The life of a Pittsburgh Steelers fan
As someone who has lived in New York City for the past decade but who grew up in Pittsburgh, it was no surprise to me that Jets bon vivant Rex Ryan has shelved the war of words this week as he and the New York Jets get ready to travel to Heinz Field for Sunday's AFC title game against the Steelers. No football blue blood alive -- which is what Rex, son of Buddy, is -- could truly hate a team from a town that greets folks arriving at Pittsburgh International Airport with a life-size statue of Franco Harris making his 1972 Immaculate Reception next to a statue of young George Washington. People who aren't from Pittsburgh often find this pairing strange. People from Pittsburgh say, "How did George get in there?"
We're KIDDING! George can stay.
So long as Franco says so.
Such magnanimity just goes to show you that although we Pittsburghers are mocked for everything from our accent to our blue-collar roots, we really are a refined, gentle people -- except when it comes to the Baltimore Ravens, our AFC North archrivals whom we'd like to see plucked and stuck on rotisserie spits with the heat turned up to infinity. We'd place them right next to what remains of those sorry Cleveland Browns, another division "rival" that we like to taunt with promises that the Steelers are commencing to grind their bones into such a fine white powder that they'll need someone with a whisk broom and dustpan to collect what's left of them and put them back on the team plane, or Conestoga wagons, or whatever mangy pack of mules they rode into town on.
And yes, thank you. I do feel better now.
A psychologist examining any Steelers fan might tell you such sentiments originate in our Procrustean bed, that deep-seated, primordial place in which one's thoughts and feelings are shaped early in life by swirling forces around you, like -- oh, I don't know -- the sight of Franco catching that miracle, 10-yard carom of a Terry Bradshaw pass off Raiders safety Jack Tatum's chest on fourth-and-10 from the Steelers' 40 with less than 20 seconds left. The ball was just inches off the ground when Franco caught it and rambled the last 40 yards or so into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown while I was screaming my 12-year-old fool head off because even I knew a biblical-sounding 40 years of Steelers futility was about to end right then.
To this day, Franco's catch remains the Steelers franchise's Big Bang moment. (Big Ben came later. Much later.) As it was happening live, our beloved wacky local announcer, Myron Cope, was yelling something like that at the top of his lungs, and still not drowning out the whoops of my relatives who were all hugging and bobbing in place in my grandparents' living room -- except for my grandpap himself, who just sat there in his easy chair smiling and wagging his head while chuckling, "Hell's fire, I'll be damned."
A lot has changed about Pittsburgh since then, but not in any of the respects just mentioned.
By that I mean we still revel in our team, and still feel as Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, a native of nearby Aliquippa, said Wednesday: that Heinz Field, which was built where Three Rivers Stadium once stood, is "hallowed ground."
The Jets' Ryan gets all this, too. After calling Sunday's Jets-Steelers AFC title showdown "a triple-chin-strap game," Ryan went on Wednesday to detail the reasons.
"This is two hard-hitting, hard-nosed teams getting ready to go at it," Ryan said. "Just roll the clock back about 30 years or something, that's the kind of game it's going to be."
Pittsburghers are humble to a fault about most things -- the first time we were voted America's most livable city in 1985 by the Places Rated Almanac, one of the self-deprecating jokes going around town was, "Did they ask anyone who actually lives here?" -- but our one conceit is we truly do believe we are the best football town in America.
Much of it derives from the Steelers' skein of success since Franco's catch. They have an NFL-record six Super Bowl titles, seven AFC titles and 15 trips overall to these conference championship games, the most since the NFL-AFL merger.
The old Pittsburgh where steel mills once lined all three rivers leading into town has been replaced now by trendy cafes and a dressed-up Strip District and the Andy Warhol Museum, that striking glimmerglass skyline that explodes into view when you exit the Fort Pitt tunnel, and gentrified neighborhoods where shot-and-a-beer bars once sat full of shift workers elbow to elbow.
And yet, the very traits that outsiders still find the quirkiest or déclassé about us are often the things that make us proudest or make us laugh the loudest at ourselves. We have our own beer (Iron City), our own football-related nicknames (Blitzburgh is a favorite) and an iPhone app (SteelerNATION). There's even an old-time Steelers polka. ("We're from da town with/that great football team!/da da da da/ WE CHEER THE PITTS-BURGH STEEL-ERS!") In Pittsburgh we grow up knowing how to spell "pierogi" singular and plural. We also speak our own dialect, according to linguistics professors such as Barbara Johnstone of Carnegie Mellon University, who, for all I know, studied tape of native sons Dan Marino and Bill Cowher, now partners on CBS' NFL game-day show, before explaining to the Christian Science Monitor that the hallmark of the distinctive Pittsburgh accent is the "ow" diphthong pronounced as "ah." This is known to linguists as the "monophthongization" of the vowel sound, which is a $10 word if I ever heard one. So there.
My bold observation is anthropologists will someday wake up, smell the coffee and recognize that we invented tweeting. In Pittsburgh, it's the indigenous spoken language. Long before Twitter, there used to be a comical Pittsburgh "language tape" that illustrated what I mean. A moderator would say something in English, a little tone would sound, then another voice would translate into Pittsburghese:
Did you eat?
Did you go?
Geez, can you guys wait for me?
"Yoi! Yinz waitin'?"
One of my college writing professors at Pitt, knowing I wanted to be a journalist and actually talk to people for a living, told me early on: "Do yourself a favor, kid. Lose the 'yinz.'"
There's now a website (Pittsburghese.com) that explains all this in more detail, complete with a glossary of other words we mangle or invent: You say "steel mill," we pronounce it "still meal." You say "clean up" and we say "redd up" (from the Scottish-Irish root word ... never mind). We say "jumbo" when we really mean the deli meat bologna, but we say "Baloney!" when Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey gets called for holding by some myopic, on-the-take line judge who ha-ha. There I go again. Hey. You gonna finish that last pierogi?
The steel mills heaving smoke and ash are long gone now. But the "new" Pittsburgh is just a generation or two removed from that other Pittsburgh, and the character of the city isn't all that changed. My youngest sister, who has had Steelers season tickets for years, used to tailgate with regulars such as Smitty and Bolt Cutter, Big Tina and Alabama Don, a great guy who, bless his heart, was a bit hard of hearing from working at the air brake plant. If you asked Don, "Would you like a Tic Tac?" he might roar back, "A SIX-pack?! ARRGH! You KNOW I gave up drinkin'!"
The Heinz Field parking lot, much like finding yourself in a three-point stance opposite James Harrison, is no place for the timid. One year my sister took my mother to her first Steelers game after years of watching them on TV. It was a milestone day, and so the two of them called me beforehand from the tailgate party to say hello. I immediately noticed that my mother, a lifelong Catholic school teacher, sounded funny -- funny like she did the night my middle sister got married and my mom had one glass of champagne during the reception toast, then afterward just stared sweetly at the official wedding videographer when he enthused, "Mrs. Howard, what do you have to say about your daughter getting married?" Dead air. "Mrs. Howard?" Same lovely smile, only bigger. "Mrs. Howard?"
That one champagne toast made my mother forget the question.
Now, calling me before the Steelers game, my mother buoyantly told me that not only did she "love!" tailgating but she also had decided to try two Jell-O shots.
"Mom! Are you drunk?" I asked.
"Maybe, honey," she cooed.
"Is it cold there?"
"Not at all!"
Pittsburgh isn't the only place where watching football games is a family or group affair. But rooting for the Steelers is one unchanging ritual that has bound the city together as long as I can remember.
To say football is the local religion isn't quite right, because I've met a lot of à la carte Catholics and drifting Episcopalians. But I've never known a lapsed Steelers fan.
When I checked in with my friends and family this week about their plans for Sunday's AFC title game, two of them told me they're reconvening at the same house where they gathered for last week's win over Baltimore and everyone has agreed to wear the same clothes, drink the same drinks and sit in the same seats. Another friend pointed out to me that nearby Beaver Falls gave the Jets Joe Namath once upon a time and all New York ever gave us back was Neil O'Donnell, "So don't be greedy, Jets. Get lost."
My sister the season-ticket holder once refused to talk to me before big games like this for more than a year after I told her it was my considered professional opinion that the Steelers were going to lose one particular week, which the Steelers did. She blamed me, of course. The good news is, we're talking again. She lives on a farm, decorates the outside of her house with Steelers paraphernalia before games the way other people decorate for Christmas and texted me shortly after New York finished upsetting New England to warn that the Jets had better "saddle up" on Sunday.
But the Jets' Ryan already knows that. He not only gets Pittsburgh fans -- he agrees with my sister.
And I agree with Rex. Expect a triple-chin-strap game.
Come game time on Sunday, I'll be in front of my TV, and it could be raining burning Airstream trailers outside, but I won't get up to look out the window. My sisters and relatives and I will call each other often. We'll yell at the TV the way my late grandpap used to do, and maybe the Steelers will even give us a happy reason to whistle softly and chuckle, "Hell's fire, I'll be damned." The Jets are on a terrific run, and if we didn't know better, we'd swear Rex was reared in McKees Rocks or Turtle Creek or something, not places like Toronto and Oklahoma.
Whether the Steelers win or lose, our faith will be unshaken.
It's "just" football in a lot of places.
Just not in Pittsburgh.
"It's football the way it's meant to be played," Ryan said. "That's who Pittsburgh is, and that's who Pittsburgh has always been."
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at email@example.com.
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