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|11-15-2009, 09:59 AM||#1|
A Son of Martha
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Steelers fans show their Super pride
Steelers fans show their Super pride
By Marty O'Brien
Many among the legion of Pittsburgh Steelers fans on the Peninsula are like Mark Derkas or George Decker. They migrated to this shipbuilding hub from western Pennsylvania, where the shutdown of steel mills and factories killed jobs.
"A lot of us came here looking for a better opportunity in the 1980s, when something like 300,000 (steelmakers) got laid off," said Derkas, who repairs auto bodies for Hampton Chevrolet. "We brought our love of the Pittsburgh Steelers with us."
Others are like area native Clint Hall, who adopted the Steelers during their run to four NFL titles in the 1970s. Hall fell in love with the Steelers as a 6-year-old, the day he saw the famed television commercial that featured defensive end "Mean" Joe Greene tossing his jersey to the hero-worshiping little boy who handed him a Coke.
Surely, others are drawn to the Steelers because of a recent local addition, second-year head coach Mike Tomlin, a graduate of Denbigh and William and Mary. And even among longtime Steelers fans, Tomlin's elevation to head coach in 2007 simply increased their pride in the Steelers.
"I ended up down here when the jobs went away," said Decker, staffing director at the shipyard. "This has become my hometown, and it adds a lot to have a hometown guy coaching the Steelers."
Whatever the reasons, it is indisputable that the Peninsula is a Pittsburgh Steelers hotbed. And if you go anywhere outside your living room on Sunday to view Super Bowl XLIII between Pittsburgh and the Arizona Cardinals, you'll hear Steelers fans roar in numbers too big too ignore.
Area merchants Ron Johnson, Andy Jackson and Thomas Byrd say Steelers fans have a bigger impact on their businesses than any others. That includes the Washington Redskins.
Byrd manages the Sports Fan, an apparel and shoe store in Patrick Henry Mall. He said Steelers items normally account for more than 25 percent of his NFL merchandise sales, with the Dallas Cowboys a close second and the Redskins far behind.
Since Pittsburgh clinched its Super Bowl berth on Jan. 18, Byrd says he's sold 10 times more Pittsburgh merchandise than that of any other NFL team. He began last week with 24 replica Steelers jerseys, at $110 per item, and sold 21 within four days.
"A lot of these people are transplants whose fathers were Steelers fans," said Byrd, whose wide variety of NFL inventory includes car flags, hats and mugs. "The Steelers tradition and mystique is almost unmatched. If I get 24 more Steelers jerseys in before Sunday's game, I'll sell them all."
There's no mistaking game-day at Derkas' house, thanks to the 7-foot-tall inflatable Steelers player on his front lawn. Derkas will cook some kielbasa and stuffed cabbage and watch the Super Bowl in his living room.
But for many area fans, watching the Steelers is a communal experience. They gather each Sunday to watch the game together on big-screen TVs at places like R.J.'s Restaurant & Sports Pub in Denbigh or Buffalo Wild Wings Bar & Grill near Patrick Henry Mall.
Johnson, owner of R.J.'s, says half his 200 football-watching customers on Sundays are Steelers fans. He guesses that about 60 percent have Pittsburgh-area roots, most of whom came to the Peninsula because of the shipyard.
"Steelers fans are probably the loudest fans were get in here," said Johnson, whose establishment features NFL games each week on 21 screens. "They wave their Terrible Towels and give each other high-fives and hugs when the Steelers score.
"They are good, quality down-to-earth people, absolutely devoted to the Steelers."
Decker is responsible for bringing some of the Steelers fans to the area. He recruits workers from several Pennsylvania cities, and brings 15 to 20 designers to the shipyard each year from Triangle Tech, a trade school in Pittsburgh.
"We have a 75 percent acceptance rate of the people we interview," Decker said. "From my experience, all of them are Steelers fans."
Buffalo Wild Wings seats more than 400 and features NFL football on 46 TV screens. Jackson said more than 25 percent of those watching on a given Sunday are Steelers faithful.
"It was standing-room-only for the (Baltimore) Ravens-Steelers game," Jackson said, referring to the AFC Championship. "More than 300 were there for the Steelers and they brought a ton of energy, yelling and waving those Terrible Towels."
Hall felt the energy close up twice this season, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to see the Steelers in person. He was among the record 65,350 at Heinz Field who braved the cold to watch the Steelers beat the Ravens and earn their trip to the Super Bowl.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for me," said Hall, a program administrator for the mentally challenged. "The excitement went to another level. Everyone was singing 'Pittsburgh's Going To The Super Bowl,' and as we were walking down the ramp (to exit the stadium), people on the ramp below were high-fiving us the whole way down.
"I'll never get a chance to experience anything like that again."
Hall says it's "exciting" to have Peninsula native Tomlin carry on the Steelers tradition that includes an NFL-record-tying five Super Bowl wins. Byrd says the Tomlin buzz has helped at the Sports Fan cash register.
"Whenever (Tomlin) wears a certain jacket, Steelers fans will come in the day after the game and ask if we have it," Byrd said. "Since Tomlin took over (as head coach), our Steelers sales have increased.
"He's very fashionable."
Tomlin is also a huge topic of conversation among Steelers fans.
"R.J.'s has been a Steelers bar for 18 years," Johnson said. "The past two years, I hear them saying, 'Can you believe our guy is from here?' "
Copyright © 2009, Newport News, Va., Daily Press
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