Pittsburgh Is the Nation's Premier Sports Town

Todd FlemingAnalyst IJuly 5, 2009

Arriving at Pittsburgh International Airport on a trip back to the city to attend my brother’s wedding, we were greeted at the top of the airport's escalator by two lifelike mannequins.


One was of General George Washington suited for battle, celebrating his history in the area and the other was of Franco Harris, also suited for battle, a tribute to the city’s incredible sports legacy. 


And those competing images are the perfect representation of a city whose history and culture is so seamlessly intertwined with its sports traditions.


Pittsburgh is a special place.  I wasn't ready to admit that after leaving the city not long after graduating from high school. 


Like many kids, I figured the grass was greener on the other side.  There was a great big world out there to explore...the land of Rocky Mountain highs (natural of course), California Girls, Oktoberfests, and all such things. 


But, after living all over the country and the world, I've come to realize that Pittsburgh is one of the most unique cities in the U.S.  I think those of us who have left the city know best what we left behind. 


No city generates as much civic pride in its residents as Pittsburgh.  When people ask me where I'm from, I always feel a sense of pride when I establish my Pittsburgh "street cred."

Contrast this with the reaction when the President announced Pittsburgh would be hosting the G20 Summit. 


The elitists in the White House press corps, a group collectively unaware that there are cities in the U.S. not named New York, Washington, or Los Angeles, actually laughed. 


That, in and of itself, is also a point of pride, that some people will never understand why we love our hometown so much. 


There are several factors that I think account for why Pittsburgh is such a fascinating place to both be from and to call home. 


There is the very powerful historical narrative...the pride we feel in the city's blue collar roots.  We take pride that our fathers and grandfathers worked in the steel mills as part of the industry that helped build our nation, even if that industry is no longer the lifeblood of the city.


The city and the surrounding area also played huge parts in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars which were so important in forming the identity of our country.

There are the distinctly Pittsburgh traditions, like eating a hot dog at the Original "O" in Oakland or a Primanti Brother's sandwich, waiting in the long line to get in the back seat on the Thunderbolt roller coaster at Kennywood because it is the best seat, stepping onboard the Gateway Clipper riverboat to be ferried to old Three Rivers Stadium to watch the Steelers or Pirates, riding an incline up to Mount Washington on light up night, or listening to Donny Iris tell us that some girl named Leah "is looking better than a body has a right to." 

There is the diverse flavor of so many different areas like the South Side, the Strip District, and Oakland, areas that hold so many memories for nearly all of us who ever called the city home.


There is the city's rebirth as an educational and medical leader. 


There is the wide variation of distinct neighborhoods that generate not just civic pride, but pride in your neighborhood. 


There is the quirkiness of one of the most unique accents in the country, an accent that resulted in plenty of wonder, and more than a bit of laughter, in my first year at college in Colorado despite what I thought were more mystifying ones all around me.


One of my friends would ask me to say the following sentence, "I'm going out downtown with yinz to the mountain to wash some clothes."  He would then crack up. 


There is the beauty of the Pittsburgh skyline outlined against the Point, where the three rivers come together.


Against this backdrop, it is the sports tradition that binds all of us together as one community. 


Pittsburgh might be a small city whose contributions on the national stage are overlooked or even laughed at by those who should know better, but it has the greatest sports history and traditions in the U.S. 


At the top of the list, the city hosts the greatest franchise in football in the Steelers. 

What makes the Steelers so special when compared to other professional sports teams is the way that the team and even the players fit the image of the city. 


The team has always been a "blue collar" team, emphasizing strong character and teamwork.  The mentality of the team is all about slugging it out on the ground while playing excellent defense. 


The city isn't about gimmicky bells and whistles and neither is its football team.  No other team has generated the national following of the Steelers with the very real phenomenon of Steelers Nation. 


In every single place I've lived, the Steelers were either the favorite team or the second favorite team. 


Even in Colorado, in the heart of Broncos Country, the Steelers had a huge following, a fifth column ready to show up at the Broncos game whenever the Steelers came to town. 


When I lived less than an hour from Cincinnati, the Steelers were the team of choice, not the local Bengals.  Thanks to Hines Ward, my current home in Korea is even Steelers' Country. 


Everywhere I've ever lived, if I throw on a Steelers' jersey and head out, I'm bound to be greeted by other Steelers' fans.


Clearly, the Steelers' winning tradition is a big part of this phenomenon.  But, it is more than that. 


It is the sense of identify that the team has established by being true to its Pittsburgh roots.  It is the fact that when the city was struggling economically in the 1970s, it was the Steelers who became the glue that held everybody together and kept the sense of community intact.


That team has a mythic quality.  Remember when Joe Greene shared a Coke with a kid and then threw him his game jersey?  Oh, that was only a commercial.  Nonetheless, that was cool. 


The city also has plenty of great sports history with both the Pirates and Penguins. 
We hang on to the heroes in all of our teams. 


I grew up listening to stories about Roberto Clemente's exploits at Forbes Field, about how Harvey Haddix threw the best game by a pitcher in the history of baseball...and lost, and about Bill Mazeroski's homer that slew the mighty Yankees in the 1960 World Series, the most dramatic conclusion to a World Series in the history of baseball. 


Speaking of Forbes Field, it is one of the most storied baseball field ever to open its gates to the public, the field where Babe Ruth hit his final home run. 


I remember looking on the part of the wall that still stands in Oakland and wishing I had the opportunity to see just one game there.  That stadium first opened its gates almost 100 years ago to the day and had a profound impact on the history of baseball.

While many of us weren't alive to see these incredible moments or watch Clemente play at Forbes Field, listening to our elders tell the stories helped shape our character and first fanned the flames on a passion for sports that unites nearly all Pittsburghers. 

The Pirates of the last several years may be a bunch of bums but they are our bunch of bums.  And we remain ever hopeful that they will once again live up to the legacy of the players who came before them.   


Pittsburgh has also become one of the nation's most exciting hockey towns.  This is because the Penguins have featured three of the most dynamic players ever to lace up a pair of hockey skates, turning rabid football fans into puckheads, at least during hockey season.


In hockey, we also have our stories.  The greatest of them is the story of Mario Lemieux, one of the greatest players to ever play the game, a guy who would later save his team from leaving his adopted hometown and lead it back to glory while mentoring a new champion and all-world leader in Sidney Crosby. 


And the team just drafted the son of one of my all-time favorite Penguins, Ulf Samuelsson.  Now that is cool.

Perhaps the part of sports I miss the most since leaving Pittsburgh is Friday night high school football.  I used to love watching the highlights on the Fedko Zone to see who came out on top in the Woodland Hills-North Hills grudge match.

 I've never lived anywhere where high school football is as important as it is in Pittsburgh. 

When I was in high school, there were two things in high school football you could count on...North Hills was going to win, and my team, Baldwin, was going to lose.  Everything else was up for grabs. 

Our sports teams touch every fabric of our lives.  They bring fathers and sons together.  And we all have our stories associated with those teams. 

You know the stories.  Like meeting that really cool girl at a Pirates' game and scoring her number even though the Pirates lost. 

Or seeing your favorite player at an area restaurant.  Or walking by "Badger" Bob Johnson on your way to a baseball game and having him nod and say, "Have a good night, boys."   

The players that come to Pittsburgh understand that special relationship between player and fan that, if not unique to Pittsburgh, is at least at its highest form in the Steel City. 

That is why so many Pittsburgh greats adopt Pittsburgh as their hometown when their playing days are done; players like Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, Rod Woodson, and Mario Lemieux. 

It is why Troy Polamalu did not hesitate for a second when answering whether he sees himself as a Californian or a Pittsburgher.

All of this and so much more is part of the spirit of Pittsburgh.  That is why Pittsburgh is not just one of the greatest sports towns in the United States, but one of the most special places in the entire country.


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