My wife and I park about a block away from Patrick McGovern's Irish Pub in downtown St. Paul, and ascend a slight grade toward the bar, donned in our respective Steelers jerseys. We wait at the corner of Chestnut and W. 7th, and, as cars drive by, some of the passengers give us an extra long look. We're in Vikings Country, yet, wearing the replica jerseys of a team that's beaten Minnesota three times in their previous three meetings.
Those same people may look the other direction, where streams of other Steelers fans enter McGovern's from the side door - "our door" - and climb two flights of stairs to Heinz Field North.
The spirit of the "Us Against The World" mentality of Steeler Nation is found here. It's a place of refuge for Pittsburgh Diaspora. Sure, there's the occasional fan of another team, and he sticks out as badly as someone not wearing black and gold at Heinz Field. It's not that he isn't accepted, but there's a buzz in the bar before kickoff, and that guy detracts from it. The sense of excitement Steelers fans outside the Burgh get before a game is fostered by the community around them.
He doesn't understand why Steelers fans gather the way they do. And if we have to explain it to you, you'll never get it.
It's the bond. The shared knowledge. The unofficial traditions, like spontaneous outbursts of "HERE WE GO STEELERS, HERE WE GO! <BUM BUM>" and passing copies of Steelers Digest around from table to table.
Automatically, the first stage of social interaction is accomplished just by being in the bar on game day. There's Adam and Jenna, a youngish couple of musicians. Adam's parents are from Pittsburgh, and he and Jenna met and got married in Wisconsin, eventually moving to the Twin Cities. They heard of the Steelers Fans of Minnesota Headquarters at McGovern's two seasons ago, and have been there for every game since. They share a table with Jenni and I, talk about the team, get excited and exchange high-fives after big plays.
They watch along with Don, a level-headed, softer-spoken man who didn't lose his head like most of us did when the Steelers fell down 21-7 to Baltimore. He stood confidently through halftime, exchanging conversation with others as to why Baltimore's fatal flaw will be not having shut the door in the first half.
He was right.
There's nothing like being in a group of like-minded people, all vainly cheering, rooting, hollering and hoping for the same thing, and celebrating with them - complete strangers outside of the common interest in the team - when victory is achieved.
I randomly ended up in a local St. Paul weekly newspaper with two other guys I didn't know after the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. The picture is framed on my wall at home. I celebrated with those same guys after the AFC Championship game in 2009 as well as the subsequent Super Bowl. The group of regulars at the SFoM weekly ritual parties grows each year, but the collective feeling of togetherness remains unchanged.
Our towels wave together. Our voices shout together. Our energy is passed from one fan to another until the only place louder at that moment is the runway at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. It's Steeler Nation flexing its collective muscle, and there's no stopping it.
The connections between the people exist solely because of the game, and the environment and fan experience is fostered by the bar. All of it is put together by the SFoM. Glenn Leonberger and "Mayor" Paul Palmer only miss games if they're watching it at Heinz Field, and if they aren't, they're leading a group of 800+ registered members.
There will be 500+ Steelers fans of varying levels at McGovern's for the Steelers' fourth AFC Championship game appearance since 2004. I've witnessed the two previous victories in the company of these people. I was temporarily displaced for the loss in 2004. That made the victories that much more enjoyable.
The gathering will take place the same way it does for each conference championship game for which the Steelers have qualified the last seven years. A big crowd will converge on McGovern's well before kickoff, adorned in our battle colors (face paint too, in some cases). We want to see Clark crush Santonio. We want to see Ward plant his flag on Revis Island. We want to see Harrison run Sanchez down for a third-down sack.
Something about the energy of Steeler Nation, in its Minnesota Chapter, seems to compel these guys to do all of those things. We gather together in hopes to see them.
And they rarely ever disappoint.