Are the Steelers the greatest franchise in sports?
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Pittsburgh was once described by Boston writer James Parton as "hell with the lid taken off," and Frank Lloyd Wright once advised city fathers that it would be cheaper if they abandoned it.
Now it's Sixburgh, as city council has proclaimed, because Lombardi Trophy VI is renewed verification that a city once synonymous with steel is known to the world for silver produced by Steelers.
But while the tale of Sooty City remaking itself into Silver City is enchanting, does that make the Steelers the greatest franchise in sports?
It's in the eye of the beholder.
The unbiased voice of history would say the New York Yankees, Montreal Canadiens, Boston Celtics and Green Bay Packers have more titles. The priciest club in sports is Manchester United, the English soccer club that boasts a worldwide fan base of 330 million.
Yet no other city has six silver footballs. If that gives the citizenry a reason to feel good enough to cut loose with a "Woooooooooo!" now and then in frigid February, who needs outside validation?
It can be said with certainty that the Steelers are a team like no other, not because of six flags but because of what they mean to the city and their fans.
They are the city's new identity, and beyond that, the Steelers are the city's heartbeat, as James Farrior describes it. Through some visceral connection, they push the city's buttons.
Had the game gone the other way, grief counselors and talk-radio hosts would have never heard the end of it.
Remember the losses to Indianapolis and Tennessee? The relentless north wind cut its way up the Boulevard of the Allies like the jagged, cutting of cold steel. Oh, those were dark days.
But the day after Groundhog Day, more people than the city holds gathered for a curtain call on the same boulevard, which was transformed into the Canyon of Champions. That is some kind of afterglow.
"The biggest thing, the doctors tell me, is what this does in the hospitals," said Dan Rooney. "The patients maybe feel a little bit of happiness. It helps people get better, or at least feel better."
This is the same person who didn't want anything to do with a national label after NFL Films hung the mantle of America's team on the Dallas Cowboys. "We're Pittsburgh's team," he said.
That it is. But the phenomenon flourishes beyond boundaries.
• At the Super Bowl, when the NFL honored the crew of USAirways Flight 1549 for saving all of its passengers during a watery crash in the Hudson River, one of the flight attendants carried a Terrible Towel.
• Among those in Tampa was 5-year-old Elijah Smith, who watched his father Aaron play in the game. The boy was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia but has been helped by Pittsburghers who donated their blood to the Central Blood Bank.
• A contingent of fans from Mexico City came to cheer the hombres de acero (men of steel) and wave their Toallas Terribles.
• Back home, gold towels are as visible at Heinz Hall as they are at Heinz Field. Penguins are inspired by Steelers. And St. Clair Hospital wraps its newborn babies, not in swaddling clothes, but in black and gold terry cloth.
What's this obsession with Steeler Country?
"What else do we have?" said Marci Smith, whose occupation is to sell dreams as a representative of the Kaplan Career Institute. "We're still losing population, and we rank behind Toledo. The Steelers have the power to bring families together on Sundays. What else can do that?"
The largest audience to ever watch a Super Bowl saw a furious fourth quarter in which the Steelers took a punch and got back up to win. To the Steelers' following, it was a page out of Pittsburgh history. The city has taken its share of lumps, for sure, but it keeps getting back up.
At 250 years old, Pittsburgh has been many things to many people -- a frontier fort, a trading outpost, the Gateway to the West, and now an academic and medical hub.
It is best known as a former industrial dynamo, where immigrants from the old country toiled in the misery of mines and mills to make a better life for the generations to come. Dirt meant dollars, as the saying went.
Somewhere along the way, the identities of the football team and the populace merged. Just as the city adopted William Pitt's crest and colors for its flag, a team born in the Great Depression put Pitt's crest and colors on its uniforms. In time, the team was named after the city's signature steel industry, and the steel logo of hypocycloids adorned its helmets.
There wasn't much to cheer early on. For having failed to win a thing in his first 40 years of ownership, founder Arthur J. Rooney would duck through back alleys to avoid hearing it from fans convinced he was too cheap and too dumb to win. His franchise was a model of futility -- bad teams, bad drafts, bad trades, bad coaches.
Attitudes changed when the Steelers started to win, and the city found a source of much-needed esteem in 24 playoff appearances, seven AFC titles and six Super Bowl titles, all since 1972 when the Steelers started selling out every game and never stopped.
"We may live in a dirty, gritty steel town," the late Ray Mansfield said after the second Super Bowl win, "but we have the best football team on the planet."
By the time the Steelers became the first team to win four Super Bowls, Pittsburgh was changing radically. The steel industry and the coal mines that supported it were in the early stages of a collapse that shook the city to its core.
Pittsburgh always had trouble hanging on to its youth, who found opportunities elsewhere. But by the mid-1980s, the exodus extended to legions of jobless steelworkers who had to relocate to find jobs.
Yet no matter where people ended up, they stayed connected to their families and the city through football. If it wasn't the Steel City anymore, it was and is the Steelers City.
What remains, however, is a blue-collar legacy with traits such as a strong-willed work ethic, a clear sense of faith and family and an ability to bounce back.
Troy Polamalu, who dives into celebratory crowds with the aplomb of one who dives after interceptions, recognizes those traits in the citizenry and his organization.
"The team takes on the personality of the city -- hardworking, blue collar, humble, resilient. People relate all those things to the Steelers," he said.
Mike Tomlin, the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl, has been awestruck at how much the Steelers mean to the city.
"Until you're a part of it, you have no idea the depths of it. It's generational," said the coach, who dismounted from his convertible to high-five the throngs along the parade route.
"I know the more I get to understand it, the more Steelers Nation drives me. I want to give them something to get excited about. I want to perform for them. I want to win for them because they are that special," he said.
Special? Take the case of Mike Johnson, a Florida native who followed the Steelers and spent his Sundays in autumn at Fanatics Bar and Grill in Bradenton, Fla.
One Sunday, as Steelers fans let loose their vocal cords at the TV, the passionate voice of North Braddock native Desiree Henderson rose above all the others.
"See that girl?" he told a friend. "I'm going to marry her one day."
Sure enough, they met and started to date. And on his first trip to Pittsburgh -- to see the Steelers play the Ravens on a Monday night -- he popped the question and she said yes.
"This year, we have the Super Bowl, and we're hoping to have our first child," said Johnson, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The Steelers will always be part of our family."
The world seems smaller because of the Steelers.
In Tampa, which welcomed the money spent by the hordes wearing black and gold, a street vendor sold his wares with this pitch: "Bling. Get your bling here."
"I've never seen people so supportive of their team or so proud to be from a place," he said.
On a street-car ride from the city center to the spicy, cigar-rolling neighborhood of Ybor City, a woman from Chicago, clad in her black and gold ensemble, took an empty seat next to a stranger.
It turned out that both of them were from Fayette County, and that she had gone to the same church and parochial school -- St. Mary's of Uniontown.
"Unbelievable," said Kim Marcinko. "The Steelers must be magic."
And if further proof is needed that you can't go anywhere without bumping into somebody from Pittsburgh, the Columbia Restaurant had a five-hour wait the night before the game. But a party of seven from the Enterprise Bank in Allison Park solved the problem by inviting a stranger from Pittsburgh to join them.
The magic number this season was six -- as in the number of NFL titles. But it also applied to six degrees, which was the temperature greeting some returnees from Florida.
Greatest franchise ever? Who cares?
If it can provide a day or two in the sun to make the winter more tolerable, and if it makes Pittsburgh's heartbeat lively, it'll get at least one vote.
Make it six, 'Burgh. And start climbing the stairway to seven.
First Published February 8, 2009 12:00 am