Pittsburgh Continues Love Affair With Steelers

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers are kind of a big deal. The Rooneys, who still own the NFL franchise after founding it in 1933, are as beloved as any family in town. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Bob Dvorchak says the Steelers are more important in Pittsburgh than religion.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In 1933, Art Rooney Senior took the money he won in a parlay of long shots at Saratoga and bought himself a professional football team. You could do that in those days. Seventy-six years later, the team that he founded, the Pittsburgh Steelers, is playing for a record sixth Super Bowl title. And even if the Steelers manage to lose this Sunday to the Arizona Cardinals, the team will certainly continue to be a vital part of Pittsburgh.

The Rooneys, who have managed to hold on to the team all this time, are royalty in the city. And joining me to discuss the relationship between team, family, and city is Bob Dvorchak, columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who is in Tampa. Hiya.

Mr. BOB DVORCHAK (Columnist, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette): Good afternoon, Robert.

SIEGEL: The Steelers aren't the only team closely identified with the city. The Greenbay Packers owned by Greenbay citizens come to mind. But Steeler fans seemed to be especially obsessed with their team. Why is that?

Mr. DVORCHAK: Well, you know, a lot of people think that the Steelers in Pittsburgh are like a religion. But that's absurd. It's way more important than that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: I see.

Mr. DVORCHAK: You know, when the steel industry was booming and the city was a dirty, smelly place, you know, they still loved their football. But when the mills shut down and the workers were dislocated and scattered all over the country, people kept their connection to Pittsburgh via the Steelers. It's an amazing phenomenon, it's worldwide. Actually, this year, it's gone inter-galactic because the commander of the International Space Station is from Pittsburgh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DVORCHAK: And he took a terrible towel up in outer space.

SIEGEL: Yes, a terrible towel. Now you have to describe the most visible symptoms of Steelermania.

Mr. DVORCHAK: Right. And it goes back to 1975 when a broadcaster and writer, Myron Cope, wanted to have a playoff gimmick. And he suggested that fans bring a gold or a black towel from home. Since that time, it's become a symbol of the Steelers, but also sort of like a visual applause. It's the perfect blend of color and motion. And you'll see them everywhere. There was one at Barack Obama's inauguration actually.

SIEGEL: Now, the Rooneys have been pretty inventive in keeping the Steelers in the family since 1933. They merged briefly, actually, with the Philadelphia Eagles and then with the Chicago Cardinals at separate times during the Second World War. But this year saw yet another success by the Rooneys to block an outsider trying to acquire the team. Explain what happened.

Mr. DVORCHAK: Well, yeah. They, you know, to keep the Steelers in the family, the shares of the Steelers were split among five brothers. And the NFL stipulates that they wanted a single owner with somebody with at least 30 percent stake in the team. So, Dan and his son, Art Rooney II, actually ended up buying out two of the brothers and buying up shares from two others so that they would meet the NFL stipulations on ownership and who has control.

SIEGEL: Now, a Super Bowl in Tampa for, say, an Arizona Cardinals fan, that just might be a trek from one end of the sunbelt to the other. But a weekend winter trip from Pittsburgh to Florida sounds like it could draw more than a few Steelers fans this weekend.

Mr. DVORCHAK: Oh, listen, the snow birds are descending. I think some sociologists who could study the migration patterns of this fan base would really have the makings of a good study. There are going to be a lot of people from Pittsburgh. And even if they don't have tickets, they'll come here just to be part of the experience to say I was there when it happened.

SIEGEL: Bob Dvorchak, thanks for talking with us about it.

Mr. DVORCHAK: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's columnist Bob Dvorchak of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette speaking to us from Tampa, Florida, where, as you might have heard, the Steelers are playing in the Super Bowl against Arizona on Sunday.

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