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Football in America: Pittsburgh, Where the Game Is the Lifeblood of the City

The Pittsburgh area is one of the country’s great football hotbeds, from the intense high school scene to a Pitt program that draws heavily on area talent to the mad passion for the Black and Gold at Heinz

Welcome to The MMQB’s eight-part series, “Football in America,” in partnership with State Farm. Throughout the fall, we’ve traveled the country taking the temperature of the game at various levels—youth, high school, college, the NFL and more—in a changing landscape for the sport. We wrap up the project with Episode VIII: Pittsburgh.

Episode I: The Bay Area
Episode II: Carolina

Episode III: Minnesota
Episode IV: Dallas
Episode V: Arizona
Episode VI: Chicago
Episode VII: Philadelphia

Video: John DePetro

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Wednesday, 11 a.m.
UPMC Rooney Sports Complex

There are two entrances at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex along Pittsburgh’s Monongahela River. Pitt’s football facility is on the right, and the Steelers’ facility is on the left. Though James Conner now does his work on the Steelers’ side, the former Pitt running back will often sneak across to say hi to his old friends and grab a cup of coffee, which he thinks tastes better over on the Pitt side. “Literally there is only a wall that divides us,” says the Steelers rookie. “I'll go over to the other side and walk through the locker room like I’m still there, and go see my coaches and go see other guys.”

From Ditka to Marino to Revis, Pitt’s Wall of Fame is replete with Western Pa. stars.

From Ditka to Marino to Revis, Pitt’s Wall of Fame is replete with Western Pa. stars.

Football in Pittsburgh is local and pervasive. Everything flows through Heinz Field. Along with being facility neighbors, the Pitt Panthers share Heinz with the Steelers, and every Western Pennsylvania high school football player dreams of earning the chance to play at Heinz in the district title game.

Pitt has leaned on that local connection and used homegrown talent to build a storied college program that has won nine national titles. The school claims eight Pro Football Hall of Famers, and of those eight, six hail from Western Pennsylvania:  Joe Schmidt, Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, Russ Grimm and Curtis Martin.

Sophomore defensive back Damar Hamlin remembers the turning point when he decided to play for the hometown team. Hamlin was a highly sought-after recruit as a senior at Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic. He received 48 D-I offers and had narrowed it down to Pitt, Ohio State, Penn State and Notre Dame. A few days after Hamlin and his Central Catholic teammates won the state championship in 2015, his school’s most famous alum, Dan Marino, stopped by the school. “My coaches told him that I was considering Pitt, and he was like all over it,” Hamlin says. “He was happy. He told me I had no other option.”

That endorsement from a Hall of Famer was enough for Hamlin, who committed shortly after his chat with Marino, whose jersey and name now adorns the door to the place Pitt’s QBs meet: The Dan Marino Room.

Pitt passers meet in the Dan Marino QB room. Not bad.

Pitt passers meet in the Dan Marino QB room. Not bad.

That’s one part of the game plan for building Pitt that will never change—recruiting local talent. There are 20 players on the current roster who played high school ball in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, the Pittsburgh district. Offensive lineman Alex Bookser, a WPIAL guy from Mt. Lebanon, is inspired by the great Panthers players of the past. “Pitt's history is among the best in the country, and that group [of guys from Western Pa.] is like the top-tier,” he says. “It motivates you to make them proud. You represent the Pittsburgh kid who goes to Pitt, so you really want to put on for your city and for your team in any way that you can.”

A few weeks ago, at the first practice when the cold fall weather had kicked, safety Dennis Briggs started breaking down the roster. Briggs is from Shadyside, a neighborhood in east Pittsburgh, so he looked at his shivering teammates from warmer climes and laughed. “People were freaking out a little bit because it was cold, wearing sleeves and stuff like that,” says offensive lineman Alex Bookser, also a WPIAL kid from Mt. Lebanon. “But [Briggs] noted that no WPIAL kids were complaining about the cold.”

The Panthers would be on the road at Virginia Tech the coming Saturday, but Heinz Field wouldn’t be empty in their absence. Heinz would be hosting four district title games. The Pitt players who played in a WPIAL title game in high school still boast about it today.

“In the locker room, there are people from everywhere around Pittsburgh that never went to Heinz,” says Jordan Whitehead, a junior defensive back who won the WPIAL 3A championship with Central Valley as a senior. “People from Aliquippa and Central Catholic, all they do is brag about it. It’s gets crazy sometimes. Winning at Heinz Field plays a big bragging role.”

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Jordan Whitehead of Pitt.

Jordan Whitehead of Pitt.

When former Bears tackle Jim Covert played guard for Pitt in the early ’80s, he remembers Steelers offensive linemen Mike Webster and John Kolb coming to spring practices to help the Panthers with their technique. They gave the college kids some practical advice too. “We tailored our jerseys just like they did,” Covert says. “We used double sided tape, carpet tape, and put them on our shoulder pads, and then we put our jerseys on top of that so they would stick, so you couldn’t grab them.”

When Covert arrived in Chicago, he was shocked to find out that their offensive linemen didn’t employ any of the handy techniques he learned from the Steelers. So he quickly called up the Panthers’ tailor in Pittsburgh and brought him out to Chicago to get to work.

Pitt alum and Aliquippa native Mike Ditka coached Covert in Chicago, and Covert thinks a big reason Ditka drafted him was because of their shared Western Pennsylvania roots and tough upbringing, as the sons of steelworkers. Covert was raised in Conway, a town directly across the river from Aliquippa. “It’s a steel mill, railroad town,” Covert says. “It’s Beaver County football, and you had a lot of guys from Beaver County that went on to play professional football. Ditka was looking for a guy who could play right away and just had that work ethic and toughness, and he knew kids from Western Pa., and who went to Pitt had that.”

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Thursday, 9 a.m.
Quaker Valley High Auditorium
Leetsdale, Pa.

Jerry Veshio blinks under the spotlight and grabs the microphone. The Quaker Valley soccer team stands on the stage to the left of the football coach, and his football team is gathered on his right. The school band plays “Hey Baby!” and cheerleaders shake their gold pom-poms from the landing in front of the stage. Six hundred Quaker Valley students whisper excitedly in their seats—in anticipation of the school’s championship games this weekend, or because of the early dismissal from first period to attend this pep rally. It’s a unique championship weekend for the small public school 12 miles north along the Ohio River from Pittsburgh. Quaker Valley’s soccer team will play in the state final on Friday in Hershey, Pa., and the football team will play in the WPIAL championship game on Saturday at Heinz Field, the school’s first appearance in the district title game in its 62-year history.

Veshio is also the track coach, and he looks much more like a long-distance runner than a football player. He and his players all wear the same black t-shirts, printed in gold with the Quaker Valley “Q” and the words, “Heinz Field 2017” in the Heinz ketchup design.

“They told me I only had a minute [to talk]. Well, that’s too bad,” Veshio says with a laugh. “After 62 years I think we deserve more than a minute or two.”

Quaker Valley coach Jerry Veshio.

Quaker Valley coach Jerry Veshio.

At his time last year, Veshio was happily retired from his teaching job at QV. He coached track and field in the spring but spent the rest of his time babysitting his two young grandchildren, taking his elderly mom to get her hair done every Thursday morning, and traveling with his wife. 

On a Friday in early August, just two days before football practice was scheduled to begin, he got an unexpected phone call. It was Mike Mastroianni, Quaker Valley’s athletic director. The school’s football coach had abruptly resigned, and they needed a replacement before Monday, when practice would begin. There wasn’t enough time to conduct a search process for another candidate. Would he consider stepping in for the season?

Veshio, 65, had been the athletic director for 12 years and played football for Quaker Valley himself in the ’60s, but he hadn’t coached the sport since 1986. Mastroianni had to coax Veshio out of a 31-year football hiatus. “It wasn’t one of the things on my bucket list in retirement to come back and coach football,” Veshio says. But he couldn’t turn his back on his strong ties to the Quaker Valley community, and he decided to unretire for a year and step in as the interim coach.

Given his 31 years away, he faced a steep X’s and O’s learning curve. “It's like if you just jumped ahead in the future 30 years, you would be out of place,” says senior quarterback Ricky Guss. “At the beginning of the year he was saying how he used to coach the I-formation.”

When the coach first noticed a camera in the end zone, he was surprised. When he asked his assistant coaches about it, he was even more shocked to learn that the camera fed footage to his players’ iPads on the sidelines during games for their review. “I was like George Jetson out of the future here with technology!” he says.

With Veshio at the helm, Quaker Valley finished the regular season in the Beaver Valley conference with just one loss, a remarkable feat for a team that hadn’t made the playoffs the previous year.  The Beaver Valley conference is known for a high level of talent across all teams, and no win in the conference comes easy. Senior defensive end/linebacker Andrew Seymour and his teammates proudly call their conference the “SEC of the WPIAL.”

The Quakers’ only loss had come at the hands of Aliquippa, 22-7, a team known nationally for its football tradition, in a former thriving steel town now struggling with poverty and crime. The Quakers, who have never beaten the Quips, will get another shot, this time in the WPIAL 3A championship game.

Ricky Guss.

Ricky Guss.

Seymour, scarily competitive and intensely bro-ey, like a mini-Gronk, is itching for one last shot at Aliquippa. “It's more than a want—it’s a need,” he says. “This is where it counts. All the other games were regular-season, so this is where the money is.”

For Western Pennsylvania kids, the WPIAL (pronounced by locals as one word, wipp-ee-uhl, instead of five individual letters) Championship is the be-all and end-all. While it’s only a district title, the football talent in Western Pa. makes it feel more important than winning the state title. The winner or runner-up of the PIAA state championship is often a WPIAL team.

Playing the game at Heinz Field only amplifies its importance. The state title game is played at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa, a much older and smaller venue than the Steelers’ home at the meeting of the three rivers in downtown Pittsburgh. “Here in Western Pa., we play in a pro football venue for a district championship, and it’s a big deal,” Veshio says. “This game is beyond special, and sometimes the state game is anticlimactic.”

Veshio is now well over his one-minute speech limit. He thanks the students for their continued support of his team, and transitions into coach-mode. His voice rises, and he sharply punctuates words he wants to emphasize. “I know that these young men, all of them up here, absolutely 100 percent believe that they can be a champion!” Veshio yells.

He ends his pep rally speech with a risky promise, guaranteeing victories in both soccer and football. The soccer team had played for the state title last year, and has a good chance of winning this time, but the football team is unmistakably an underdog. “We promise that come Monday morning when you come back to this school building, you will have two championships!”

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Thursday, 8 p.m.
Heinz Field

When Edmund Nelson reported to his first Steelers training camp in the summer of 1982, he had nearly everything he owned packed into the backseat of his 1970 Chevy Caprice. Veteran receiver John Stallworth looked at the rookie defensive lineman’s boxes stacked in his car and shook his head. Edmund, why do you have everything in your car, man?

“ ‘Because I ain’t going back home,’ ” Nelson, a Florida native, replied. “And I never went back home. I’m still here.”

After six seasons with the Steelers, Nelson ended his career with one year in New England. As soon as he finished that season in Foxborough, he headed straight back to the City of Champions, and has stayed close to the Steelers ever since. He was as a broadcaster for a few years and has been the NFL’s game-day uniform inspector for the Steelers for the last 20 years.

Edmund Nelson, former Steeler, now checks player uniforms for the NFL.

Edmund Nelson, former Steeler, now checks player uniforms for the NFL.

“The Steelers are the lifeblood of this city,” Nelson says. “They are the undertone of everything that happens around here.”

Nelson is hardly exaggerating. Travelers arriving at Pittsburgh’s airport are greeted by a statue celebrating the Immaculate Reception, the most famous play in Steelers history. The life-size replica of Franco Harris is frozen at the moment of scooping up the ball as it fell toward the ground in the 1972 AFC divisional playoff game against the Raiders; that touchdown catch is widely seen as the starting point of the Steelers’ ’70s dynasty. To Harris’s left is the only other historical statue on display, that of George Washington, commemorating his role in the capture of Fort Duquesne in 1754, seen as the first action in the French and Indian War and the moment that launched the career of the first president. (Perhaps only in Pittsburgh would a football legend stand on equal footing with the father of the country.) On the tram to exit the airport, the announcements are read by Bill Hillgrove, voice of the Steelers. In addition to cheering on the Steelers, I hope you enjoy all Pittsburgh has to offer…

On this chilly Thursday night at Heinz, Nelson patrols the field, pacing in between Steelers players as they warm up before the game. He’s bundled in a puffy black Steelers jacket, a leather-bound notebook nestled under his arm. Inside the leather cover is a work sheet on which Nelson marks up any uniform violations he sees during warmups. It’s Nelson’s job to warn any offending player that he needs to get up to code before the game.

“You would think that it wouldn’t be that big a deal, but if you don’t monitor these guys, they’ll have streamers and personalized messages on their noses and chins,” Nelson says with a laugh. “We have to keep an eye on it.”

Arrivals at the Pittsburgh airport are greeted with statue of the most important single moment in the city’s history, seemingly.

Arrivals at the Pittsburgh airport are greeted with statue of the most important single moment in the city’s history, seemingly.

Tonight, running back Le’Veon Bell goes through drills in with tinted visor on his helmet, which he doesn’t have the league’s approval to wear because he doesn’t have vision problems. Receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey wears black socks with two yellow stripes at the top, which would usually be allowed but tonight breaks code with the Steelers’ special all-black color rush uniforms.

Yes, Nelson is the bad guy who has to ask Antonio Brown to change out of his frequently unusual and personalized cleats. “AB had some Muhammad Ali cleats last year, and they were beautiful,” Nelson says. “It was right after the Great One’s death. They were beautiful, but unfortunately they were not compliant.”

Heading into this Thursday night matchup against the Titans, the Steelers offense had consistently underperformed, one of five teams in the NFL that had failed to score more than 30 points. But when they hit the field this night as a high-functioning offense (and to Nelson’s relief, perfectly in uniform).

The Steelers dominate the Titans, 40-17, to reach 8-2, their best 10-game start under Mike Tomlin. Ben Roethlisberger erase any memory of his five-pick Jacksonsville game, finishing with four touchdowns, 299 yards and a 115 passer rating, his second-highest of the season. Brown pulls in three touchdown catches, including a ridiculous one-handed helmet reception reminiscent of David Tyree’s famous Super Bowl XLII catch. The defense intercepts Marcus Mariota four times and sacks him five times, the first time it’s put up those INT-sack numbers since 1984, the days when Nelson played on the Steelers D-line.

Antonio Brown stirs up the crowd at Titans-Steelers.

Antonio Brown stirs up the crowd at Titans-Steelers.

“I’d like to see an all Pennsylvania Super Bowl this year,” Nelson says, encouraged by the night’s performance.

With the Eagles at 9-1 and the class of the NFC, and his Steelers at 8-2 and in control of the AFC North, there’s a chance an intrastate battle for the title could become a reality.

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Saturday, 11 a.m.
Class 3A WPIAL championship game
Heinz Field

Aliquippa’s players, dressed in red and black, line up to stretch, facing the Quaker Valley players warming up on the other side of the field. They chant loudly in a call and response cheer, and clap in a choreographed rhythm. Clap-clap, pause. Clap-Clap, pause. Clap-Clap.

Legendary coach Mike Zmijanac paces among his players. His white mustache curves down around the edges of his mouth, framing his solemn frown. It would be hard not to feel intimidated in the presence of the mighty Quips, who have made the trip to Heinz Field an annual appointment for the last decade. This season, they are undefeated and have outscored opponents 426-42. Their 16 WPIAL titles are more than anyone other school.

“They play with a swagger, and I think that’s their best trait,” Quaker Valley’s Andrew Seymour says. “They expect to win.”

Fifteen minutes before kickoff, both teams retreat for their locker rooms. Inside their space, the Quaker Valley players circle up for a pregame prayer and then huddle around Veshio to hear his final words.

Quaker Valley runs out.

Quaker Valley runs out.

“You have to believe you can be a champion, and you have to say, ‘I am going to be a champion,’” he says, looking around the circle. Maybe the key to beating Aliquippa starts with belief.

“Andrew Seymour!” Veshio shouts. “Are you going to be a champion today?”

“Yes sir! I am going to be a champion today!” Seymour hollers back.

Veshio continues in this pattern, calling out his players one by one. He’s so wrapped up in the positive declarations that he doesn’t even hear the first warning that his team needs to head out to the field.

It’s cold and raining at kickoff. The ball boys on the Quaker Valley sideline wrap the extra game balls in white towels and hold them tight to their chest in an attempt to keep them dry.

Aliquippa receives to start the game. On second down, Quips quarterback William Gipson scrambles, and Seymour finds him for a loss of four yards. Seymour jumps up and pounds his chest, setting the tone early for Quaker Valley’s defense. On third down Aliquippa is flagged for illegal substitution and forced to punt, the first of what will be 20 penalties for 190 yards for the Quips, a WPIAL championship game record.

On Quaker Valley’s second play of the game, Guss fumbles on a rushing attempt at QV’s 25-yard line, the slippery ball easily knocked out of his hand. But he’s also a starting linebacker (and the team’s punter), and so he can’t get down on himself. He sets up behind the defensive line, ready to erase his error.

The sloppy weather leads to even sloppier football, and just two plays later a Quips running back fumbles. Quaker ball at their own 17.

On third down, Guss drops back and looks for an open receiver. As he begins to pass, he loses his grip and launches a shotput-like throw that wobbles straight into the hands of an Aliquippa defender for an easy interception. Quaker Valley’s offensive coordinator had tried to hand Guss a towel before the drive, but he’d refused it.

The teams trade turnovers again on the next two drives. Both QV and Aliquippa offenses struggle, looking nothing like the units that averaged 40 points and 35.5 points per game this season, respectively.

With 10:49 left in the second quarter, Aliquippa is backed up its own five-yard line. Tailback Xavier Harvey runs a sweep to the right, but before he can get out of the end zone, linebacker Isaac Guss (Ricky’s younger brother) bursts through and grabs him around the shins, while Ricky and a couple other Quaker teammates pile on for good measure. Safety. The QV sideline goes crazy over the 2-0 lead.

Isaac Guss celebrates the safety to put QV up 2-0.

Isaac Guss celebrates the safety to put QV up 2-0.

Leaving the field at halftime, Ricky Guss takes off his helmet and shakes out his shoulder-length dirty blonde hair. He’s a dead ringer for Sunshine of Remember the Titans. He won’t take a play off the entire game, and his once-white No. 13 jersey is stained with more grass and mud than any of his other teammates.

In the third quarter, the Quips offense drives to the Quaker Valley 11, seemingly positioned for the go-ahead touchdown, only to commit a series of penalties and mistakes that eventually force them to punt on fourth-and-43. The Heinz Field video board flashes a shot of an exasperated Zmijanac. He throws up his hands and mutters under his breath at the inexplicable waste. His team is beating itself. A Quaker Valley supporter on the sideline jokes that nearly the entire stadium could hear Zmijanac yelling at his team from the Aliquippa locker room at halftime.

The final quarter begins with the same improbable score, 2-0. The Quaker Valley supporters noticeably outnumber the Quips fans, and the Quaker fans get louder as the time drains, and the notion of winning becomes a real possibility. The student section waves a large black-and-white QV flag. The band students, who are clad in black velvet Quaker hats, chant, “We are! QV!” Guss lead another futile offensive drive, and it’s clear the Quaker Valley offense won’t be putting any of its own points on the board. Will that single safety be enough?

Aliquippa gets the ball with less than two minutes left on the clock and drives 46 yards downfield. The players on the QV sideline pump their arms up and down, willing the crowd to get louder. No way will they lose this in the final 45 seconds on a Quips touchdown. Or worse, field goal.

At the Quaker Valley 32-yard line with 35 seconds left, the Quips quarterback lofts a pass down the right sideline. Quaker defensive back Ethan Moore is there, stepping in front of the pass to pull down the game-sealing interception. Athletic director Mike Mastroianni screams with joy and runs over to the coaching staff for a group hug. Two players on Quaker Valley’s bench position themselves on each side of the Gatorade cooler, ready to douse Veshio when the clock runs out.

Quaker Valley’s offense takes the victory formation and the clock winds down. The 2-0 score, amazingly, stands. A couple Aliquippa players, stunned by the unconventional shutout loss, sit in the middle of the field, heads in hands, as the Quaker players swarm around them in celebration.

Veshio is equally stunned. A WPIAL title certainly wasn’t what he expected when he stepped in as interim coach. Retirement might not be so great after all. After his Gatorade bath, he’s mobbed by ATT SportsNet, the outlet that broadcast the game live to local audiences. “You’ve got to be kidding me, two to nothing?” he says to the camera, shaking his head and pointing at the scoreboard. “Can I look at it again? Is that what it really was?”

It’s the first championship game in WPIAL history to end 2-0.

Ricky Guss and Andrew Seymour after the win.

Ricky Guss and Andrew Seymour after the win.

Ricky Guss can’t stop crying. Though he didn’t complete a single throw and his offense never passed the Quips’ 28-yard line, he was a rock on defense, with six tackles and a forced fumble. Though the miserable weather kept the crowd size down, playing at Heinz was exactly how Guss had envisioned it. “I actually went to the Steeler game on Thursday with my brother, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about my game,” he says. “I just tried to take it all in and make sure I remember everything. I’ll have this forever.”

Seymour is the last of Quaker Valley players to be shooed off the field before the second game of the day gets underway, and he proudly carries the QV flag over his shoulder as he walks down the tunnel and into the locker room, where Veshio is addressing his team and the strange way in which they won. “I told you guys we only needed to win by one point,” he says. “And we won by two!”

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Quaker Valley hoist the trophy.

Quaker Valley hoist the trophy.

Everything about this game lends itself to Western Pa. football lore, a story to be told for decades. An underdog finally knocks off a legendary powerhouse for its first-ever WPIAL title, despite only scoring two points in the mud and rain.

As for Veshio’s vow to win two championships this weekend, it turns out the coach is a man of his word. Quaker Valley soccer beat Lancaster Mennonite in the state final in Hershey, 3-2—scoring one more point than Quaker Valley football could muster.

“I was just thinking, this score is like a soccer game!” Seymour says with a smile. “They both call it football, so …  A win is a win. Defense wins championships, and that’s all I gotta say!”

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