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New Girl in Town: The Women of Steeler Nation

A perfect storm of events in the early 1970s changed the face of Pittsburgh forever.  The decline of the steel industry went lockstep with the ascent of the Steelers and the  Immaculate Reception of 1972.  That catch, an iconic moment in football history, helped spawn a rabid fan base. Some of those fans stuck around, but quite a few left town. With followers spread far and wide, the term "Steeler Nation" was coined and a key part of the republic is arguably the largest female fan base in the NFL. Who are these women?

Let's start with Sue Clark. She and her young son, Ryan Clark (who was named before the Steelers' safety of the same name joined the team) are paying a visit to the Steeler training camp in Latrobe on a late summer afternoon.

"I'm born and raised here and grew up watching Steeler football.  It's hard-nosed football, nothing frilly about them," she says.  For Clark, the players on the field are as tight-knit as the city they represent.  "Here, it's about the team a collective unit." 

Not to mention family. "My dad taught me everything he knows about football watching the Steelers play," says Michele Fetting of Fox Chapel." I learned to really understand the game because we watched Franco, Lynn, Rocky, Terry, the Jacks, et. al. all through the 70s. It just so happened we lived in a city where our team won four Super Bowls. The gathering of friends and family for those games really engrained the team in my heart from a young age. That's why I love the Steelers."

The theme of football and family rings true for Beth DeVito, a Pitt student from Mt. Lebanon who started following the team in eighth grade and wrote a paper on the team's history as her 11th grade research project.  She watches the games on Sunday alongside her dad and brothers. 

"Family and sports are rooted in Pittsburgh," she says.  The self-styled "crazy Steeler girl" owns seven jerseys and wasn't shy about wearing them at American University in Washington, D.C.  "On campus, the game-day atmosphere was unbelievable.  If I walked into the Student Union wearing my jersey, people would say 'if you're a fan, you're a friend of mine.'"  

Wake Forest student Danielle Smit, another Mt. Lebanon native, echoes this sentiment.  "There are kids from all over at my school but even in (football-crazy) North Carolina, if you're wearing a Steelers jersey, it's okay."  The one-time tomboy developed an affection for the team as a way to connect with her father.  "We'd watch the games together on Sunday and bet on them.  I still remember asking my parents for my first jersey!  It was a Kordell Stewart."

This love of team has spawned more than its share of  rituals and obsessions.  Chrissy Benton of Seven Springs, a massage therapist at Nemacolin, married her husband in a "Steelers wedding" in 1999, her black 'n gold color scheme a backdrop for the terrible towels waved while bride and groom waltzed down the aisle.  

Fan Bridget Berard represents a different type of fan, a poster child for superstitious sports fans.  "I always sit on the couch during the game and wear the black Polamalu jersey and always the same three pairs of earrings the Troy, the Hines and the Steeler footballs.  And it mostly works!" 

Into Steeler garb? See what Pop Filter editor Jennifer Baron created and is selling on Etsy. Black and gold is the new black!

Steeler Bar Crawl
Having fun with the Steelers is Lindsay Patross, author of the I Heart PGH blog and a lifelong fan.  Patross took a Jet Blue 30-day, fly-anywhere plane ticket and turned it into a cross-country Steeler Bar crawl in the fall of 2009.  "I really appreciate the cultural force this is," deadpans Patross.  "The Steelers are an equalizing force.  You can be in any city and find a group of Steeler fans."

While Patross lists over sixty Steeler bars at her blog, a new exhibit at the Miller Gallery at CMU titled "Whatever It Takes" features a floor-to-ceiling roll call of Steeler bars, fan clubs and Facebook groups with over a thousand entries.  The exhibit showcases Steeler fans as producers of pop culture and features an array of homemade shrines and totems, among them artist Suzanne Tremmey's sculptural piece The Black and Golden Calf.

"I guess you could call it a theology piece for another religion!" laughs Tremmey, who is stunned at the level of worship her false god has achieved (the Calf has his own Facebook page).  "I wanted to say what happens to the city around the Steelers," says Tremmey, who has witnessed a spontaneous group rendition of "Here We Go, Steelers" at her local grocery store.  "There's a unity in the city around the Steelers.  I wish we could get that passion around something a little more meaningful."

As to the 800 lb. gorilla in the room, the women of Steeler Nation have strong opinions about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's current dilemma.  "I've lost a bit of respect for him," says Nicole Summers, a teacher and mother of two, "and he has to earn that back.  As a parent, I take that more to heart and that's why my boys won't be wearing his jersey for a while."  

Lois Elliott of the North Hills, a retired schoolteacher, was surprised by the amount of discussion among her family and friends.  "You would have thought the men would be more forgiving but they weren't." 

College sophomore Smit says that among her friends, "No one's really a fan of his anymore. They're against that."  

And yet, the women of Steeler Nation are owning their allegiance in ways that support the team but still make it work for them.  "I think it's a great way for women to get together and enjoy something," says Robin, a college student hanging out with friends outside Jerome Bettis' Grille 36 on game day. 

Blogger Patross sums it up best:  "Every Sunday is a party!  You can watch the game in a bar and be with a group of instant friends for two hours.  Like they say, 'we're Steeler fans since we were knee-high until we die.'"

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Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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