The success of the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise has always had some quasi-religious, supernatural undertones. The signature event that marks the team's turn in fortunes, the Immaculate Reception will have occurred 40 years ago this December. The location of the training camp is both a college campus and a monastery; a place where ordinary men enter, but emerge as the likes of Isaac Redman, James Harrison, Willie Parker and Steve McLendon. But the greatest constant, a totem of Steeler Nation and the source of incredible mystic power is the Terrible Towel.
This week the Steelers and the AVS Foundation, the stewards of the late Myron Cope's creation reached a legal settlement with a Ligonier man and a Pittsburgh area business that was marketing unauthorized, foreign language versions of the Towel. This has not been a run of the mill business dispute given the fact that proceeds of Terrible Towel sales goes to the Allegheny Valley School (AVS), a charitable corporation that serves the intellectual and developmental disabled. The desire to get in on the marketing phenomena that is the Terrible Towel is understandable; its reach transcends sports and national borders. But at the end of the day do you really want to mess with that kind of mojo?
You might want to ask organizations like the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee Titans or Arizona Cardinals. Or perhaps individuals such as Earnest Byner, Keith Bulluck, Jeff Fisher, Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmendzadah and others about what happens to those who choose to have unauthorized contact with the Terrible Towel. Its not pretty.
Jesus was born in a manger and the origin of the Terrible Towel was rather cheesey as well. Encouraged to develop a "gimmick" to galvanize the fans by the management at WTAE, the Steelers flagship radio station, an underwhelmed Cope came up with the idea of encouraging Steeler Nation to bring yellow dish towels to a 1975 playoff game with the then Baltimore Colts. The concept went over like a lead balloon with players like Andy Russell and Ernie Holmes. Nonetheless, they went ahead with the promotion anyway. Tens of thousands of fans showed up with the towels. The Steelers handily won the game that featured a 98 yard interception return for a touchdown by Russell that was timed with a calendar. A tradition was born.
Howard Fineman, formerly with Newsweek, now an editor with the Huffington Post and a native of Pittsburgh wrote in the MSP Steeler Annual a few years ago that Pittsburgh was the Silicon Valley of an earlier era. I believe he was referencing the Industrial Revolution. This is to say that in spite of all the talk about blue collar values and the implied idea of a sort of straight forward simplicity, Pittsburgh has always also been an innovative, cutting edge kind of place. The Terrible Towel has evolved to become another in the long line of innovations that have been birthed by the community. Teams and communities in many different sports have tried to duplicate the success of this "rally towel", but none have managed to match its longevity and notoriety.
The Towel has been a dominant feature in home, enemy and neutral stadiums for 37 years including this fall. People display them on their television sets and other prominent places in their homes for luck and as clothing accessories. Pittsburgh area hospitals wrap newborn children in them. Max Starks, Bill Cowher and others report that they are displayed and brandished worldwide by US troops. The Towel has been to the Great Wall of China, to the Summit of Mount Everest, Vatican City and the South Pole. The Towel has been waved at the Olympic Games, distributed to diplomats at the G-20 Summit, starred in television programs such as Scrubs and Dancing With The Stars and featured in a rap video (Wiz Kalifa's Black and Yellow).
But as impressive as all that is, the Terrible Towel has most distinguished itself in the role that it was intended; that is to say as a battle flag in gridiron warfare. Because of the success of the team and the prominence of the Towel itself it has earned the highest complement that can be rendered in the arena of high stakes competition; the hatred and contempt of the enemy. And as these things go the enemy is filled with an overwhelming desire to either capture or desecrate the flag. Bad move. For it is here that we return to the supernatural component of the Steeler Way. I am reminded of this exchange from the film Dune:
"They tried and they failed?"
"No. They tried and died."
Let's just examine one year, 2008. Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason stomps on a Terrible Towel. The Ravens go on to lose all three matchups with the Steelers in '08, including the AFC Championship game. In December of that year during the course of a victory over the Steelers, two Tennessee Titans (Bulluck and LenDale White) stomp on a Terrible Towel. The number one seeded Titans go on to lose their opening playoff game and seven consecutive contests after that. The tailspin ends only after Titans players and coaches make nice and send a signed Terrible Towel to the Allegheny Valley School. They then go on a five game winning streak, but it is fair to say that they have yet to fully recover from the experience. In January during the course of a rally in preparation for Super Bowl 45 the Mayor of Phoenix blows his nose with a Terrible Towel. The Cardinals mascot wipes his armpits with the same towel. Need I go any further? Pittsburgh West should have known better.
But my favorite Terrible Towel story occurred three years earlier when in the wake of a big victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field that earned Cincinnati the AFC North title, Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmendzadah takes a Terrible Towel and uses it to shine his shoes. The two teams meet in a Wild Card playoff game in Cincinnati where star quarterback Carson Palmer has his knee shredded in the first series of the game. In what is hands down one of my favorite NFL Films moments of all time, Joey Porter is shown near the end of the Steelers victory taking oxygen near the Steelers bench and says, "I'm so tired of whippin' their ass." The Bengals would not return to the playoffs for six years.
All the fun is nice, but let's not forget the legacy. Cope, whose son is autistic and a student at AVS arranged for all profits from sales of the Terrible Towel to fund the school and foundation. And this act of goodness may be the main reason why you just don't mess with the Towel.