In Pittsburgh, tradition is forged in steel
The Steelers are football.
The Steelers are the NFL.
And, naturally, the Steelers are good again.
The Patriots play the Steelers at Heinz Field tonight in a game that will tell New England fans exactly what kind of a team Bill Belichick has this year. As ever, when you want to measure your mettle in the NFL, you go to Pittsburgh to play the Steelers.
If you have been to Pittsburgh to watch the Steelers, you know exactly what I am talking about. If you’ve never been, maybe you’ve picked it up just by watching on TV. Pittsburgh is simply the cradle of the NFL.
The Steelers are about continuity, excellence, toughness, and tradition. They are football’s comfort food. You see the logo on the right side of the helmet and you know you are watching the NFL at its best.
In New England, we like to talk about the Patriots being the team of the last decade and the team of the new century. The Steelers are simply the team for all time. They have won more Super Bowls (six) than any other team. And they have won two Super Bowls since the last time the Patriots were world champs.
The Steelers were founded by Art Rooney in 1933. Steeltown folklore holds that Rooney used $2,500 he won at the racetrack to bring the NFL to Pittsburgh. The Rooney family has owned the Steelers for 77 years.
Since 1969, the Rooneys have hired only three coaches: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin. Stop and think about that for a second. Three coaches since ’69. Three coaches since the Beatles broke up. Three coaches over a span of five decades. Randy Moss has already played for three teams this season.
Nobody loves football history more than Belichick. His football library is Smithsonian-worthy. Game-planning for the Steelers is not like plotting to beat friendly stooges like Brad Childress or Norv Turner. The great Hoodie speaks of Pittsburgh with reverence.
Asked about Steelers tradition, Belichick said, “They’ve been very consistent and been able to really maintain pretty much their same system offensively and defensively. That’s very impressive in this day and age where you see teams change on a much more frequent basis.
“I don’t think anybody’s really got that kind of consistency like the Steelers have . . . from ownership to coaching to personnel to the players.’’
Belichick grew up watching Johnny Unitas quarterback the Baltimore Colts. Unitas, like so many other greats, is a Pittsburgh guy. More than 40 NFL quarterbacks grew up in the Pittsburgh/Western Pennsylvania region, including Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, and George Blanda.
“The people of our region take football seriously,’’ Steelers owner Dan Rooney wrote in his biography in 2007. “They know and love the game. The hard-working people, many of immigrant stock, adopted the game and made it their own.
“The sport that evolved in Western Pennsylvania bore little resemblance to the highbrow college game that came from Princeton and Yale at the end of the nineteenth century. Western Pennsylvania-style football was physically tough, straight-ahead, and hard hitting, reflecting the often brutal and sometimes violent realities of work in the steel mills and coal mines.’’
Through the decades, not much has changed. And Steeler Nation follows every step. Tens of thousands of fans made the drive to Motown when the Steelers beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL in Detroit in February of 2006.
“The Steelers truly are football,’’ said Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, who grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School. “Here in Boston, we tend to think of what we have with the Red Sox as unique, but I’d have to say the Steelers have that in Pittsburgh. It’s just part of the culture and the fabric of the community.’’
The Patriots first played the Steelers in 1972 and are 10-14 lifetime (including playoffs) against Pittsburgh. There have been some epic games in this century, and Patriots fans proudly remember twice winning the AFC Championship game at Heinz Field. Not many teams own a winning record (3-1, including playoffs) against the Steelers in their three-river crib.
“We’ve had some great battles against them,’’ said Tom Brady. “The ’04 championship game [41-27 win] was a great game. That was as meaningful as they come. It was freezing cold weather. I think I have a lot of great memories because we won the game.’’
If it happens in Pittsburgh, it’s memorable. Pittsburgh is the football home of Byron “Whizzer’’ White (who served 31 years on the Supreme Court after he retired from the Steelers), Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, the Immaculate Reception, Hines Ward, and Ben Roethlisberger. It’s where the 2010 Patriots tonight will finally find out who they really are.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.