The Pittsburgh Steelers have a fan following that, at times, resembles a cult. This mass of nomads spans the globe, led by an, almost omnipresent, banner in the most terrible of towels.
Adorning traditional vestments, a uniform that has hardly changed since its inception, they make a weekly trek to their respective “place of worship” to share a celebratory drink while enjoying the simple satisfaction of a Sunday.
Okay, maybe I’m embellishing… a little. But anyone who has lived in the city of Pittsburgh can’t deny the fanaticism of its Steelers fans. Spend some time around any member of the "Steelers Nation", and you can’t avoid being immersed in the culture. The Steelers inspire a fan following, a fixation, rarely seen in the world of sports. Almost everyone in town is a fan.
Don’t get me wrong, Steelers Nation is far from sacrilegious, even though one of the franchise's defining moments is called the Immaculate Reception. I know from personal experience a man of god can embrace Steelers Nation.
As a kid, my church was led by a priest who was popular because he spoke notoriously fast during football season. His squeaky, high pitched voice delivered his pithy and often hilarious sermons in a manner eerily reminiscent of Myron Cope. Sunday mass was always jammed.
Though he rarely admitted to being a Steelers fan, it seemed that mass was always over with time to trek to the stadium or enjoy pregame radio.
The weird thing is Pittsburgh is essentially a little town disguised as a big city. It doesn’t have a lot of people within city limits, it’s a mostly quiet, hard-working town. But on Sundays it explodes into a celebration of pigskin, pierogies, kielbasa and lots of Iron City. It’s kinda like Friday Night Lights…except with polka.
If you’re born and raised in Pittsburgh, like me, you’re simply indoctrinated. Fathers tell sons about the dynasty of the ‘70s, “Emperor” Noll, Bradshaw, Stallworth, and Swann, Rocky and Franco, and the ever present Steel Curtain, anchored by the consummate bad-asses Joe Greene and Jack Lambert.
They'll tell you why the Rooney family is the best owners in sports today, and how "The Chief" Arthur Rooney was the start of that.
Even today’s incarnation is locally hailed as one of the last bastions of old school, hard-nosed football. Defense is praised and offense that doesn’t involve smashing mouths is dismissed. The quarterback is either loved or reviled—there is no middle ground.
The Steelers often take 30 minutes of air time on the evening news. On Sundays in Pittsburgh, nine out of ten people walking downtown are wearing jerseys while the tenth wears a black and gold tie. During a playoff run, a Steelers jersey can probably pass as business attire or evening wear. Seriously.
Nationwide, their away game attendance is unmatched. Because of the steel mill bust in the late ‘70s, Pittsburgh transplants are everywhere, and many fans eschew summer vacations for Steelers away games.Yeah, there are probably bandwagon fans in attendance, but who doesn’t like a winner?
If you Google “Steelers bars,” you’ll find a massive list, with locations from Arizona to Saudi Arabia. Go ahead and count them all, if you’d like, I’ll see you in 15.
Okay, okay, it’s time to tone back the excitement again (hey, I’m a fan too). No fan base or team is perfect, and the team’s success admittedly causes a lot of Steelers fans to become a little overbearing and obnoxious. But it’s hard not to be proud of a product that is so successful, that represents the city of Pittsburgh so well.
Their success, their fan base and their on field product do so much for the city’s esteem and its economy that its effect is beyond massive.