the day.
Quick now, who was 33 back then? It wasn't Gary Russell -- it was The Frenchman, Count Frenchy Fuqua, a backup running back who ended up as a circulation manager at a paper that once employed me, too -- The Detroit News. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to phone him in Detroit and just say, "Thanks for the memories," but I never did. Actually, I always wanted to ask him if the Immaculate Reception pass hit him before it got to Franco, but I figured he's taking that to the grave with him, so what's the point?
We're all part of the great Pittsburgh Diaspora that followed the collapse of the steel business. All of us around the nation still follow the team that to us represents the city.
My sons and I used to go to a sports bar in suburban Detroit when we all lived there. Other Steelers fans frequented the place, too, particularly an older fellow who came every Sunday, wearing a Steelers cap and black-and-gold jacket. He never said a word, never cheered, never smiled. But he clearly loved his Steelers as much as we did.
I moved to northern Illinois for a while, and it took me maybe 10 minutes to find the local Steelers bar there. To my surprise, none of the considerable number of fans was from Pittsburgh, nor had they ever been there. But they came to every game, drank beer and cheered their Steelers as much as if they had hailed from the North Side.
My sons love to endlessly recount a playoff game they attended at Heinz Field a few years ago. They swore it was so cold â€" how cold was it? â€" that their beer froze solid before they had a chance to drink it all. I've questioned how alcohol can freeze, but they swear it did.
Last weekend, thanks to a very kind brother-in-law, I flew out to Pittsburgh with one day's notice to attend the Pittsburgh-San Diego game. OK, the beer didn't freeze, but it was cold and snowy. I loved when both teams lined up, and you could see the linemen's breath in the cold night air. You don't get that in a dome, believe me.
Sure, I loved the game. I loved that the Steelers won. I loved all the Pittsburgh characters in the crowd, forming a sea of black and gold.
I didn't have to visit any of the places that I knew so well during my life in Pittsburgh.
I was watching the Steelers. And I felt like I was home.
First Published January 17, 2009 12:00 am