Think about this the next time someone argues that a professional sports franchise is not important to a city's identity:
In the 1980's, as the steel mills and their supporting factories shut down from Homestead to Midland, Pittsburghers, faced for the first time in their lives with the specter of unemployment, were forced to pick up their families, leave their home towns and move to more profitable parts of the country. The steel workers were not ready for this. They had planned to stay in the ‘burgh their entire lives. It was home.
Everyone I know can tell the same story about how Dad, Uncle Bob or their brother-in-law packed a U-Haul and headed down to Tampa to build houses or up to Boston for an office job or out to California to star in pornographic videos.
Maybe that last one just happened in my family.
At this same time, during the early to mid-eighties, the Pittsburgh Steelers were at the peak of their popularity. Following the Super Bowl dynasty years, the power of the Steelers was strong. Every man, woman, boy and girl from parts of four states were Pittsburgh faithful, living and breathing day to day on the news of their favorite team. Then, as now, it seemed to be all anyone talked about.
Who do you think the Steelers will take in the draft this year?
Is Bradshaw done?
Can you believe they won't give Franco the money – what's he doing going to Seattle?
The last memories most unemployed steel workers had of their towns had a black and gold tinge. The good times remembered all seemed to revolve, somehow, around a football game. Sneaking away from your sister's wedding reception to go downstairs to the bar and watch the game against Earl Campbell and the Oilers - going to midnight mass, still half in the bag after Pittsburgh beat Oakland - you and your grandfather, both crying at the sight of The Chief, finally holding his Vince Lombardi Trophy.
And then, the mills closed.
Damn the mills.
One of the unseen benefits of the collapse of the value systems our families believed in – that the mill would look after you through thick and thin – was that now, decades later, there is not a town in America where a Pittsburgher cannot feel at home. Nearly every city in the United States has a designated “Black and Gold” establishment. From Bangor, Maine to Honolulu, Hawaii, and every town in between can be found an oasis of Iron City, chipped ham and yinzers. It's great to know that no matter what happened in the lives of our Steel City refugees, they never forgot the things that held us together as a city - families, food, and Steelers football.
It's what we call the Steeler Nation.
You see it every football season. And when the Steelers have a great year, as they have had this season, the power of the Steeler Nation rises to show itself stronger than ever. This week, as the Pittsburgh team of Roethlisberger, Polamalu, Bettis and Porter head to Denver, the fans of Greenwood, Lambert, Bleier and Blount, the generation who followed Lloyd, Thigpen, Woodson and Kirkland will be watching from Dallas to Chicago, from an Air Force base in Minot, North Dakota, to a tent stuck in the sand near Fallujah, Iraq.
I have received more email from displaced Pittsburgh Steelers fans this week than Christmas cards this holiday season.
We are the Steeler Nation.
And now, it's passing from one generation to the next. The children of displaced Pittsburghers, who have never lived in the Steel City, are growing up Steelers fans. When they come back to their parents' hometowns to visit the grandparents, they hope, above all, to be blessed enough to get to see the Steelers in person.
Heinz Field is their football Mecca.
And if a ticket isn't available, that's okay, too. There's nothing better than sitting in Grandpa's living room, just like Dad did, eating Grandma's cooking and watching the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Just like Dad did.
So, to you, Steeler Nation, I send best wishes and a fond wave of the Terrible Towel. To Tom, who emailed from Massachusetts to say how great it was to watch the Patriots lose and the Steelers win in one glorious weekend. To Michelle, from Milwaukee, who wrote to let me know it was she who hexed Mike Vanderjagt last Sunday by chanting “boogity, boogity, boogity” and giving him the “maloik”. To Jack, who will somehow pull himself away from the beach bar he tends in Hilo, Hawaii, to once again root for the black and gold in the middle of the night (his time), I say, thanks for giving power to the great Steeler Nation.
All around the NFL, the word is out that the Pittsburgh Steeler fans “travel well”, meaning they will fly or drive from Pittsburgh to anywhere the Steelers play, just to see their team. The one aspect about that situation the rest of the NFL fails to grasp is that, sometimes, the Steeler Nation does not have to travel. Sometimes, we're already there.
Yes, the short sighted steel mills screwed our families over.
But they did, in a completely unintended way, create something new and perhaps more powerful than an industry.
They helped created a nation.
A Steeler Nation.