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By Nick DeWitt,
Every team in every major sport has a group of passionate fans supporting it. Fans come in all types and each team has plenty of every type. In Pittsburgh, the NFL’s Steelers have a conglomeration of guys, girls and kids known collectively as “Steeler Nation.”
Here’s ten reasons that the members of this great nation, where you don’t have to worry about electing a president—possible a good thing—are the best fans in the National Football League.
The Terrible Towel
Before every game, during it, after it and in every fan’s home or favorite bar, people carry and twirl the Terrible Towel. It’s a sacred symbol of this city and this team that fans adopted early in the years of the 1970s dynasty years.
It was invented by Steelers savant and longtime broadcaster Myron Cope. It’s been often imitated by others but never duplicated. It’s special and it bonds these fans together.
There are even terrible towels for every occasion. Fans have made a cottage industry out of having Halloween, Christmas and cause-themed towels. When the Pittsburgh Penguins hosted the NHL’s Winter Classic at Heinz Field a couple years back, they even had their own special terrible towel.
Love it or hate it, this is an infectious thing that bonds city to team and vice versa.
Energy in the Ketchup Bottle
If you haven’t been to a game at Heinz Field before, you probably don’t know the unbelievable energy that electrifies that stadium on game day.
Fans show up early to talk, have a few drinks and watch their players warm up. Like any fan in any stadium, they shout their words of encouragement and cheer their favorites.
The difference between a fan in Pittsburgh and in another city is that they support their players in good and bad times. You rarely hear a chorus of boos in the stadium unless it’s directed at the officials or the opposing team.
In fact, the closest thing you’ll find sound-wise is the cheer of “HEATH!” when tight end Heath Miller makes a play. For some reason, it sounds like booing on television unless you’re a learned Pittsburgh fan.
Taking It on the Road
Pittsburgh fans don’t just show up at Heinz Field to support their team, they invade NFL stadiums across the country regularly. They’re like an army of yellow towel-twirling fans intent on making their team feel at home regardless of where they play.
But this is where it gets truly special for Pittsburgh fans. They aren’t just traveling well. Many of them live deep in enemy territory.
In the 1970s when the steel industry in Pittsburgh died, many people had to move away to find work. Many more have still moved regretfully over the ensuing years for the same reason.
Regardless of where they’ve gone, they are still tied to their city through its football team. They proudly wear their black and gold in Baltimore, Dallas, San Francisco and every other NFL town across the map. This is a truly special thing about these fans. They’re everywhere.
Like any well-organized republic, Steeler Nation has several smaller groups built into it. This began in the 1970s with groups of fans devoted to a specific player. The names now are legendary. Here’s a few of the more well-known ones.
Franco’s Italian Army
Devoted to former Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris, these devoted fans showed up to games in full military garb complete with helmets and ranks. Their membership included singing great Frank Sinatra. I’d defy another team to bring that to the table.
Translated from Hungarian, that means “Good Ham” and was both the nickname for and fan club devoted to Pittsburgh linebacker Jack Ham. The phrase was also a cheer echoed whenever Ham made a good play.
How many NFL fans support their kicker with his own fan club? The Steelers had a club in the 1970s devoted to kicker Roy Gerela. If you can find me another fan club for a kicker, I’d be shocked. The only modern day guy that comes to mind might be Adam Vinatieri, but I’ve never heard of a fan club.
A Worldwide Appeal
The Steelers don’t just travel well and inhabit NFL locales, they also are a worldwide force. A friend once wrote me while he was overseas to tell me that he not only found a way to see Steelers games while he was in Italy, he found an actual Pittsburgh Steelers-themed bar there.
I immediately asked if anyone I knew who’d been overseas had heard of this and several others said they’d heard of the place. It’s called La Botticella and is right in Rome.
It kind of makes me wonder if the Pope is a Pittsburgh fan too.
So, while the Cowboys may claim to be “America’s Team” the Pittsburgh Steelers might be able to lay claim to being the team of the world. Fortunately, Steelers fans aren’t quite so egomaniacal as all that.
Year-Round Support System
The Pittsburgh Steelers fans don’t just root from August to February. They’re into their team year-round. They talk about the Steelers in the summer while sitting at PNC Park watching the Pittsburgh Pirates play baseball.
They track offseason moves, watch and analyze and disect the draft. By training camp, they know everything about every rookie and go to camp ready to support them at every practice. Going to training camp is part of every Pittsburgh summer and many people go more than once just to see the Steelers practice.
You can see Steelers jerseys in the middle of April just as often as you’ll see them in the middle of November. You see them at Pirates and Penguins games, sometimes more than jerseys for those teams.
Pride and Passion
Pittsburgh fans take great pride in their team and have a ton of passion for them. This isn’t something rare in the NFL, but there are so many examples of Pittsburgh fans taking it to the limit.
There are people who have entire rooms are homes devoted to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They decorate in black and gold and pigskin in the way some people use neutral colors and soft carpet. Bars in Pittsburgh almost universally have a Steelers theme in some way. Many restaurants follow suit.
There are stories of people who go to the grave wrapped in their Steelers gear or who have Steelers-themed funerals. It’s really a part of the lives of each of the fans. That’s something that you don’t find everywhere.
Part of the Fabric
The Steelers are part of the fabric of their city. They earned this place of honor when their success rescued the morale and even some of the economy of the area after the steel industry left. People needed something to be excited about and to root for. They found it in the Steelers.
The Steelers fans you’ll talk to in town talk about the Steelers as if they are a member of the family. They have nickames for a lot of favorite players and refer to them by their first names. They know them to see them out of uniform too.
It helps that the players are almost universally friendly and they too become part of the city. I’ve heard many players over the years say that they can’t imagine playing in another city or spending their time away from the field somewhere else.
When people outside of town think of Pittsburgh, they almost always think first of the Steelers or the Terrible Towel or anything else that has to do with this team. That’s driven by a rabid fan base.
40 Years Without Open Seats
It may not be the longest streak in the NFL, but it’s very close to it. The Steelers have sold out every game since 1972. That’s 40 years without failing to sell out their stadium. That’s through a couple of tough economic times and several more years where the team wasn’t very good. It covers all six Super Bowl seasons as well.
This goes back to what I said earlier. These fans come out to support their team regardless of how good or how bad they are. They show up in droves even. Many people who aren’t lucky enough to get game tickets stay away from downtown on days when the team plays at home because the traffic gridlock is unbelievable.
Not only does the team have a sellout streak that is the fourth longest in the NFL, they have a waiting list for season tickets that spans the better part of a decade. When you have that many fans lined up waiting for tickets, there’s almost no chance this streak ends anytime soon.
Knowing Their Game
Pittsburgh fans are among the most knowledgeable in the NFL today. I won’t get into an argument of who the smartest fans are in the NFL. That’s a battle that no one really can win. But the Steelers have intelligent fans.
These are people who know what a slant route is, who can diagram plays and who can analyze statistics. They know their team. I’ve talked about that before. But even better, they know and completely understand football.
Steelers fans are simply the best in the NFL. They know all about football, about their team and about the league. I know fans who can name the league hierarchy beyond just Roger Goodell. That’s something that isn’t necessarily important to the average fan.
Pittsburgh Steelers fans, however, aren’t your average fan. They’re exceptional.