It's pretty hard to hate the Steelers
by Kevin Hench
Kevin Hench is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com. An accomplished film and television writer, Hench's latest screenwriting credit is for The Hammer, which stars Adam Carolla and is now available on DVD.
As America winds down National Kumbaya Week it is perhaps fitting that we now turn our attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the only national institution with a higher approval rating than the new president.
I'm sure there are fans in Cleveland and Baltimore who can muster genuine hatred for the Steelers, but for most football fans there's just not much to dislike.
It's easy to loathe the Cowboys, where the egomaniacal Jerry Jones plays Father Flanagan then learns the hard way that maybe there is such a thing as a bad boy.
It's easy to hate the Patriots, where a ruthless, amoral (genius) dictator patrols the sidelines, at least until he storms off petulantly without shaking hands.
It's easy to develop contempt for the Colts after a few thousand Peyton Manning commercials (or if Marvin Harrison's gun starts mysteriously discharging in your direction).
But the Steelers?
Dan Rooney, Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger don't exactly get your blood boiling.
How can you hate a team whose original owner won the money to buy his franchise at the track?
How can you hate a team when that same owner once sent a postcard to a badly-wounded-in-Vietnam Rocky Bleier in a Tokyo hospital that simply read: "Rock — the team's not doing well. We need you. Art Rooney."
How can you hate a team named after the hardworking men of its community instead of, say, a racially insensitive Native American epithet?
To the far-reaching Steeler Nation it probably came as no surprise that the Black and Gold was ranked No.1 out of all 122 major sports franchises in the inaugural Turnkey Team Brand Index survey in 2007. The survey measures fan loyalty in a team's local market. (The Arizona Cardinals finished 122nd — or last — in the '07 survey.)
Despite slipping to third in 2008 — behind the Packers and Red Sox — the Steelers will almost certainly regain the top spot if they win their record-setting sixth Super Bowl title.
That fan loyalty is not just on display in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have sold out every game since 1972. No NFL team's fans travel like Steeler fans.
There isn't an NFL outpost too remote to keep them from arriving in droves and providing cutaways to big swaths of Terrible Towel-waving, black-and-gold clad supporters.
When the Titans were still transitioning from Houston to Nashville via Memphis, they suffered the humiliation of playing a "home" game in front of mostly Steeler fans. The plan had been for the Titans to play two seasons in Memphis, but that game prompted Bud Adams to flee Memphis and move to Nashville a year ahead of schedule and play a season in Vanderbilt's stadium.
And Steeler fans don't limit their boundless pride to NFL stadiums. Ever since legendary broadcaster Myron Cope created the so-called Terrible Towel in 1975 the signature terry cloth has popped up all over the world.
It has been planted atop Mt. Everest, spotted at the South Pole, Vatican City and the Beijing Olympics and been brought by G.I.s to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers swung a Terrible Towel at the end of the show in honor of Cope after the broadcaster died in February last year. (And how can you hate a team whose longtime broadcaster gave the rights to the Terrible Towel to the Allegheny Valley School in Coraopolis, Pa. to help it care for more than 900 people with mental and physical disabilities, including his autistic son? The school has received proceeds in excess of $2.5M.)
The bond between the Steelers and the citizenry of Blitzburgh is so strong that it naturally invites an intensity of political pandering unseen in other parts of the country.
Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton received and waved Terrible Towels before the Pennsylvania Democratic primary on April 22. (Clinton won the primary but Obama won the war with Dan Rooney's endorsement helping him win Pennsylvania by 11 points in the general election.)
John McCain outdid them both, tweaking a familiar story to enhance its appeal for a Western Pa. electorate.
He told a Pittsburgh TV station:
"When I was first interrogated and really had to give some information because of the physical pressures that were on me, I named the starting lineup — defensive line — of the Pittsburgh Steelers as my squadron-mates."
The story might have held up if he hadn't already told it — and written it — as naming the members of the great Packer teams of the 1960s, a story that made infinitely more sense since he was shot down in 1967. The Steelers were one of the worst teams in the NFL in the late '60s and the defensive line was not Mean Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White but rather Ken Kortas, Lloyd Voss, Chuck Hinton and Ben McGee. It seems unlikely that anyone in pre-Google Pittsburgh could rattle off those names.
But you can hardly blame McCain (who can now safely root for his home state Cardinals without fear of political reprisal). Everyone it seems wants to be a part of the extended Steeler family.
When he was writing "In America," his patriotic response to the Iranian hostage crisis, North Carolina-born Charlie Daniels could have chosen any team from a two-syllable town with a two-syllable nickname without messing up his meter. But he went with:
You just go and lay your hand on a
Pittsburgh Steeler fan and I think you're gonna
Daniels would later explain that the people of Pittsburgh are "The salt of the earth, the finest, just the greatest people. The strength of America ... They're steel workers and they're good old guys with blisters or calluses on their hands."
Oh, and perhaps coincidentally, the Steelers had won four of the previous six Super Bowl titles prior to the song's 1980 release and were America's real team.
Daniels is probably only the second most famous country-singing Steelers fan. Hank Williams Jr., campaigned heavily for McCain in Pennsylvania, sporting his Steelers jersey wherever he went.
Williams Jr., was born in Shreveport, La., just nine months after Terry Bradshaw, so he could be a Steelers fan as much because of his roots as in spite of them.
Snoop Dogg claims to have been a Steelers fan since 1973 (though his bio also claims that he was born in 1971). When asked during an interview to promote the "Soul Plane" DVD release how a So Cal gangsta became a Steelers fan, Snoop said, "Well, my neighborhood, that's the team that we wear, you know, all of my homies when we was young. We would love Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Stallworth, Bradshaw, Rocky Bleier, we loved all of them."
So the Steelers will be bringing Snoop Dogg and Hank Williams, Jr., together in spirit on Feb. 1.
And that won't even be the team's biggest bridge-building accomplishment.
Like so many kids who came of football-fan age during the '70s, President Obama grew up rooting for the Steelers. Though political and geographic necessity dictated that he shift his allegiance to the Bears as an adult, he maintained a genuine affection for the Rooney family's team.
That affinity no doubt grew when Dan Rooney, a lifelong Republican, proclaimed his support for the then-Illinois senator and campaigned extensively for him. Last Monday, Rooney traveled to Washington to hand deliver President Obama the AFC Championship game ball.
And when the new president is rooting for Big Ben and Co. in SB XLIII you know who he'll be able to high-five (at least in spirit)?
That's right, the man who has openly stated that he hopes President Obama fails is a rabid Steelers fan.
Now that's a big tent.