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mesaSteeler
09-30-2009, 07:02 PM
Connected by Steel
City may have a new modern identity, but still identifies with its gritty NFL franchise
By Chris Jenkins
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
http://www3.signonsandiego.com/stories/2009/sep/29/n82884-steelers29-chargers/


MOST SUPER BOWL TITLES

6 Pittsburgh Steelers

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PITTSBURGH – He grew up in the Steel City, a hard-and well-earned moniker for more than a century, but now a misnomer. Just about the only reminders of the Iron Age, aside from the girders of those yellow bridges spanning the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, are the Steelmark decals on the black helmets.

Like most everybody else in Pittsburgh, Charlie Batch was born into a family that worked in the mills, manning the blast furnaces that fed everyone's bellies and blackened their faces and sky and lungs. In the toughest of towns, sometimes the toughest thing to do was just breathe, with smokestack smog so thick that you could barely see across any of the polluted Three Rivers.

“If you wore a white shirt,” said a Carnegie-born cabbie while driving past his old neighborhood recently, “it'd have some color in it by the end of the day.”

For better in some ways, worse in others, the local steel-manufacturing industry died a slow, hacking death. With unemployment approaching 20 percent, the tombstone might've said “Pittsburgh, 1989, R.I.P.”

“Everyday life was hard, but you knew that on Sunday, you could put that life away and focus on the Steelers,” said Batch, Steel Valley High, Class of '91. “You had three hours a week, those three hours you watched the Steelers play and got to forget about everything else. And at the end of those three hours, the chances were very good that you'd have a reason to smile.”

The six very best reasons now can be found in the lobby of the Steelers' office and practice complex, located on the very Southside Works site where Batch's grandfather reported for daily duty to J&L Steel, a foundry that was abandoned and razed. Those half-dozen Lombardi trophies, symbolic of the championship of the NFL, represent what Pittsburgh both was and remains.

Batch was in a Steelers uniform for Super Bowl XL and on injured reserve in XLIII. Now in his eighth season with his hometown team, he's the backup quarterback to Ben Roethlisberger, who truly is as much of a local icon in Pittsburgh as that other Big Ben in London.

Of all the Steelers, however, Batch is the one who fully understands and appreciates why there are so many Steelers fans outside of Pittsburgh.

“They're everywhere we play, and there's the preconceived notion that the Steelers must travel well,” said Batch. “Steelers fans can't afford to spend the kind of money you need to travel with the team to Seattle or San Diego or wherever. No way.

“Those people at our road games are there because their families had to move out of Pittsburgh to find work. Wherever they went, they just made sure their kids and grandkids stayed true to the Steelers.”

That they had to leave their beloved hills of Western Pennsylvania was a pity that's grown into an irony. Because you couldn't find a more livable place today than Pittsburgh, where the Chargers will face the Steelers on Sunday night.

With all due respect to the Arizona capital whose risen-from-oblivion team nearly beat the Steelers in last year's Super Bowl, Pittsburgh is truly America's phoenix city. On one of its many clear days – something Pittsburghers so rarely saw in the 1960s and '70s – it's now one of the most picturesque metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Partly due to Pittsburgh's spectacular recovery from its economic and environmental woes, President Barack Obama chose it as the host for the G-20 Summit. See, by the time the rest of the U.S. was really hit by recession, Pittsburgh already had gone through one far worse and come through the other side with a whole new identity and consciousness.

Obama also might've been mindful that Pittsburgh's become a major center for health care, and where you might've found hard hats in local sports bars before, you'll see more patrons wearing medical scrubs. If the NFL was just now awarding the city a franchise, it'd be called the Pittsburgh Biotechers.

No? Well, they couldn't have been worse than some of the dreadful Steelers teams were in their first four decades. From their introduction as the Pirates in 1933 through 1971, Pittsburgh played precisely one postseason game.

“When I was a little kid, the Steelers were always just the game on your schedule that you knew was going to be tough, but very winnable,” said Tom McMillan, a Pittsburgh native and former sportswriter who's now an executive with the NHL-champion Penguins. “How many times have you seen that classic picture of Y.A. Tittle, on his knees and bloodied? The Steelers were the team that left him that way. And lost the game.”

Possibly by coincidence, the Steelers began to cease being a sports laughingstock at almost precisely the time the city was entering its darkest days. With the riverside mills in steep decline, 1969 was the year the Steelers hired unknown Chuck Noll as head coach and selected collegian “Mean” Joe Greene, the first of nine Steelers drafted over six years that now are in the Hall of Fame.

The teeth-bashing type of football played by the likes of Bradshaw and Swann and Lambert and Blount and Harris throughout the '70s, then again two decades after them by rookie Roethlisberger and Bettis and Ward, has made the Steelers perhaps the team that most accurately reflects the mentality and strength of its community.

Regardless of the region's past poverty, the Steelers have sold out every game since 1972. Their fans, whether pipe-fitters or lab jockeys, have always made it as tough on visiting teams as the Pittsburgh defense.

Ask the players about the so-called “Steeler Way,” though. To a man, the answer immediately refers to the gentlest of Pittsburghers, the Rooneys.

The family has owned the franchise from the start, though you'd barely know it from the media guide, an ever-thickening book that some teams use to glorify their ownership and overhype their success.

To the contrary, the cover of the Steelers guide is adorned not with those championship trophies, but only with the team logo. The lone Rooney biography up front is that of staff veteran Dan Rooney Jr., who's a college scout.

“You might get the feeling that football's all business here, but I'd say the opposite, that it's all about family and camaraderie,” said Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, a La Jolla resident whose soft-spoken words bely his banzai style of secondary play. “When I see (chairman emeritus) Mr. (Dan) Rooney, I call him 'Pops.' Guys here have his cell phone number.

“Most importantly, he's very humble. He's not flamboyant in any way.”

Decades ago, team founder Art “Chief” Rooney overheard a telephone receptionist answer a call with the words “World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.” He flinched and told her it sounded like bragging, so ever since, it's been a simple, polite “Thank you for calling the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

Judging from a walk downtown on a recent Friday afternoon, everybody in Pittsburgh has the home and road versions of the Steelers uniform, design of which the team changes about every never or so. A decal on both sides of the helmet? Uh . . . why? A little showy, wouldn't you say?

The Steelers don't have cheerleaders. Heinz Field is a perfectly fitting and functional stadium, but it isn't one of those sporting Taj Mahals that have gone up all over the sports map.

The Steelers can't be euphemized, can't be given catchy nicknames like the Bolts. Call those other teams the Niners and Jags and Vikes and Pats, but the Steelers don't take such shortcuts.

They've had three head coaches in 40 years, each in his 30s when hired, all with backgrounds as defensive assistants and none coming from within the Steelers organization. Mike Tomlin's a pretty no-nonsense guy by nature, but when he took over from Bill Cowher less than a year after Pittsburgh had won the Super Bowl, he noticed something different about the Steelers right away.

“There's an eerie sense of calm here,” said Tomlin, “and a strong sense of purpose.”

Purpose?

“The mission is very clear: championships,” said Tomlin. “I knew that the instant I walked in here for the first time. The five Lombardis told me that.”

Chris Jenkins: (619) 293-1267;