The signs hang in Steelers bars and in the homes of Steelers fans across the nation: “Welcome to Steelers Country,” or some derivation thereof. And traversing the horizontal expanse of the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh is the mother of these signs, a 100-foot-long banner that makes it known where Steelers country really is.
At its length, the banner is the largest such item ever hung in downtown Pittsburgh. It’s the vinyl equivalent of sports car over-compensation, the little red convertible of a city’s pride in its football team. But perhaps this sort of thing is to be expected from a city with a grade-A case of an image problem.
Since the collapse of the steel industry in the early 1980s, Pittsburgh has been wrestling with such large notions as bankruptcy, how to move on, what direction to move in, and replacing a way of life that hundreds of thousands counted on and participated in for over a century. It’s the same sort of conundrum that has faced every city and state in the Rust Belt that was affected—and continues to be affected—by the loss of big steel.
Other cities have been able to move away from the ‘70s and ‘80s with greater ease than Pittsburgh. Walk around the Steel City and you’ll invariably find people who are still unable to find meaningful, gainful employment since they lost their job at the mill. Many facades of buildings downtown scream of ‘70s revitalization—and now look horribly outdated. And Pittsburghers who were alive to see it still talk endlessly about the Steelers Dynasty of the ‘70s.
Every football season, the chant “One for the Thumb” erupts from Steelers Nation, a reference to finally securing that elusive fifth Super Bowl Championship that the team has been chasing since 1980. Even fans not old enough to remember those great ‘70s teams with John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, Mike Webster, Joe Greene, Franco Harris, the Steel Curtain, and Chuck Noll get caught up in the “One for the Thumb” hullabaloo.
In a city that’s struggling to pull itself up from the loss of steel, the Steelers’ championship teams have taken on mythic stature. They represent a past Pittsburgh is proud of, yet haunted by. But they’re also a metaphor for the city’s inability to move into the future: “If the Steelers can’t win the Super Bowl, how do we ever expect to move away from the glory days of the ‘70s?” The Steelers, for all intents and purposes, have become a microcosm of Pittsburgh. The city’s hopes are linked with the team’s hopes. The Steelers’ desire to be more than their ‘70s counterparts is a reflection of Pittsburgh’s desire to be something greater than a former steel capital.
The excitement in Pittsburgh when the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl this season reached critical mass as soon as the team defeated the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship. Fans were snapping up t-shirts and hats, making plans to go to Detroit for Super Bowl XL, calling off work, watching endless news coverage both locally and nationally, calling in to radio talk shows, displaying Steelers banners and signs, waving Terrible Towels, and wearing black and gold every day to work. Two local communities even officially changed their names. Greensburg, located east of Pittsburgh, changed its name to “Black And Goldsburg” until the Monday after the Super Bowl. Washington, a city south of Pittsburgh, changed its name to “Steeler.”
And businesses began displaying messages on their marquees in support of the team. “A Seahawk Cannot Fly Through Steel!!!” read one office supply store sign. Another shop displayed the message: “Seahawk—A Chicken With An Attitude Problem.” A metal shop and auto repair place conveyed their desire to “Pray For Jerome To Win At Home,” a reference to Jerome Bettis playing what likely would be his final game in the Super Bowl in his hometown. There was even a sign outside of an oil change place advertising a pep rally the Saturday before the Super Bowl. Driving around Pittsburgh in the run-up to the Super Bowl was like witnessing a competition to see who could outdo the other in their support of the Steelers.
But one sign, at another office supply store, summed up the overriding feeling in Pittsburgh in its simple elegance: “Steelers Always.” In Western Pennsylvania, a region shaken to its core by changes in the economy over the past 30 years and by poor political leadership unable to cope with those radical shifts, there has been one constant—the Pittsburgh Steelers. And the team knows that the fans are there for it. Pittsburgh has its share of fair-weather fans and bandwagon jumpers, but on the whole they are intensely loyal to their football team. As the sign says: Steelers, always.
That’s why the team making it to the Super Bowl this season, and winning, finally, after 26 years of waiting, is such a momentous occasion. Sure Pittsburghers and Steelers fans are happy at the basest levels. It’s a gratification of years of sweat, blood, and tears working for a championship—and that’s just from the fans. But the city itself can breathe a sigh or relief, a breath it has been holding in since the early ‘80s. The Steelers winning the world championship is a vindication of a city and a way of life that has been dealt one too many knocks for its own good.
The Steeler itself—a person involved in some hands-on position in a steel mill—is all but extinct. But while the Steelers took as their namesake a now-gone persona, the team and its name has transcended the Steeler to represent something else—a work ethic and a way of life. Steelers players aren’t seen as ego-driven personalities concerned with money or self-gratification. Instead, they’re viewed, for the most part, as hard-working, humble, hard-hat wearing, metal lunchbox carrying workers that represent the blue-collar attitude that has prevailed in Pittsburgh since steel first appeared in the city.
Prior to the ‘70s, the majority of Pittsburghers would work at the steel mills at one point or another. Some people made it their careers; others worked in them for extra cash during summer breaks from school. But no matter to what extent someone was involved with steel, the notion that you go to the mill, do your job, and work as hard as possible was one that permeated every facet of existence in Pittsburgh.
Now, those mills are gone, and an entire generation has been raised not on steel mills and the work ethic it instills, but on a popular culture that tells them they don’t have to work for what they want because they’re entitled to it. Many of these people don’t even have a concept of what a steel mill is. The ones that remained after the collapse of the industry were torn down and in their places were built shopping and entertainment centers. So not only does an entire generation lack the work ethic of those mills, they lack even a cursory knowledge of the steel industry and how important it was to the city of Pittsburgh and to the Steelers as a team.
To illustrate, the license plate on my car has the logo of the steel industry on it. It’s the same logo as the one the Steelers wear on their helmets. One day, driving around, I was stopped at a red light. A couple of kids came up to my passenger side door and shouted a question at me. I put the window down to hear, and the one asked, “Do you work for the Steelers?”
“No,” I replied.
“Then why does your license plate say ‘Steelers worker’?”
“It doesn’t. It says “Steel Worker’.”
“See, I told you!” the other kid exclaimed to his friend as they went on their way.
The kids, barely ten, saw the steel logo and their brains transformed “Steel Worker” into “Steelers Worker.” Such a jump in logic would have been unthinkable 10 or 15 years ago, when kids were still raised in one way or another with steel. They would’ve recognized the steel logo as being indicative of both the industry and the football team, not just the latter. Now that the mills are gone, and the skeletons of them torn down, children in Pittsburgh aren’t living in steel’s smoky haze—they’re not even living in their smoky shadows.
Instead, kids are brought up with the Steelers and the cloudy memories of those ‘70s teams that won four championships. Not because there isn’t anything else to occupy their time or attention, but because the Steelers organization has come to fill the void left by the steel industry. The team embodies everything that is good about Pittsburgh—the work ethic, the commitment to family, strength, and loyalty to those closest to you. But it also represents the city’s inability to move beyond its past. Because the Steelers have been unable to win the big one for over a quarter century, Pittsburghers have been unable to get over the hump themselves, mired perpetually in the idea that they cannot overcome the obstacles holding them and their city back. If the Steelers can’t do it, the logic goes, how can they?
All of that changed on Sunday when the Steelers won the Super Bowl. A new generation of Steelers fans finally had a championship team to call their own, and Pittsburgh was finally a winner again. At the victory parade for the team, an estimated 250,000 people turned out for what’s now being called the biggest such event in the history of the city. People lined up along the streets of downtown Pittsburgh were supposed to stay along the curbs, but they didn’t. Before long, two-lane streets became barely enough road for the cars carrying the players to navigate through as fans crushed in to be as close as possible to their conquering heroes. This wasn’t your typical celebratory parade of controlled chaos. It was simply chaos. Pure, glorious chaos.
But the people at the parade weren’t just there to celebrate the Steelers—they were there to celebrate the city, the first time anyone has been able to do that in a long time. Steelers players repeatedly said, “This championship is for you and for the city,” or some derivation of that sentiment, when addressing Steelers fans at the post-parade rally. For some teams, such sentiment is said simply to pander to the crowd, but not when it comes from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
No team has ever been so linked to its home city as the Steelers are to Pittsburgh. The Steelers represent more than just football, they represent the hopes, dreams, desires, faults, troubles, past, and future for Pittsburgh and its citizens. For better or worse, Pittsburgh is Steelers Country. And right now, living here couldn’t be better.