Recently, my wife and I packed our kids into the Family Truckster and made the twelve hour drive from our home in New Jersey to Asheville, North Carolina to attend the wedding of my cousin. Normally I’m not crazy enough to cart a six and a one year old on a road trip through half a dozen states. But I had always heard great things about Asheville and I was eager to check it out.
Asheville, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is a funky little town nestled in the shadows of the Appalachian and Smoky Mountains. It’s a destination for hippies, foodies, hikers, bikers, tattoo artists, bachelorettes, renegades, people who enjoy drum circles, people who want to people-watch and people who want to get lost. In short, my kind of place. It is replete with quality restaurants and you can’t throw a rock without hitting a brewery. We spent our time there feasting on jambalaya, tapas and craft beers with great names like Boojam and Napoleon Complex. We also toured the Biltmore Estate (George Vanderbilt’s ode to self-indulgence), did some backpacking and danced to a wedding band whose twenty minute medley of 80s hits covered everything from Run DMC to Rick Astley. Our kids held it together with a minimum of meltdowns, too. All in all, the trip was a great success.
This article isn’t a meditation on my family travels, of course. I could talk for hours about the Pomegranate-Infused Pork Spring Rolls we ate at a place called Zambra but outside of SNW, Hearts, Canuck and a few others, no one would care. This is a Steelers site and I have a Steelers story to tell. Specifically, a story about a man named Boots and the broad reach and unique brotherhood that is inherent in being a Steelers fan.
I met Boots at a gas station tucked away near an I-26 off-ramp at the Tennessee-North Carolina border. We had been on the road for eleven hours already and the final push was a beautiful drive through an eastern stretch of the Smokies. I tried to get to Asheville without stopping but the steep climbs were moving the needle on the gas gauge towards the bottom of the ‘E.’ I pulled off the interstate and drove for a mile before I found it - a lonely little station with a couple of pumps and a vending machine that sold what may be the last few cans of RC Cola on earth. An American flag hung in the window of the small office. And below the flag, this iconic banner:
I pondered that banner as I stood beside my car filling the tank. There is one just like it hanging from the porch of a home not far from us in Jersey. I’ve seen one in the neighborhood where my sister lives in Arizona, too. Now this one, on a remote road in the Smokies.
At first the banner simply made me smile. But then a man came out of the office, an older gentleman dressed in overalls and a mechanic’s shirt, and started to poke around under the hood of a car parked beside the shop. I finished pumping, replaced the nozzle and walked over in his direction.
As a teacher and a coach, I spend a lot of my day talking. The topics are things I am passionate about and I enjoy it a great deal. But it takes a lot of energy. Outside of my profession, then, I’m pretty much an introvert. I like to observe things and I’m not much interested in small-talk. I’m such a bad small-talker, in fact, that my wife scolds me for being rude to people who strike up idle conversation at social gatherings. “Make an effort,” she tells me. “At least try to pretend.”
I do try. I’m just not that interested in the weather or in community gossip or in pictures of people’s kids. I have my passions and when I find someone who shares them, or someone with an interesting story to tell, I’m happy to talk for days. History. Politics. Food. Music. Football. The Pittsburgh Freaking Steelers. The rest is just white noise.
The man saw me approaching and flashed a smile. “Can I help you?” he asked. He had a drawl, something like deep South with a little Appalachia mixed in, and wore a salt-and-pepper beard beneath a head of thinning gray hair. I noticed his hands immediately - thick slabs of meat with stubby fingers attached. They were the hands of the mechanic, the laborer, the steel worker. The hands of a Steelers fan.
“That your Steelers flag in the window?” I asked.
“Yes sir,” he said. “Six-time Super Bowl champs.”
I’m pretty sure I grinned. I noticed the name tag on his shirt. Boots. I’m sure I grinned again.
What ensued was a fifteen minute conversation that ended only after my wife laid on the horn a second time. Boots had been born in West Virginia, I discovered. He wasn’t much of a football fan as a kid because all his time was spent going to school or working at a nearby auto shop. When he got older, however, a young Nick Saban led the local high school to a state championship. That lit a passion in Boots. He never played the game himself but he started watching every chance he could. He’d drive up to Morgantown to watch WVU games at first. Then, when he had enough money to buy his own TV, he’d watch the pro team everyone in the area followed: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It was the late 60s, Boots told me, and the Steelers were pretty awful. “But then they drafted Mean Joe,” he said, “and all of that started to change.” Boots remembered watching the Immaculate Reception on an old black-and-white in a local bar. After the game the bartender opened the taps and instructed the room to drink until the kegs ran dry.
I told him about my first Steelers memory - the Cliff Harris altercation with Roy Gerela in Super Bowl X and Jack Lambert’s subsequent body slam - and how that had made me a fan for life. He said he’d gotten married and moved to Tennessee by then. He’d missed that game because his son was being born and the hospital only had a grainy transistor radio on which to follow it. His son died a few years later - he didn’t say how and I didn’t ask - but “the Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl that year. I think that was God’s way of letting me know my boy was ok.”
We talked about the current team, the recent draft and the Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown dramas. Boots, as you might imagine, was not a big fan of either. He liked Mike Tomlin, though. “The guy has them in the mix every year,” Boots said, “that’s all you can really ask.” I asked who his favorite player was. “I don’t have favorites now-a-days,” he said. “I’m an old man and they’re a bunch of kids. It feels kind of weird picking favorites fifty years my junior.” But for an all-time favorite no one would ever replace Mean Joe. “That guy started it all,” Boots said. “Without him none of this would have happened.”
I shook his hand before I left. His grip felt like a vice tightening around my knuckles. My wife was incredulous when I climbed into the car. “You don’t say two words to people at home,” she said, “but a thousand miles away you’re chatting it up like best friends with some stranger at a gas station.”
“He was a Steelers fan,” I told her. To which she simply said, “Oh.”
That’s the beauty of it, really. She understood. We’d been down that road before. From state to state, from one time zone to another, even in some of the foreign countries to which I’ve traveled, I find passionate Steeler fans everywhere I go. I would imagine that the fans of all professional sports franchises feel a kinship-of-sorts with one another. The time, money and energy we expend rooting for the same team creates a natural bond. But Steelers fans seem to have something deeper, something more like a brotherhood. The six Super Bowl victories certainly help. But so does the pride associated with being a Steelers fan. It’s as though their success has validated us in some strange way. As though, by rooting for them, we are successful too. When we meet our fellow Steelers fans along the way we might moan about this player or that coach the way all fans do. But we never seem to lament our fandom or regret our choice. We are proud to be Steelers fans. We are eager to share this pride when we encounter each other.
I’ve lived in southern New Jersey most of my life so many of my friends are Eagles fans. They have always been proud to root for “the Birds,” too, but their pride has been tinged with something like martyrdom, as though, in rooting for a perennially frustrating and unsuccessful franchise, their bond has been forged through mutual suffering. Much of that changed two years ago when they won the Super Bowl. Yet Eagles fans still seem destined to expect the worst. Rooting for them, it seems, is not an uplifting endeavor.
That has not been my experience as a Steelers fan. Despite the occasionally negative tone here at BTSC, my personal encounters with Steelers fans have been overwhelmingly positive. Sometimes I see people out in public wearing Steelers’ gear and I give them a shout. “Go Steelers!” They always hit me back with something positive. Other times the encounters are more personal, like my conversation with Boots. Those are more meaningful interactions. So often they validate my sense that our fandom really is a brotherhood.
It bothers me that I didn’t ask Boots about his name. Why Boots? It seems safe to assume that was not his given name. How, then, did he come to be known that way? For all of the things I don’t know about him, however, it is remarkable what, in our brief interaction, I did learn. His upbringing. How watching a young Nick Saban play high school football turned him on to the game. The impact Joe Greene had on his life. The fact that he had a son born on the day I became a Steelers fan. The fact that son passed away as a little boy and how Boots had come to cope with it. I learned all of these things from a man I never would have met had it not been for the banner hanging in the window of his office. You’re In Steelers Country. I suspect, now that I’ve written this piece, I will never forget him.
If that isn’t brotherhood, what is?