Nation Building - January 18, 2006
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
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
. . . . 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
I have received more email from displaced Pittsburgh
Steelers fans this week than Christmas cards this holiday season.
. They're everywhere.
. . We're everywhere.
. . . 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.