Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

How a non-sports fan learned to love the Steelers

When I first moved to Pittsburgh as a young adult more than a decade ago, the last full-length football game I had ever watched was played by the team at my junior high school. I had proudly supported my classmates then, but had no interest in the sport. I could think of few things I would enjoy less than spending hours on a Sunday, or Monday night, watching grown men toss around a ball and crash violently into each other in front of shivering, shouting fans guzzling beer.

As a newcomer to the city, I knew vaguely about the Terrible Towel, the golden piece of fabric the size of a dish towel that fans wave to show their support for the Steelers. And, I knew that Pittsburghers were deeply proud of their home team. I wished the Steelers well, but I had no interest in their exploits. I soon found that game time on Sunday was a great time to run errands since most of the rest of the city was glued to their television sets.

All of that changed during the 2005-2006 season. That year, the Steelers were playing stronger than ever, reminding dedicated fans of their glory days in the 1970s. As the regular season ended, and the playoffs began, Super Bowl excitement rose to fever pitch. Even someone as oblivious to football as I could not ignore what was happening around me.

In Pittsburgh, many workplaces encourage employees to wear black and gold on the Friday before game day. I had always thought it was great that people expressed so much team spirit, though I never wore the colors myself. That year, I felt the pressure from coworkers, especially when one Friday I inadvertently wore colors that were similar to those of the opposing team. I promptly went out and bought a gold, long-sleeved Steelers shirt. (I didn’t have to go far, they were being sold, along with other Steelers merchandise, at my neighborhood grocery store.)

But my team spirit was more than an outward show. I, too, began to be excited about “our team” going to the Super Bowl. And, I saw how the excitement brought people together. Perfect strangers would pass each other on the street, each dressed in black and gold, and exchange smiles and cheers of “Here we go,” the opening words of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl rallying song. An otherwise bleak winter was brightened by the promise of victory. I even devoted an evening to watching the AFC Championship game on TV. When the Steelers won, I opened the door to my apartment’s balcony and listened as my neighbors, on an otherwise sedate residential street, let out cries of victory, honked their horns and shouted “Go Steelers.”

And, then, two weeks later, like the conclusion to a blockbuster movie, the Steelers won the Super Bowl. The city erupted in celebration, with people swarming the streets and cheering the victory late into the night. We had won, and the triumph was more than an athletic conquest; it was a symbol of Pittsburgh as a city reclaiming its past glory.

A few years before, when the Steelers had lost badly in a playoff game, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article that talked about how a city’s self-esteem can be deeply intertwined with the fortunes of its sports teams. While passionate fans in cities that are doing well – with low unemployment rates, booming industries and other markers of success – may weather a disappointing loss fairly well, those in struggling cities – dwindling populations, hard economic times – personalize losses much more. The failure of a team becomes symbolic of the failure of a city.

Conversely, the success of a team is reason for hope and optimism. Pittsburgh, in particular, is still working to overcome its image as a smoky steel town. The 2006 Super Bowl victory was an opportunity to show how the city had retained its old glory while reclaiming its natural beauty and energizing its economy with new industries.

In 2009, the Steelers again swept their way through the playoffs and on to victory at the Super Bowl, setting a record as the team to have won the greatest number of Super Bowls. And now, in 2011, they are poised to play in the Super Bowl again.
I’ll be watching the game, wearing black and gold, and cheering on the team. This year, my enthusiasm is dimmed by the off-season exploits of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was suspended from playing for the first few weeks of the season. I’m not proud of him, and I have a lot of mixed feelings about rooting for a team that depends on his leadership and even more about a culture that is so willing to forgive outrageous behavior in those with star athletic ability. However, I have learned over time that the Steelers are so much more than a sports team to Pittsburgh.

In 2006, the city’s self-esteem was bolstered by the Super Bowl win. That was true again with the 2009 Super Bowl and the Penguins’ Stanley Cup victory later that year. After decades of feeling down about itself, Pittsburgh was again a city of champions.

But ecstasy is an ephemeral feeling – gone almost as quickly as it arrives. It is much harder to sustain hope, optimism and vision in the long-term, though an occasional shot in the arm in the form of victory never hurts.

Just two days after the 2011 AFC Championship game, President Barack Obama delivered his annual State of the Union speech. He spoke about a lot of the challenges our country faces, but was optimistic about reclaiming our innovative spirit and reinvigorating American cities and industries.

That message is particularly resonant in Pittsburgh, which has received national attention and praise for reinventing itself. The city has come a long way, but still has far to go to rival its former reputation as a major center of industry and innovation.

Whether the Steelers win or lose on Super Bowl Sunday, those efforts will continue. In the meantime, I think it’s about time I bought myself a Terrible Towel…


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