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Bond between Steelers, city unmistakable

A view of downtown Pittsburgh. The city’s population in 1950 was 676,806; it’s now 311,218.

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A view of downtown Pittsburgh. The city’s population in 1950 was 676,806; it’s now 311,218.

PITTSBURGH

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Love is in the air. More accurately, it is dangling from a ceiling in a saloon.

You might also find it on garage doors, bank buildings and roof tops. Go 20 paces in any direction, and you're likely to see one, or more, expressions of a city's infatuation with a football team.

YOU'RE IN STEELERS COUNTRY

This is what the banners all say, and woe to those who doubt this truth. It is not a slogan as much as a declaration. A vow with a better survival rate than those taken while in tuxes and white dresses.

Truthfully, the world might not know a better example of a love affair between city and team. It is not just the franchise's success, though that obviously plays a big part. And it's not just Western Pennsylvania's adoration of football, though that, too, is a factor. This is something more profound. Something unique.

This is a city that has been beaten up for the better part of a century. First, because of the steel mills that turned its skies black. And later because the steel mills shut down and took a generation of jobs with them.

An Atlantic Monthly story from the 19th century famously described Pittsburgh as "hell with the lid taken off," and recent Forbes surveys anointed it the worst place for singles in America. Three years running.

Yet, to those who live here, Pittsburgh has the feel of a favorite neighborhood. Albeit, a neighborhood with bridges, skyscrapers, highways, museums, airports, universities and hundreds of thousands of footprints. It is a major metropolitan area with the camaraderie of a cul de sac. And the Steelers reside in the center of it all.

"There's no question it is a unique and powerful bond," said Craig Wolfley, a Steelers offensive lineman in the 1980s and now a radio broadcaster. "It started back in the '70s with the closing of the steel mills. The Steelers were just starting to get good, and they gave the city something to cheer about. The millworkers identified with those Steelers teams, and they became intertwined. Together they created a bond that is handed down to this day from generation to generation."

The Steelers are not the only team in the NFL with a certain kinship to their town, but they are clearly on the high end of the commitment scale. Here's another way of looking at it:

When you think of Seattle, are the Seahawks the first thing that comes to mind? How about the Chargers in San Diego? Or the Patriots in Boston? Heck, before this month, the NFL was just a rumor in Phoenix.

But the Steelers? They are Pittsburgh.

They are blue collar and they are red blooded. They are owned by the same family living in the same brick house as a generation ago. They are the team of your parents, and they will be the team of your children.

When hard times hit other hardscrabble cities in the NFL, franchises like the Colts and Browns took off, leaving depressed communities behind. Not here. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers remained all the while under the ownership of the Rooney family. And, even as the city's population was shrinking, the devotion to the Steelers was growing.

"A lot of it has to do with the Rooneys and the people they bring in to run the team," said Jeffrey Versharen, a Pittsburgh-area carpenter who won a contest in 2006 as the Steelers' biggest fan. "This is a city built on hard, back-breaking work and the Rooneys have always understood that. We're all from the same ilk around here.

"I'm coaching a Little League team, and the kids on my team are the children of parents that I played with in Little League. It's like the line John Stallworth had: Pittsburgh is a nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit there."

On the other hand, visitors immediately understand what they are getting into. Upon arriving at Pittsburgh International Airport, you are greeted in the main concourse by a pair of statues standing side by side.

There is a young George Washington, captured in a pose early in his military career during the French and Indian War. And next to him is a young Franco Harris about to make the Immaculate Reception against Oakland in a playoff game. Some other stuff happened in Pittsburgh between 1754 and 1972, but apparently nothing worth making a fuss over.

Remember, this is the town where a Steelers fan had a heart attack in a bar when Jerome Bettis fumbled in the fourth quarter of a playoff game against the Colts three years ago. Two nearby firefighters saved his life. And, weeks later, the fan was back at the same bar to watch the Steelers beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.

This is also the town where a yellow Terrible Towel — waved at Pittsburgh games since it was introduced by the late broadcaster Myron Cope in the 1970s — is considered a family heirloom. If you watched Barack Obama as he finished his inauguration speech on Tuesday, you might have seen a Steelers fan waving a Terrible Towel in the crowd.

"We don't just have fans. It's bigger than that," offensive tackle Max Starks said. "It's a devotion. Like a child with its parent. And there's no demographic to it, either. Everybody in this town is a Steelers fan."

Perhaps as a way to balance the books, and emphasize the city's commitment to the arts and sciences, there is another display in the airport just one floor below the statues of Washington and Harris.

On loan from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is a life-sized, skeletal model of a Tyrannosaurus rex. The dinosaur's jaws are open, and his posture indicates he is ready to pounce.

And in his claws is a Terrible Towel.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

fast facts

Pittsburgh by the numbers

60th rank among nation's most populous cities, with an estimated population of 311,218 in 2007 (down 2,450 from the previous year)

32 percent Pittsburgh residents age 25 and older with a bachelor's degree or higher

22 minutes, on average, it takes Pittsburgh residents to get to work

11 percent Pittsburgh residents age 5 and older who speak a language other than English at home

$32,363 Median household income for Pittsburgh (national median: $50,740)

$84,500 Median home value of owner-occupied homes in Pittsburgh (national median: $194,300)

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Bond between Steelers, city unmistakable 01/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 24, 2009 9:41pm]
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