What’s the first thing that you think of when you imagine the city of Pittsburgh? For many Steelers fans around the world, images of Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin standing on the sideline, looking intently without a smile at the field in front of them, come to mind. Memories of Troy Polamalu jumping over the offensive line just as the ball is snapped, James Harrison running 100 yards before falling into the end zone on the game’s biggest stage, Terry Bradshaw hitting John Stallworth in stride for a deep touchdown, or Mean Joe Greene, Greg Lloyd, and T.J. Watt terrorizing QBs all afternoon flash before their eyes. The Rooney family, Three Rivers Stadium, Heinz Field, the statue of Franco Harris snatching the ball that hangs in the air just inches above his shoelaces - these are some of the enduring symbols of Pittsburgh that any fan would recognize. This is not to say that the Steelers franchise is the only iconic aspect of Pittsburgh, but there are few organizations in all of sports that embody a city the way the Steelers do. The Steelers are a truly special team.
It’s cliché to claim one’s favorite football team to be particularly special compared to others, but there’s something to be said about the culture, the significance, and the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers. There really is something unique and almost poetic about the past and present of the team, starting with Art Rooney’s purchase of the franchise in 1933. Both the Rooney family and the Steelers exemplify a true rag to riches story. The son of a family of Irish immigrants, with grandparents who were coal miners, Art purchased the Pittsburgh Pirates for $2,500 that he won betting on horse races. From there, the Pirates (who became the Steelers in 1940) were near the bottom of the league for 40 years, tying for only one division title in 1947. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Steelers got their first postseason win, beating the Oakland Raiders on a walk-off touchdown that has come to be known as The Immaculate Reception - a play that many consider to be the greatest in NFL history. A couple years later, the Steelers won their first NFL championship. Then they won their second. And shortly after, their third and fourth. The 1970s Steelers became the first NFL dynasty of the Super Bowl Era, winning four Super Bowls in six years. Rooney’s patience had paid off as his once bottom feeder franchise was now a true blue blood of the NFL.
Beyond just being a good story, the Steelers have achieved frequent success, becoming the symbol of consistency in the entire league. Since 1969, the Steelers have only employed three head coaches, missed the playoffs just 18 times out of 48 seasons, and have had a remarkably low six total losing seasons. They’ve made the AFC championship at least once every decade since the 70s, made the Super Bowl at least once in the 70s, 90s, 2000s, and 2010s, and have won multiple rings in two separate decades. The Steelers are at or near the top of the league with six Super Bowl victories, eight Super Bowl appearances, and 36 postseason wins. The Steelers have one of the stronger arguments for being the most successful franchise in the history of the NFL.
The historical greatness is not all that makes this team special. There’s something else that I was reminded of, ironically, by the departure of Bud Dupree from the Steelers. A little bit after Bud signed his new contract with the Tennessee Titans, he put out an article meaningfully titled “Thank You, Steeler Nation” on The Players’ Tribune. In it, Bud recalls what made his tenure with the Steelers so memorable and important to him. He centers the article around the emotion of the moments at Heinz field when the song “Renegade” plays, an iconic tradition the team has had for years. However, he uses it more as a gateway to discuss how incredible and die-hard Steelers fans are, emphasizing their tenacity, their passion, and their love and loyalty to their team and their city. Bud discusses how a small, blue collar city in Western Pennsylvania took him in and adopted him as one of its own. On top of that, he talks about a truly special team culture that embodies “Pittsburgh... But in the form of football players.” Bud praises how the Steelers organization exemplifies principles such as: “Hard Work. Blue collar. Shut up and do your job. Look after your teammates. Be accountable. Uphold the standard. Rinse and repeat.... Step up. Earn respect. Put in work. Carry on the tradition.”
That last part stands out most to me. Bud talks about how he would see legends like Franco Harris or Mel Blount showing up at the facility, day in and day out. It is clear this idea of tradition Dupree writes about doesn’t resonate with just him, but also with countless players who have donned the Black and Gold. Back in the beginning of the 2020 season, I came across a candid and seemingly random Facebook post that was simply titled “A Pittsburgh Steeler”, by Troy Polamalu. While mainly being about his own experiences in the NFL and in Pittsburgh, Troy spends a lot of the post talking about other famous Steelers. He writes heartfelt paragraphs about his teammates and his coach. He writes about Joey Porter, Ike Taylor, Bill Cowher, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward - even Mike Logan, the player he was drafted to replace. On top of that, he praises Mean Joe Green, claiming him to be “without a doubt the greatest player in NFL history... the best player, from the most successful organization in NFL history.”
There’s something to be said about the Steelers franchise when you have players who get so indoctrinated into the history and the culture of the team. It’s easy to list current and former players who have gone on record similarly to Bud and Troy praising the organization. For example, Cam Heyward wrote an endearing piece on The Players’ Tribune about Pittsburgh and Steelers fans capturing similar sentiments to Bud, titled “A Letter to Pittsburgh.” Former players like Ryan Clark or Arthur Moats pay special attention in their opinions and analysis on the current state of the team, despite having played with multiple teams in their careers. Mike Wallace recently dropped the quote, “Once you go and play for other teams, there is nothing like playing for the Steelers”. He says it better than I can, stating that he “got to play for the pinnacle of NFL teams... That organization, the Rooney Family. Everything... I played for the best organization in sports and that is something I will carry with me forever in life.” Just this off-season, we saw Juju Smith-Schuster, after years of saying how much he loves Pittsburgh and Steelers fans, take a smaller contract than what he had been offered to continue playing in the Black and Gold. We also saw Tyson Alualu agree to a contract with Jacksonville, the team that drafted him, then decide to back out of that and resign with the Steelers. There are too many examples to go into detail with all of them. There’s a loyalty and a love for the team that I have not seen in just about any other team in sports.
Clearly, there is still a culture here that players buy into like none other. We still see football legends continue to support the team, visit the facilities, and preach the Steeler way. The history, the success, and the loyalty all still lend themselves to the story of this special franchise, and so the image of the team and of its city become one and the same. We, as Steelers fans have come to expect hard-nosed football, year in and year out, as the Black and Gold represent our blue-collar city. The passion and tenacity the players play with represent the loyalty and devotion Pittsburgh has to its own. Those aforementioned images and memories, as well as the team that will take the field in the coming 2021 season, are and will be tied to Pittsburgh for as long as it exists. No matter who wears those jerseys, who takes the field, or whether you like the current coach, one thing will always be true about the Pittsburgh Steelers, its fans, its city, and its former, current, and future players: The Standard is, and will always be, the Standard.