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A professional American football team based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Black, Gold, and the Good Kind of Terrible

  • Nov 3, 2011
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a long and storied history in the National Football League. Mentioning the name of the team conjures up loads of football's greatest moments, players, and memories: The Immaculate Reception! Franco Harris! The 1970's dynasty featuring Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Harris, and the indomitable Terry Bradshaw! Chuck Noll! The near-upset of the mighty Dallas Cowboys dynasty in the 1996 Super Bowl! The return to greatness under Bill Cowher and Ben Roethlisberger! Tough, defensive-minded, smash-mouth Pittsburgh Steelers football!

Right, so those memories date back some 40 years, all the way back to the early 1970's. That's just fine, but the problem I have is the fact that the team is now 78 YEARS OLD! So, what happened in the first 37?

In a word, losing. Lots and lots of losing. Before Noll and Bradshaw brought the Steelers to the pinnacle of the NFL in the 1970's, the Pittsburgh Steelers had all of one playoff appearance, ever. (1947.) They were founded by Art Rooney in 1933, making the Rooney family one of the oldest controlling families in the NFL. In those early years, Rooney ran the team from the first floor of the Fort Pitt Hotel, and the team's black and gold color combination was inspired by the city flag of Pittsburgh, which is a vertical gold stripe on the inside of two black vertical stripes. Their first name was a copycat of Pittsburgh's baseball team, the Pirates. Pittsburgh's first game was against the New York Giants, and in a precursor of what was to ensue over the next several decades, the team fell 23-2.

Bad luck and a bad eye for football talent plagued the Pirates. They went after a highly regarded quarterbacking prospect from the University of Colorado in 1937 named Byron White, who had something a lot of professional football players back then didn't: An option. While the Pirates offered the galactically large sum of $15,000 to White, he chose to pursue said option, which was a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University. The 1930's saw the Pirates go after sought coaches like Bears great Red Grange, Hunk Anderson of Notre Dame, and Jock Sutherland from the University of Pittsburgh. Throughout the 1930's, the Pirates never finished above .500 or above second place in the NFL.

In 1940, Rooney decided he didn't want to piggyback the name of the city's baseball team anymore, and after running a contest in the newspaper, the team had a new name which paid homage to the Steel City's nickname sake industry: The Steelers. Like many new teams who open a grand new era featuring a new name or new uniforms or a new attitude, the Steelers fell on their faces and went 2-7-2, scoring a grand total of 60 points for the year. During the World War II years, the Steelers combined to from the Phil-Pitt Steagles, which by then was just the second winning record in Steelers history and the first in the history of the Philadelphia Eagles. In 1944 they did something similar, merging with the Chicago Cardinals and becoming known as Card-Pitt. Or as people referred to them, the Carpets, which probably sums up everything you need to know about that team during its winless 1944 campaign. In 1947, the Steelers tied the Eagles for first place in their division, going 8-4 and making the playoffs for the first time, only to lose a tiebreaking game 21-0.

In 1955, the Steelers drafted a young quarterback named Johnny Unitas. You might have heard of him; he's regularly brought into discussions about the greatest quarterback ever. He was also cut by the Steelers in training camp, with Rooney saying he was too stupid to be an NFL quarterback. Although the decade did see them pick up legendary Detroit Lion Bobby Layne and play in Pitt Stadium for the first time. They posted a few winning records, but never made it back into the playoffs. The early 1960's showed some promise for the Steelers, but by the late 60's it was SOS - same old Steelers. In 1969, the Steelers bottomed out, winning a single game against a Chicago Bears team that had also won all of one game that year. The record gave the Steelers first pick in the draft, which they used to select a Louisiana quarterback named Terry Bradshaw.

The history of the Steelers from there is embossed in the platinum of six Vince Lombardi Trophies. In 1972 the Steelers broke out of their perpetual suckitude, won their division at 11-3, and got beat in the playoffs by the Miami Dolphins, who had their perfect season that year. In 1974, the Steelers created the core of their famed "Steel Curtain" and completed their turnaround, defeating the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl. After following that moment with Super Bowl triumphs in 1975, 1978, 1979, 2005, and 2008 - more Super Bowl wins than any other team in the NFL. They made it to the Super Bowl in 1995 and 2010 too, but lost. Even so, the Steelers underwent one of the greatest long-term turnarounds in American sports, turning from a sad sack team into the lords of the NFL.

Despite this turnaround, though, the NFL royalty of today's Pittsburgh Steelers did learn a few things from the bad old days: The main lesson was to never, ever be intimidated. While the old Steelers lost a lot, they always did play their hearts out, taking everything they had to their opponents of the week. Steeler football has always emphasized the run and the defense. Franco Harris is one of the greatest runners in NFL history, and the Steel Curtain is still regarded as one of the greatest defenses. Those defenses were led by Mean Joe Greene, one of the game's all-time meanest players on the gridiron, but also one of its nicest off it - he made the original Super Bowl Coke commercial in 1980.

In nearly every respect, the Steelers are a popular team because they are a powerful reflection of working-class, blue-collar Americans. They play hard football but come off as the types of Joes who would buy you a beer after the game. It says a lot about the team's character that its best quarterbacks are Bradshaw (career quarterback rating of 70.9, 27,989 career passing yards, 212 touchdowns as opposed to a whopping 210 interceptions… Although those are better numbers than Joe Namath's) and Roethlisberger (I don't know his numbers, but his immobility and mechanics alone are horrific and probably wouldn't work on any other team). No, these guys make their name on defense and hitting their opponents in the nose and jaw.

The fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers are among the most diehard in a league not known for breeding tons of diehards. We all speak of our favorite team's nation, but the truth is, there is only one: Steelers Nation. It's the blue-collar character that prevails in much of America, and so the Steelers have attracted an enormous fanbase of people who forgo flash and cash. One of the coolest fan traditions in the country is that Steelers fans go to games and wave yellow towels called Terrible Towels, which were first given out in support of the team in 1975. There are more sports bars devoted to the Steelers than for any other team in the United States, and the fans are absolutely everywhere. When the Steelers went to the Super Bowl in 2005, one Steelers fan was seen waving a Terrible Towel atop the Space Needle in a taunt to their opponents, the Seattle Seahawks. No matter where your team plays and no matter what time or in what weather, there will always be a legion of folks clad in black and gold.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a favorite to win it all this season again, and it won't be the worst thing in the world if they do. Their fans may act crazy at games, but given the history of the team, I'd say they've earned it.

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Nicholas Croston ()
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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The Pittsburgh Steelers are a professional American football team based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They are currently a member of the North Division of the American Football Conference (AFC) in the National Football League. Founded in 1933, Pittsburgh has won more Super Bowl titles (6), won more AFC Championship Games (7) and hosted more conference championship games (10) than any other AFC or NFC team. They have played in more AFC conference championship games than any other team and are tied with the Dallas Cowboys with 14 championship game appearances in either the NFC or AFC contests. The Steelers are the current National Football League champions, having won Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009.

The fifth-oldest franchise in the NFL, the Steelers were founded as the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 8, 1933, by Art Rooney. The ownership of the Steelers has remained within the Rooney family since its founding. The current owner is Art's son, Dan Rooney, who has given much control of the franchise to his son Art Rooney II. The team also enjoys a fanbase nicknamed Steeler Nation.

The Steelers currently play their home games in Heinz Field on Pittsburgh's North Side, which also hosts the University of Pittsburgh Panthers. Built in 2001, the stadium replaced Three Rivers Stadium which hosted the Steelers for 31 seasons. Prior to Three Rivers, the Steelers had played their games in Pitt Stadium and Forbes Field.

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