Steelers Nation and the Seriously Religious Side of Football – By Arthur Remillard

Arthur Remillard on the religious devotion of football fans

Image: patrick_bird via Flickr
Image: patrick_bird via Flickr

The Pittsburgh Steelers nearly broke Terry O’Neill’s heart.

On January 15, 2006, O’Neill went to a sports bar on the South Side of Pittsburgh to watch his beloved Steelers play the Indianapolis Colts in a divisional playoff game. The winner would move on to the AFC Championship Game and then the Super Bowl. For three quarters, the Steelers dominated the game, bolting ahead to a 21-3 lead.

Victory seemed inevitable.

Then, less than a minute into the fourth quarter, the Colts scored a touchdown. The Steelers’ offense was unable to respond. The vaunted Black and Gold defense also faltered. Late in the final quarter, Steelers’ safety Troy Polamalu intercepted a pass from Colts’ quarterback Payton Manning. While Polamalu appeared to have caught, fumbled, and recovered the ball, the referee ruled it an incomplete pass. The Colts resumed the drive and scored another touchdown, cutting the Steelers’ lead to 21-18.

Pittsburgh’s defense rose to the occasion with 1:20 remaining in the game, sacking Manning on fourth down on the Colts’ two-yard line. The offense took over with running back Jerome Bettis standing in the backfield. Known as “The Bus,” Bettis was a perennial clutch performer on short yardage.

Victory, once more, seemed inevitable.

Then the unthinkable happened. When quarterback Ben Roethlisberger handed off to Bettis, The Bus absorbed a crisp hit and fumbled the ball — his first of the season. The Colts’ Nick Harper scooped up the loose ball and sprinted for his end zone. Roethlisberger saved the day with a shoestring tackle.

Meanwhile, Terry O’Neill watched in disbelief. Bettis was his hero. O’Neill’s heart throbbed. Then his arm tingled. Suddenly, his chest hurt and he fell off his barstool. His friends thought he was joking until they saw him turn blue.

Death seemed inevitable.

Two firemen who happened to be in the bar hurried to O’Neill and performed emergency CPR. An ambulance arrived and medics hit him five times with a defibrillator. For a brief time, Terry O’Neill was clinically dead. But he recovered and awoke in a hospital bed. Dazed and groggy, he spoke his first three words:

“Did we win?”

The Steelers did win. After the fumble, Indianapolis moved the ball within field goal range but missed from 46-yards. The following week, the Steelers won the AFC Championship and two weeks after that, Terry O’Neill returned to his favorite sports bar to watch the Steelers win their fifth Super Bowl.

He was admittedly in poor health. So the fumble didn’t cause his heart failure as much as it overstressed an already weakened circulatory system. But the story largely sidestepped this physiological nuance and went viral. “Thrilling Steelers’ moments enough to cause a heart attack”: an eye-catching headline with a whimsical undercurrent. Because he survived, we can find a degree of humor in the misfortune of a fan whose fandom nearly killed him. But we laugh because we too have allowed the frenzy of a game to overwhelm the better angels of our nature. This is, after all, what it means to be a “fan,” a word derived from the Latin fanaticus, “possessed by a deity.” The spirit of an athletic contest is otherworldly. It controls us without our consent.

Terry O’Neill’s story amplifies the meaning of fan possession. Only with him, the serious fear of his team’s metaphorical death met abruptly with the serious fear of his own death. Then, when he recovered, O’Neill’s thoughts returned instantly to his team. “The Steelers won the game and I’m still alive, so I guess I’m doing pretty good.”

There is something seriously religious at work in all of this. “For common men,” wrote psychologist William James, “ ‘religion,’ whatever more special meanings it may have, signifies always a serious state of mind.” Religion scholar David Chidester draws upon James’s insight when examining the religious dimensions of popular culture. If music, art, television, and sports are diversions from “real life,” they are nonetheless earnest activities. And close inspection of popular culture reveals, Chidester argues, “human activity marked by the concerns of the transcendent, the sacred, the ultimate — concerns that enable people to experiment with what it means to be human.”

When we look deeper into Terry O’Neill’s story, we discover that a community of likeminded fans shares his “serious state of mind.” They call themselves “Steelers Nation.” This is not a religion comparable to Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. But Steelers Nation does act in characteristically religious ways, using sacred memories, objects, and values to inscribe deep meaning on the plays, people, and places associated with its professional football team. Religious activity like this is not particular to Pittsburgh. From the Oakland Raiders in the West, to the New England Patriots in the East, fan enthusiasm has made the NFL the most popular sport in America. When we gaze southward, we find that the college game reigns supreme. “If you were a scientist hoping to isolate the fan gene,” mused one journalist, “Alabama would make the perfect laboratory.” Beyond football, the religious substructure of sports appears everywhere from a distance runner describing his sport as “a place to commune with God,” to the late David Foster Wallace contemplating “Federer as Religious Experience.”

A tour through Steelers Nation, then, offers us one point of departure for understanding the seriously religious side of sports. Steelers Nation even has its own creation narrative, a sacred account of origins comprised of steel, elation, and a miracle.

Founded in 1933, the Steelers had been an unimpressive team until the 1970s, which, coincidentally, was when the term “Steelers Nation” first emerged. Images from this era protrude from the city’s landscape and collective imagination. Visitors to Pittsburgh are confronted with the nationalistic propaganda in the airport terminal before reaching the exit. On the way to the baggage claim, two statues are situated side-by-side at the top of an escalator. One is of George Washington, a “founding father” of the American nation. The other is of a “founding father” of Steelers Nation: Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris.

While Washington’s pose is nondescript, Harris leans forward, poised to make a catch that would thereafter become infused with religious meaning when it was named the “Immaculate Reception.” In a 1972 playoff game against the Oakland Raiders, Harris miraculously — as Steelers’ fans describe it — snagged a deflected pass and charged ahead for the winning touchdown. Until that moment the Steelers had never won a playoff game.

Image: joseph a via Flickr
Image: joseph a via Flickr

Pittsburgh finished the 1970s with four Super Bowl victories. Along the way, the Immaculate Reception’s mythic power gained strength. To Steelers Nation, this one catch signaled a stoppage in time, and the beginning of a new era. “Children of the Immaculate Reception” grew up knowing only of their great football teams, and they transferred the myth of greatness to the city itself. “The team for me is symbolic of the city,” reflected one offspring of the catch. “I think the Steelers are successful because Pittsburgh’s successful, and Pittsburgh’s successful because the Steelers are successful. That might be totally crazy, but there’s a connection there. That’s what I believe.” No wonder that on the fortieth anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, a Pittsburgh newspaper called it “the play that changed a city.”

When Terry O’Neill survived his heart attack, people began referring to it as, “The Immaculate Resuscitation.” O’Neill considered it an honor. He has also enjoyed hearing strangers ask, “Hey, aren’t yinz da guy who took a ‘art attack during the Stillers game?”

What, you might ask, is a “yinz”?

Scan America’s dialect map, and you’ll locate this vowel-dropping oddity only in the Pittsburgh area. Locals call it, “Pittsburghese.” And like Catholics who sprinkle their daily discourse with Latin phrases, Steelers fans have their own dialect to reinforce their communal, even spiritual, bond.

“Yinz” is a centerpiece in this linguistic world, operating like “y’all” in the South (from “you all”) by pressing together “you ones.” Other unique variations on the English language include “slippy” (slippery), “dahntahn” (downtown), “n’at” (and that, as in et cetera), and the ever-popular insult, “jag off” (use your imagination).

While “yinz” is a Scots-Irish product, Pittsburghese has absorbed much of the city’s blend of immigrant tones, to include Italian, Polish, and Slovak. These ethnic distinctions have faded in recent decades, but the dialect remains a source of local pride, and an unofficial language of Steelers Nation. Drive through Pittsburgh and you’re liable to see bumper stickers that read, “Yinz Are In Stiller Country,” or “If You Ain’t A Stiller Fan You’re A Real Jag Off!”

The popular internet sitcom, “Pittsburgh Dad,” features a character whose thick Pittsburghese and bizarre antics while watching a Steelers game resonate with fans. “My dad is the same way but there’s a good bit of swearing,” writes one commenter. With over twelve million views on Youtube, “Pittsburgh Dad” has drawn a wide audience from both western Pennsylvania and the so-called Pittsburgh diaspora.

Between 1970 and 1990, the Steel City lost approximately thirty percent of its population. Its steel economy collapsed, forcing an exodus. But many displaced Pittsburghers sustain a connection to the city through the Steelers, going so far as to seek out Black and Gold dwellings in remote places. The website lists 767 bars across the country where the faithful in the diaspora can congregate to watch a game. Steelers Nation even exists in hostile territory like Plano, Texas, where the Dallas Cowboys are the favored home team. But at Bryan Capps’s bar, hundreds of Steelers fans colonize a slice of Texas each Sunday, drawing strength from one another while living in a strange land amongst strange people. “Dallas is always called America’s Team,” Capps asserted. “But anyone who says that is gravely mistaken. . . . It doesn’t matter where you go — Colorado, Hawaii, Mexico — Steelers fans are everywhere. If there is an America’s Team, it’s the Steelers.”

It’s safe to assume that each of the 767 Steelers bars have a “Terrible Towel” hanging somewhere. The Terrible Towel entered Pittsburgh’s pantheon of sacred objects in 1975, when local sports broadcaster Myron Cope urged fans to bring a yellow towel or cloth to a playoff game against the Baltimore Colts. At first, Cope and his colleagues were certain that the gimmick wouldn’t work. But they all changed their minds when the Steelers won the Super Bowl that year, surrounded by a sea of swirling yellow towels.

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The towel is now an iconic image for Steelers Nation. “I think every great nation has a flag,” speculated Troy Polamalu, and “ … it’s obvious that that’s our flag.” Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger imagines something more mystical in the towel: “When they wave that towel, it’s just something that comes from in their soul and tries to reach out to us players.” The towel isn’t just for football games either. Commenting on its ubiquity, the Steelers’ website boasts: “When babies are born, they are wrapped in the Terrible Towel in the hospital. Couples have waved Terrible Towels at their wedding.”

Terrible Towels also appear at funerals. When Myron Cope died in 2008, his daughter Elizabeth covered his coffin with a quilt assembled from various towels. For the Cope family, laying the quilt over the coffin wasn’t merely about expressing devotion to the team. There was a more solemn meaning. In 1996, Myron Cope handed over the towel’s trademark rights to the Allegheny Valley School, a nonprofit organization that offers group housing along with programs and services for people with intellectual disabilities. Cope’s son Danny has severe autism and began living in an AVS home in 1982. The school has since made millions of dollars from Cope’s gift. “This towel is very, very powerful,” explained AVS’s president, Regis Champ. “The people of Pittsburgh understand what this towel does and they love the Steelers.”

The Terrible Towel has a cherished place in the hearts of Steelers fans. Understandably, then, when opponents have profaned the towel, Steelers Nation has responded with blind rage. In 2008 after the Tennessee Titans defeated Pittsburgh, Titan players LenDale White and Keith Bulluck began stomping on a towel in celebration. The backlash was fierce enough that Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher felt compelled to respond, insisting that his players “don’t understand the significance or the meaning of the towel itself to the organization, the Steelers history or the Steelers fans.”

They also didn’t understand the mystical consequences of defiling the towel. The Titans lost the final game of their season and their first six games of their 2009 campaign, joining a host of other cursed teams. In 1995, the San Diego Chargers celebrated their AFC championship victory over the Steelers by stomping on Terrible Towels. The Chargers lost the Super Bowl to San Francisco by a score of 49-26. In 2005, the Cincinnati Bengals narrowly defeated the Steelers and, as the game ended, Bengal T.J. Houshmandzadeh used a towel to brush off his dirty cleats. Cincinnati did win their division, but they lost to the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs. Their starting quarterback also tore his ACL on the game’s first drive. In 2009 at a rally for the Arizona Cardinals, before they met the Steelers in the Super Bowl, Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon stomped on a towel and used it to wipe his nose. The crowd loved it. But the Cardinals lost, 27-23.

The moral value placed on the Terrible Towel gestures toward a communal ethic in Steelers Nation, one that prizes sportsmanship and character. “We might not be the best team,” said Terry O’Neill. “But we know how to win. You don’t see any showboats on this team. You don’t see any of those Cincinnati jackasses. We know how to win and how to be decent human beings.”

Such perceptions have clashed with reality in recent years. While neither arrested nor convicted, Ben Roethlisberger has twice faced accusations of sexual assault. And a slew of other players have engaged in less-than-honorable behavior, from a DUI arrest to curious tweets about 9/11 conspiracy theories. This prompted one Pittsburgh journalist to dub the Steelers “the modern-day version of the 1970s Oakland Raiders. Outlaws of the NFL.” He continued, “the Steelers clearly remain the NFL’s model team in the most important category: winning. . . . But those still pointing to this franchise as some kind of moral beacon — they’re flat-out delusional.”

Their on-the-field ethos has also garnered criticism. In 2009, Sports Illustrated polled 296 NFL athletes on the “dirtiest players” in the league. Hines Ward of the Steelers took top honors. An opposing player called him “a blind-side guy,” whose top priority was to injure opponents. Another Steeler on the list was Troy Polamalu. Steelers fans no doubt bristled when seeing this. In addition to his superhuman abilities on the field, the all-pro safety is known for his philanthropic work and his commitment to the Eastern Orthodox faith. The native of the west coast has made a point of embracing the city, calling himself “a Pittsburgh guy.” “I scrape snow off just like everyone else,” he said. “I’m a part of Pittsburgh. I get mad when the Pirates don’t win, when the Pens don’t win.” It was enough to make one journalist gush: “The way Troy answered that question helped vault him near the top of my all-time favorite athletes.”

Opinions on Roethlisberger, however, are mixed. In the wake of his 2010 rape trial, Roethlisberger claimed to have returned to the evangelical Christianity of his youth. “Roethlisberger is a prodigal son come home,” stated one journalist. Less complimentary, another observer said that winning would be the quarterback’s only path to redemption, remarking that in Pittsburgh, “you win games, they [the fans] easily forget.”

“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. Steelers Nation has its share of tragedy. So too does the game of football. From Pop Warner youth leagues to the NFL, we see a game plagued by concussions, commercialism, performance enhancing drugs, and flagrant criminal behavior. But, as in religious groups, football fans are adept at ignoring, tolerating, or explaining away their leaders’ foibles. What matters is “our” team. Sports — whether football or otherwise — does the religious work of binding individuals together into a collective “We.” The players are mere custodians to something much bigger than them.

“The Steelers are the heart and soul of Pittsburgh,” said Terry O’Neill in one of his many post-coronary interviews. “The Steelers are a working class team and this is a working class town.” They’re also treated like family: “We remember our fathers coming home from work dirty. We’d talk about the Steelers at the dinner table like they were part of the family. We relate with the team.”

Terry O’Neill’s sense of family, place, and time is intimately tied to the Steelers — or at least the idea of the Steelers. Pittsburgh is no longer the city of dirt and steel mills. Its urbane exterior reflects an economy rebuilt on high tech industries, health care, and banking. The team has also changed. Professional football players in the 1970s often took second jobs to make ends meet. As a result, they shared financial common ground with their fans in ways that today’s Escalade-driving players do not.

But Steelers Nation keeps an anchor in the city’s blue-collar history, using every swirl of the Terrible Towel to connect the present with the past. “Steelers fans are the Americans that America is increasingly forgetting,” thundered one fan. “We are the winners who hate to lose, but learn from losses and take steps to make darn sure those same mistakes aren’t repeated.”

With a creation narrative rooted in a miraculous event, a people scattered in other lands but bound to their homeland by a common creed, ethic, and dialect, and a sacred icon that springs forth a curse upon all who defile it, Steelers Nation is a seriously religious place — as serious as a heart attack.