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My Pilgrimage to the Holy Shrine of Steeler Nation

One fan's trip to Heinz Field was decades in the making. A revisit of the past, seeing the team - the city - still is the same, at its roots.

Joe Sargent

The word Haj is Arabic for "pilgrimage". As the fifth pillar of Islam, it is considered a religious duty for every Muslim capable of doing so at some point in their lifetime, to visit the Holy City of Mecca. The Haj is a demonstration of the solidarity of the Muslim people and their submission to their God.

Malcom X is quoted as describing the Haj thusly:

"There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood... But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held."

I don't use the term loosely, and nor do I mean to trivialize the meaning or import of such an important element of anyone's religion, but like Malcolm X my life was changed by a people displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood.For to me, this trip to Pittsburgh and Heinz Field was as much a spiritual and emotional pilgrimage as it was to attend a sporting event.

I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but left during the Diaspora. I left behind my mother and older brother, as well as many friends who remained. Some are still there, others followed later on seeking a better living elsewhere.

A week before my 21st birthday, my father died of a heart attack while he was getting into my car to drive to the bus stop to pick me up for a visit home from the University of Pittsburgh. When he was an hour late, I had a friend pick me up and drop me off. While I knew my mother was traveling, finding both my car and my father’s in the driveway, but no one home, was ominous.

A couple of hours earlier my brother found my dad face down in the driveway and applied CPR but to no avail. The shock of his death, and the haze I was under for my last two years of college, as well as the lack of opportunity (and my mother’s urging) is what finally pushed me out of the Pittsburgh area and to Washington DC.

I’ve been back only a few times for brief visits with my brother, and once to settle my mother’s estate. It wasn’t until a couple of seemingly disparate events took place somewhat recently that circumstances led me to take this journey.

The first was in 2006 when the company I worked for was purchased by PNC Bank. It seemed fitting to others that a bank from Pittsburgh, a strong union town, would purchase the entity I worked for; after all, my job involves unions as well. But to me, it was a whisper in my ear that would not stop that I could not escape my roots.

My mother passed away from a stroke 13 years ago; again my brother was alone at the scene, applied CPR and stabilized her, but she passed away shortly after the ambulance arrived. Aside from my brother, I had no other familial ties to my birthplace.

The second event was my finding Behind The Steel Curtain. While I had followed the Steelers as regularly as I could by watching on national TV (and later DirecTV), it wasn’t until I began to frequent BTSC that I felt once again part of a community that shared the same values I grew up with; that shared my roots. While many readers have no connection to Pittsburgh other than through the Steelers, it is the commonality of that shared bond, of our affinity for the Steelers and their owners the Rooneys, that connects us. And in submersing myself within the vastness of Steeler Nation, I began to yearn for home again.

Pittsburgh is an easy place to make fun of, if one believes only that what’s current, or "hip" or "cool" is to be admired. At its core, even while embracing Starbucks and the latest in computer technology, Pittsburgh and its people are old fashioned. They focus on who you are, not what you earn; they care whether you are kind and friendly to the elderly couple down the street, not how many senators or sports stars you know.

Get past the fawning accolades you hear about the Rooney family, read beneath the national hype they receive during Steeler Super Bowls and realize that the owners of the Steelers are beloved in Pittsburgh because none of that stuff matters to the Rooneys. The Chief, Art Rooney Sr. lived in the same neighborhood all his life, and walked to work. He ate with his employees and knew the names of all their children and grandchildren, and whether someone was sick, or had passed away. His son Dan is the same way; he comes back from his Ambassadorship in Ireland to attend Steeler games; he eats with the employees; he eschewed a driver and walked to work when he still worked in the front office. But this wasn’t unique to the Rooneys; this was characteristic of the people of Pittsburgh.

Many people know of the city for its sports teams. The Steelers, the Penguins, and yes, even the Pirates.

Many people know the history of Pittsburgh.

In the late 1800s Pittsburgh was the city that helped preserve the Union during the Civil War; it produced over half of all steel and over a third of all glass made in the United States during that conflict.

In the 1940’s Pittsburgh was the center of Roosevelt’s ‘Arsenal of Democracy’, providing much of America’s steel during World War II.

In 1964, over 2,000 Pittsburghers volunteered their valuable time to help a six year old comatose boy none of them knew. These strangers responded to a newspaper article describing the desperate attempts by the child’s parents to preserve the child’s ability to function should he ever wake from his coma. Five strangers at a time, three times a day, seven days a week for nine weeks, these people unfailingly showed up to exercise this comatose boy’s arms, legs, and neck to restore muscle tone, and to try to re-awaken and re-train the boy’s brain and nervous system.

Today, that six year old boy owns a home, manages his own investments, and volunteers his time to help others.

That six year old boy is my older brother.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to reminisce often about my childhood, as we are all wont to do. As I’ve watched my children grow and go off to college, the loss I feel for the laughing little boy I would throw into the air, or the little girl who would sit for hours in my lap pretending to read my books along with me, would beget within me also a sense of loss for my own past.

And the more time I spent watching the Steelers, and on BTSC reading Homer J’s, or Ivan’s wonderful pieces on Pittsburgh and the Steeler Way, the more I realized I had a pilgrimage to take, an obligation to fulfill.

Similar to how Malcom X described the Haj, is the annual pilgrimage Steeler Nation takes; whether "blue-eyed blondes, [or] black-skinned Africans", Steeler Nation encompasses all races, all nationalities, and they all participate in the same ritual of following the Steelers, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood.

And since the epicenter of Steeler Nation, both in terms of location as well as membership is Pittsburgh, and since within me was a geas that could not be denied, it was to Heinz Field I went.

The people who helped my brother surely have long since passed; their names lost with the passing of my parents; I had no allusions of any grand gestures to make. And none were required; that is not the Pittsburgh way.

Instead, I communed with my people, and while doing so gave to each a small but very Pittsburgh-like gesture. I volunteered to take pictures of couples, so they could be together in a picture in front of their favorite players’ uniforms in the Great Hall, instead of one always being alone in the picture; I held my umbrella over an elderly woman in the driving rain while she struggled to get out of a taxi; I gave up my seat in a restaurant to a young family with toddlers, so the parents could more easily sit with their children; I thanked the shuttle driver by name, and complimented him on his driving in heavy game day traffic.

And I befriended a lonely Redskins fan named Kenny who was sitting next to me at the game. Surrounded by loud and boisterous Steeler fans, I welcomed him to Pittsburgh and reassured him, after the third or fourth time he apologized for cheering for his team, that he was welcome to enjoy his team’s moments without concern and for him to let me know if he needed anything during his stay.

And I shouted myself hoarse when "Renegade" played in the fourth quarter, leaping to my feet and waving my Terrible Towel (original model, circa 1975 as shown in Terrible Towel Wall exhibit at Heinz Field) in the air with 50,000 of my people, my brothers and sisters, my family.