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We Are Family

Feb. 02, 2009
Feb. 02, 2009

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Feb. 2, 2009

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We Are Family

Nowhere is the bond between team and town as tight as in Pittsburgh, where four decades of excellence have made the Steelers a civic icon

A VISITOR TOPittsburgh needs driving directions, and they will be provided. On a bitterJanuary morning, Jon-Paul Malezi, 38, doorman at the downtown Omni William PennHotel, ducks into the valet parking alcove, scribbles instructions on a pieceof scrap paper and hands it over. But this is not enough; there must also be astory told, because the Steelers are bound for the Super Bowl and the city'sheart beats with theirs. Every journey is draped in black and gold. ¶"Right here on Second Avenue, when you pass the 10th Street Bridge,"says Malezi, tapping the paper with a gloved hand and sending steamy breathinto the winter air. "That's where Ben had his motorcycle accident. June12, 2006. I guess you can call that a 'Where were you?' moment." Kennedyshot. 9/11. Big Ben's crash. "I was playing golf," Malezi says. "Wehad a foursome. As soon as it happened, all our phones started buzzing."The words come dispassionately, as if the tale is not unique but ingrained.

This is an article from the Feb. 2, 2009 issue

On Sunday inTampa the Steelers and Cardinals will play a Super Bowl matching two of thefive oldest franchises in the NFL. (The Cardinals and the Bears are the onlycharter franchises from 1920 still in existence; the Steelers were founded in1933.) For many years they shared not only age but also breathtaking futility.The Cardinals won just two championships, in 1925 and 1947. They moved twice,to St. Louis in 1960 and to Arizona in 1988, and played only four postseasongames in 60 years. The Steelers were worse. In their first 36 seasons they were96 games below .500 and had just eight winning records. They played onepostseason game—losing a playoff to Philadelphia in 1947 for the right to facethe Cardinals in the championship game—and took solace in a reputation forleaving victorious opponents battered. "Hard-hitting, lovable losers,"says Joe Gordon, 73, a Pittsburgh native and the team's public relationsdirector from 1969 to '98. "Every Monday the Chief [team founder ArtRooney] would take the back streets to work so he didn't run into anyfans."

In January 1969the franchises' paths diverged. Dan Rooney, the Chief's then 36-year-old son,wanted to hire Penn State's Joe Paterno to coach the Steelers. When Paternochose to stay in State College, Rooney turned to a Baltimore Colts defensiveassistant named Chuck Noll. In the 39 years since, Pittsburgh has won fiveSuper Bowls and made the playoffs 24 times. The key to the Steelers' greatnesshas been a bedrock, across-the-board stability that is nearly unprecedented inAmerican sports.

In a league inwhich 17 coaches have been replaced since December 2007, the Steelers have hadjust three coaches since 1969: Noll for 23 years, Bill Cowher for 15 and MikeTomlin for the last two. They have consistently emphasized down-to-earthdefensive play and mostly shunned flash (seldom signing big-money free agentsor taking risks on marginal personalities)—a philosophy that has solidified thebond between the franchise and its fans, themselves products of a blue-collarculture from generations past.

"One of themost critical elements in the success of the NFL is that a team takes on thecharacter of its community," says NFL commissioner Roger Goodell."Nobody does that better than the Steelers. The team reflects the values ofthe community."

John Mara,president and CEO of the New York Giants (and son of the team's longtime owner,Wellington Mara), says, "Over the years you've seen Pittsburgh teams thatare always tough and physical. The identity of the team is the identity of thecity. I don't think that's an accident."

It most surely isnot. There is a line that connects the '70s teams of Terry Bradshaw, FrancoHarris and Jack Lambert to Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and James Harrisonthree decades later; and Noll to Cowher to Tomlin. The NFL—like all ofcommercial sport—has undergone epic change in the last four decades,transforming itself into a multibillion-dollar entertainment machine. TheSteelers are very much a part of that growth; during an ownership restructuringthat was finalized in December, the franchise's value was placed at $800million. But they are also in fundamental ways little changed from the teamthat suddenly rose from the depths of incompetence to become a dynasty.

Their defense isthe best and most brutal in the NFL, anchored by Harrison, the Defensive Playerof the Year, who was cut three times by the Steelers before securing a rosterspot in 2004. Their star is a no-frills quarterback whose work is inartisticbut effective, whose great personal controversy involved riding a motorcyclewithout a helmet and who could be seen last week scurrying across a city streeten route to a Pitt basketball game wearing jeans and a baseball cap turnedbackward, dodging evening traffic.

Their Super BowlXL MVP, Ward, is a wide receiver known as much for his vicious blocking as forhis pass-catching, and is among the players who fulfills a long-held role insafeguarding the Steeler Way. "It's a game of follow-the-leader," saysthe 11-year Pittsburgh veteran. "You don't see many character issues aroundhere."

Dan Rooney, now76 and the team's chairman (son Art II runs day-to-day operations), is equallyat home attending an inauguration eve black-tie dinner in Washington (where hepresented an AFC Championship Game ball to President-elect Barack Obama) orpoking his head into the Steelers' press room in the early evening, tradingstories with newspaper reporters and bloggers. Rooney almost always eats lunchin the team cafeteria, patiently taking a tray and standing in line. "Whereelse can you eat lunch every day with the owner?" says linebacker JamesFarrior, a 12-year NFL veteran who spent his first five seasons with the Jets."Where else can you see the owner driving around, looking for a parkingspot?"

ROONEY LEARNEDstewardship from his iconic father, who died in 1988 and is enshrined in thePro Football Hall of Fame. Dan was an undersized halfback at Pittsburgh's NorthCatholic High who began attending Steelers games with his mother at ForbesField when he was five. At 14 he was a ball boy at training camp. By hismid-30s he was essentially running the team, and it was he who oversaw thebuilding of the Noll dynasty. He has been a powerful voice in the NFL for threedecades, so much so that the league's mandate on minorities interviewing forhead coaching jobs is called the Rooney Rule. Says Mara, "When Dan speaksat a league meeting, you can hear a pin drop in the room."

Most of allRooney has an acute sense of his team's standing in the city. "In goodtimes and bad times I've seen what we mean to this community," he says."Like it or not, we're special. When we win, the whole town is up. Doctorshave told me that their patients feel better when we win. Pittsburgh is adiverse community, and we help to bring it all together. We have aresponsibility to make sure we do things right."

While the lovableloser teams were popular, it was in the 1970s that Steelers support turned tofervor. As Noll, Dan Rooney and brother Art Jr., who headed the personneldepartment, turned the franchise around, the steel industry fell into the finalstages of collapse. Mills along the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers thathad long belched dark smoke into the sky fell silent. Says Rob Ruck, 58, aPittsburgh native and senior lecturer in history at the University ofPittsburgh, "A steelworker once said to me, 'As long as there's smoke up inthe sky, I've got a job.' Well, in the '70s there was no more smoke, andPittsburgh, as a city, no longer had a job."

But it had theSteelers, who won four Super Bowls in six years and who bonded with the woundedcity. After being named SI's co--Sportsman of the Year with the Pirates' WillieStargell in 1979, Bradshaw told writer Ron Fimrite, "This is a blue-collar,shot-and-beer town. They lead a tough life, and they like a team with a toughdefense, because that's where character shows." Ruck says, "It'simpossible to overstate how Pittsburgh was battered by the collapse of thesteel industry. The Steelers replaced steel as the city's identity."

Pittsburgh hasremade itself in subsequent years as a finance and technology center, but therelationship forged between the fans and the team has endured. Terrible Towelsconceived in 1975 by writer-broadcaster Myron Cope still fill Heinz Field. TheSteelers trail only the Cowboys and the Giants in sales of officially licensedmerchandise, and in December a survey by Turnkey Sports and Entertainmentranked them No. 3 among 122 professional sports franchises in fan loyalty.(They were No. 1 in 2007.) Likewise, the team has continued to embrace itsno-frills philosophy. "Let's put it this way," Gordon says. "Youwere never going to see the Steelers signing Pacman Jones."

"As soon asyou come here, you can sense that the franchise is revered in this city,"says Jerome Bettis, who played for Pittsburgh from 1996 to 2005. "And youknow it was that way years and years before you came here."

Quarterback ByronLeftwich, who joined the Steelers this season after four years withJacksonville and one with Atlanta, says, "It's totally different here. Iwant to be careful not to say anything bad about any other team, but all thatmatters here is winning. None of the personal stuff is important. There are alot of things I've seen here this year that I've never seen before, and they'regood things." (Like what? "Like last week, before the AFC ChampionshipGame," says Leftwich. "Our Wednesday practice, we were all trying to beperfect because we're playing to go to the Super Bowl. And we had a lousypractice. So Coach Tomlin brings us all together and says, 'You think you werebad today. Let me tell you, I've seen far worse.' And everybody justrelaxed.")

THE PITTSBURGHroster is largely devoid of major egos and is ruled by veterans. "You don'tfind a lot of me-first players in the locker room," says Bettis. "Andit's not an accident. They don't target that kind of player. They care abouthow you fit into the locker room. It starts at the top. Here, upstairs isn'treally upstairs."

Kevin Colbertworks upstairs (literally, on the second floor, above the locker room) asdirector of football operations. The 52-year-old Pittsburgh lifer grew up fiveminutes from Three Rivers Stadium and came to work for the team in 2000. Hehasn't forgotten that Dan Rooney was going to be out of town on business whenColbert interviewed for his job but called the day before to wish him luck,imbuing him with the sense of family that pervades the franchise.

The locker roomworks like a college fraternity. Brothers educate pledges. Bettis came to theSteelers from St. Louis and followed the lead of Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson andDermontti Dawson. Defensive end Brett Keisel was drafted out of Brigham Youngin 2002 and learned from Kimo von Oelhoffen and Lee Flowers.

And all of them,upon first arriving in Pittsburgh, found themselves in a quiet office, sittingacross from Dan Rooney, getting a welcome handshake. Tomlin got it too. "Itfilters down," says Tomlin, "the standard that comes with being aPittsburgh Steeler."

On Sunday theywill win their sixth Super Bowl or they will lose their second. That is left tothe game. But on Monday the family will be at work, planning for the nextseason in the same manner as the last. There will be no more smoke inPittsburgh, but there will be Steelers.

Mills along the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio thathad belched black smoke fell silent. The Steelers REPLACED STEEL as the city'sidentity.
PHOTOPhotograph by Heinz KluetmeierBLOOD AND IRON Lambert's four-time champs embodied the straightforward values of the city they represented.FOUR PHOTOSRINGS (FROM LEFT): DAVID N. BERKWITZPHOTOPATRICK POLLACKPHOTONEIL LEIFERBLACK AND GOLDEN Steelers icons include (from left) Bradshaw, the Steel Curtain D, Noll, Cowher and Roethlisberger, Bettis, Art Rooney, Tomlin and the towel-waving fans.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER [Seecaption above]PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.[See caption above]PHOTOAL MESSERSCHMIDT/WIREIMAGE.COM[See caption above]PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above]PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.[See caption above]PHOTOSIMON BRUTY[See caption above]PHOTOJIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]PHOTO