Mike (left) and son Jesse Gandley are two of the men who lead Steeler Nation | Photo by Richard Retyi
“What’s your name?” a large gentleman asks my friend Courtney
as we stand at the top of the stairs leading to the second floor of Aubree’s in Depot Town
. We’re here to join Steeler Nation - a fan group that meets each week to support the black and gold - and watch Pittsburgh play the Atlanta Falcons in the season opener. Neither of us realized we’d be required to bring our papers.
Courtney’s in the clear. She’s originally from Pennsylvania - Monongahela, Penn., to be precise. I’m fairly certain she’ll be able to talk her way in. It’s me I’m worried about. Canadian. No NFL ties. Wearing a hoody with hints of red in it (I swear it’s not Falcon red!).
Steeler Nation at Aubree's in Depot Town | Photo by Richard Retyi
(the aforementioned large gentleman) looks like he could play on Sunday. He’s huge and intimidating wearing Steeler black. I can see why the Nation put him on staircase duty. Lex asks us a few questions more questions - why we’re here - what our purpose is. I think he can tell we aren’t rabble-rousers (Courtney is wearing a Steelers shirt and I have a delightful grin on my face) but you can’t be too sure these days.
“This is a wholesome environment,” Lex says. “We gotta make sure you’re really Steeler fans.”
WELCOME TO STEELER NATION
Courtney’s agreed to join me for the first weekend of the National Football League season and the kickoff of Steeler Nation - an international organization made up of fans supporting the Pittsburgh Steelers. They gather each weekend across the world (chapters in Europe!) to watch their black and gold gladiators punish the competition. The Washtenaw chapter meets each game-day on the second floor of Aubree’s (technically Sticks) to share food, drink and camaraderie and cheer their heads off. Steeler football!
Pittsburgh Steelers football isn’t just football -- it’s a way of life. The motto is even on the official Steeler Nation T-shirt. Most of them are originally from the Keystone State -- expats living in Southeastern Michigan but still clinging to shreds of their Pennsylvania accents.
Steeler Nation - a Way of Life | Photo by Richard Retyi
“Dependability, discipline and a high moral standard,” says Mike Gandley
, president of the Washtenaw County chapter of Steeler Nation. “That’s what we’re about.”
Sharing the same hometown as Courtney (this article will now officially come up first when you Google “Monongahela”) Mike grew up in the same small berg named after one of Pittsburgh’s three rivers and located less than 30 miles south of the Steel City. He fell in love with the Steelers when they still played at Pitt Stadium in the 1960s and has followed legends like Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, Rod Woodson and Bubby Brister (kidding). His son, Jesse, was indoctrinated as well and has been a member of Steeler Nation since his own youth.
Jesse serves as the minister of defense for the organization and remembers watching games at Banfield’s, one of a handful of venues in which the group used to gather.
“We watched games in the basement on a TV with rabbit ears,” Jesse remembers. “There weren’t a lot of us back then.”
The Washtenaw County chapter of Steeler Nation started in the late 80s and, since then, they’ve gathered each week (this is the ninth season at Aubree’s) to watch their boys represent Steeler football. It might not always be pretty and the scoreboard might not get much of a workout sometimes, but it’ll be physical, effortful, and they know their boys will make them proud. Steeler football!
Steeler Nation has grown in popularity -- partly thanks to Super Bowl victories in 2006 and 2009 but also because Sunday afternoons at Aubree’s are a hell of a good time. “Be a part of the band, not the wagon,” reads a large black and gold banner hanging from the ceiling. Everyone is dressed in the primary colors of Steeler Nation.
Pizza buffet! | Photo by Richard Retyi
Terrible Towels are tucked into back pockets or slung over shoulders, ready at a moment’s notice should one of the Steelers break into the end zone. Steeler fans pride themselves on being one of the most blue-collar fan bases in the NFL, and they might also be the friendliest. Perfect strangers approach our table regularly to say hello, smack high fives or ask us if we’re enjoying ourselves. One guy even waits a good 20 seconds before I finally see his outstretched paw and give him some love. We even get T-shirts!
On the field, Pittsburgh opens the scoring with a field goal (the place erupts!) but both teams are struggling to move the ball on offense. We dig into the buffet, which is delicious (I’ve always loved Aubree’s pizza, but I’ve never had their delicious wings)! The Steeler lead is still 3-0 late in the second quarter, but no one is getting bored - they’re great! What other football crowd applauds the defensive coordinator when he appears on TV? Steeler Nation chants “Defense!” and stomps their feet on opponent third-down plays and even when it’s knotted 3-3 at halftime, no one complains about conservative play-calling or a lack of scoring. Steeler football!
Pittsburgh is breaking in a new quarterback to start the season after the suspension of their tarnished golden boy Ben Roethlisberger. They applaud new QB Dennis Dixon when he shows up on the screen but they really give their hands a workout when safety Troy Polamalu gets some face time. The most blue-collar fan base in the NFL cheers madly for a player who had his hair insured for $1 million with Lloyd’s of London. Steeler football!
THE WORST THING YOU COULD WEAR IS A WEBSTER SLAUGHTER JERSEY
Atlanta pulls ahead 6-3 and a horn blows to get the crowd going. Steeler Nation loves to yell “Heeeeaaaaath” when tight end Heath Miller makes a reception and they hilariously boo a highlight of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning throwing for a touchdown in a game two time zones away. The Steelers tie it up, Atlanta pulls ahead with another field goal and Pittsburgh ties it again - six field goals in 60 minutes of play. No touchdowns. Steeler football!
The agony... | Photo by Richard Retyi
Steeler Nation is accommodating to newcomers, but don’t show up in a Browns jersey. “The worst thing you could wear would be a Webster Slaughter jersey,” Jesse says. “I hate that guy.”
Feel free to show up if you’re a Steeler fan or have the makings of a true Steeler fan. Mike, Jesse, Lex and the rest have seen a lot of bandwagon fans in their day, and they’ll sniff you out pretty quickly. Be prepared to shout at the TV (good things and not so good things).
We’re witness to the longest field goal in Heinz Field history, beloved wide receiver Hines Ward passing the 11,000-yard receiving mark and the first overtime game of the 2010 NFL season.
Heading into overtime, fans order one last drink in anticipation of extra football. The Pittsburgh defense stops the Falcons, taking over on the 50 yard-line, and on the first play Steeler Rashard Mendenhall runs the length of the field for the touchdown. Steeler Nation explodes. They jump up and down, wave their towels in the air and grown men run around the bar hugging friends and high-fiving complete strangers (even me!). The final score is 15-9 but I wasn’t bored once. Steeler football!
The Ecstasy | Photo by Richard Retyi
After it’s over we shake hands, exchange a few high fives and walk down the stairs and into a sunny afternoon. Steeler Nation still clings to me (in a good way). I grew up with no strong allegiance to any NFL team, but after this weekend, I might have jump on the Steeler bandwagon. Or join the band if they let me play the triangle.
(Richard Retyi writes the bi-weekly(ish) column “Lie to Your Cats About Santa” and, though he grew up just 45 minutes from Buffalo, N.Y., hated Jim Kelly and thus hated the Buffalo Bills. He’s a lot more likely to cheer for the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL. Read more of his work here or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and make him feel good about his life.)