DALLAS -- The crash was coming. The Pittsburgh Steelers had soared along, winning four Super Bowls in six years in the 1970s, but players got old and retired. I don't care who you are, you don't replace Terry Bradshaw or Mean Joe Greene. Or Franco Harris or Lynn Swann. Or Lambert, Ham, Shell, Stallworth ...
You just don't do it. The crash was coming. It comes for everybody. Look at the Green Bay Packers, who dominated football in the 1960s and won the first two Super Bowls, then disappeared for a quarter century. The Dallas Cowboys, America's Team itself, was a national joke in the late 1980s. The Dolphins, the 49ers, the Raiders -- all of them fell. Some of them still haven't gotten up.
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The Steelers never fell. The crash never came. The 1970s came and went, but the bottom never fell out. The Steelers kept churning out 10-win seasons, almost never dropped below .500, then won two more Super Bowls. Here they are this week, playing for their seventh title -- and their third in six years -- and you have to marvel. Give credit where credit is due. And acknowledge this truth:
The Steelers have been as resilient as the city they call home.
• • •
The crash was coming. Pittsburgh had soared along, surging on the steel industry into one of the most powerful cities in the world, but the world changed. At its height of influence, Pittsburgh was the eighth-most populated city in America -- and 10 percent of the adults in town owed their paycheck to Big Steel.
But then the steel industry crashed. Steel mills closed. This stuff happens, and cities don't recover. Look at Detroit, bless its heart. Momentum is a difficult thing to reverse for something as bulky as a large American city, and Pittsburgh in the early 1980s had bad momentum. Jobs disappeared, and people left. The Pittsburgh metropolitan area lost 200,000 people. Once the eighth-biggest city in America, the city of Pittsburgh is now No. 61, one spot behind Toledo.
I don't care who you are, you don't replace something as monstrous as the steel industry. And you don't replace 200,000 people -- unemployed steel workers and their families -- either. But I'll be damned. Pittsburgh did it.
This isn't your parents' Pittsburgh. The fire-breathing, smoke-spewing steel mills are gone, and while in some ways Pittsburgh remains a blue-collar town because that is the regional ethos, it has evolved into a blue-collar town with white-collar jobs. The largest employers are health care centers and universities thanks to local foresight 25 years ago, when universities were used as the conduit to funnel state funds into technology research.
Today, Pittsburgh is a booming source of biotechnology and computer software. While unemployment rates are in double digits all over the country -- Tampa, Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta -- Pittsburgh's unemployment rate is 7.4 percent. Not great, no. But not the catastrophe of other cities.
|Franco Harris is mobbed after making the 'Immaculate Reception' in 1972. (US Presswire)|
This resilient city, and the resilient professional football franchise that calls it home, deserve each other. And they feed off each other.
• • •
Fly into Pittsburgh, and you'll see it. Literally, you can't miss it. On a walk through Pittsburgh International Airport you are confronted with life-sized models of two leading historical figures: George Washington, and Franco Harris.
Not in that order, either. The Immaculate Receiver is on the left. You see him first. The founder of our country is on the right. You see him next. Both men have a plaque explaining who they are (as if you didn't already know who Franco Harris is), but this is telling: Harris' plaque gets 57 words. The first president of the United States merits just 47.
This is an American town, yes, but it's an American football town. Every Steelers game since 1972 has sold out, and the waiting list for season tickets is believed to be more than 40,000 people -- and more than a decade -- long. Other teams boast longer waiting lists, but among franchises with PSLs for each seat, the Steelers are thought to have the longest wait in the NFL. And those PSLs aren't cheap. Some have an asking price north of $100,000.
These people love their Steelers. When the team returned home after winning its fifth Super Bowl in 2006, a crowd of roughly 250,000 was waiting. That was the biggest turnout for a Pittsburgh parade since June 15, 1991, when a similar crowd showed up to welcome back soldiers from Operation Desert Storm. This is an American town, as I said. An American football town.
And so in 2006 when Steelers safety Troy Polamalu stood up on his sports utility vehicle and dived backward into the crowd, the crowd caught him. Three times Polamalu bodysurfed after throwing himself blindly into the crowd, which he was comfortable doing because Polamalu knows the essential truth of this American football town:
Pittsburgh has the Steelers' back.