Sometimes, teams like the Boston Red Sox and the Green Bay Packers become more than just a pastime for a city. They become part of the city's sense of self. Pittsburgh, whose Steelers will face the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl today, is one of these cities.
Nestled between the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, Pittsburgh was born of the Industrial Revolution. It soon became America's largest inland trading port and a linchpin in the railroad system. Until the 1980s, Pittsburgh was the center of the American steel industry. Its factories supplied the U.S. military during World Wars I and II and the steel for New York's Brooklyn Bridge and Empire State Building.
But that came to a crashing and painful halt. During the 1970s, steel mills shut down, and people left Pittsburgh, fanning out across the country looking for work. Meanwhile, the Steelers, lead by quarterback Terry Bradshaw and defensive tackle "Mean Joe" Green, won an unprecedented four Super Bowls during that decade.
"The success of the team on the field dovetailed with the times in the early '70s into the '80s when the steel industry collapsed," said Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center. "The good news in people's lives was Steelers news."
By 1990, Pittsburgh had lost half of its population. But today, the city has turned to technology, and many people have found work at hospitals and universities like Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, Madarasz said. In 2003, the city was dubbed "Roboburgh" by The Wall Street Journal.
The Steelers are also experiencing a resurgence. As veteran running back Jerome Bettis -- who is still without a Super Bowl ring -- prepares to retire, second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu promise a solid team for the future.
Even through the tough times, Pittsburgh's blue-collar culture, ethic and pride endured, and nothing symbolizes this mentality than the rough-and-tumble Steelers, known for their relentless defensive blitzing and smash-mouth demeanor.
"The style of play is closely aligned with how people live their lives," Madarasz said. "Hard-hitting, never give up, try and try and try story that people identity with."
Steeler adoration partly stems from the love and respect many people have for the team's owners, the Rooneys, Madarasz said. Art Rooney bought the team in 1933 -- it was called the Pirates until 1940 -- for $2,500 after getting lucky at the racetrack. His family came from humble millworker means that the people of Pittsburgh understood. His son Dan took over when he died in 1988.
To put it simply, the city feels good about the team. Unlike other cities that resist financing a team's new stadium or battle with franchises to keep stadiums out of their neighborhoods, the people of Pittsburgh are glad the team is there.
Preparing for Sunday
With their team favored to beat the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl since 1996, local fans are waving their terrible towels with more vigor than ever, and black and gold is all over the city.
"Crazy from the beginning of the year until now," said Gino Liberatore, assistant manager of the Sports Rock Café. "Everyone is constantly in Steeler gear -- Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays. … They are just very, very avid fans."
No one knows that better than Marcia Hellman, manager of the Mike Feinberg Co. Party Supply store. "We're lined up out the door. We're swamped. We're so busy," she said. "Anything black and gold they're grabbing. We've probably done 10 times as much [business] as we do in a normal January."
Hellman said two police officers were posted outside the door to control the crowd, which purchased everything from banners to scrunchees to Steelers tattoos.
Liberatore said that the Sports Rock Café was full during every game and that he expected the venue, which has two floors and can hold more than 1,000 people, to be filled to capacity on Sunday.
"It's amazing, especially when we win," said Liberatore, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh. "We are a football town without question. The Steelers have always been Pittsburgh's baby."