The Pittsburgh Steelers aren't just a football team. They're a lifestyle.
Steelers fans have been living and dying with each snap of the football for generations, as at many times, the Steelers were all the people of Pittsburgh had to feel pride in. Whether it was the decline of the steel industry in Pittsburgh, or the destruction by flood in Johnstown; western Pennsylvanians have always turned to their Steelers as a form of escape - a rescue from the suffering awaiting them in the rest of their lives, which they could do little on their own to change.
No one can attest to that more than Pat Sandella, a woman who has found living to run parallel with pain. Sandella was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1983, and since has added osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia and diabetes to her daily discomforts. Sandella, thanks to her son Kevin as captured in a story by the Tribune-Chronicle's Matt Wagner, turned to the Steelers to escape her regular regimen of pain, even if it was only for a few hours each week.
"My son is the biggest Steelers fan there is. My son was the one who got me in with the Steelers when I got sick. He said, 'Mom, you need to focus on something. Start watching the games with me.' That's what got me going on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"When I get down, he gives me a story about one of the Steelers and tells me, 'You got to hang tough, Mom.' "
Hanging tough is something the Steelers know about all too well. Whether it was the 25 years between championships four and five, or the countless long-shot players who exceeded expectations to become part of Steelers legend; Pittsburgh prides itself on its ability to punch the face of adversity square in the nose.
This time, Sandella received the message not from her son, but from a former-Steeler who knows toughness better than anyone - Mr. Jack Lambert. Lambert was signing autographs at the Eastwood Mall Center Court yesterday, when one fan brought him a jersey. The man with the jersey was Sandella's husband, who informed Lambert the jersey was actually for her, and explained why she had come down to the mall to spend the day in a wheelchair, just for the chance to get an autograph.
Not only did Lambert sign the jersey, but he took it to Sandella personally, since she was unable to be on stage to meet him because of the wheelchair. After hugging her and kissing her cheek, Lambert repeated the same message Sandella's son Kevin has been preaching to her all along, telling her to just keep hanging in there.
When asked about her interaction with Lambert, Sandella replied: "Super special. My son's not even going to believe it. Worth all the pain."
Another pair of ladies there for the event received Lambert's autograph, completing a collection which began in 1980, when one of them received a copy of "The Pittsburgh Steelers: A Pictorial History - by Pat Livingston". Since receiving the book, they have sought to meet each player within and obtain their autograph. Lambert was the only empty page left, but it is empty no longer.
"When L.C. Greenwood signed it at the Southern Park Mall, he said, 'Where did you get that picture?' ". He looked through the book. I walked away, and two boys followed us and said, 'I have a pickup truck. I'll trade you for that book.'
"I wouldn't leave this book with anybody."
Nor should they. Nor should Mrs. Sandella, not that they would even if you asked. To them it was about more than just getting an athlete's autograph, it was about connecting with long-lost family members - Steeler-family members, that is. It was about escaping from the doldrums of daily life. It was about purging the pain and replacing it with a smile, which lasted much longer than just the operating hours of the event.
It's impossible to put a value on that kind of importance. It takes more than a pickup truck to get a Steelers fan to change their mind, if you can get them to change at all. One certainly can't put a price tag on the memories and joy Lambert created with Mrs. Sandella.