Faithful readers of this column know that even though I have been away for more than half my life, Pittsburgh is my home.
It is my husband's home, too. And my children, though neither was born there, call it home, as well. Our family has never celebrated Christmas in any other place. We don't visit Pittsburgh. We return to it.
All my sisters are there, with their husbands and their kids. My husband's brothers are there as well. Pittsburgh has the critical mass of relatives to draw us back.
But there is more to my lasting affinity for Pittsburgh than family, I think. Pittsburgh has a national reputation, a caricatured character, that is easy to identify and easy to identify with. Like a big, noisy relative you like anyway. Everybody knows about Pittsburgh. People who aren't from Pittsburgh want to be from Pittsburgh.
Our beloved Steelers, losers for 40 years before winning four Super Bowls in six years, are back in the National Football League Championship game today, and they have been embraced by fans far beyond the confluence of the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny rivers.
I've seen so much Steelers paraphernalia on the street that I feel like I am back on the city's North Side. There are pictures on the Internet of soldiers in Baghdad flashing their Terrible Towels and explorers in the Arctic planting Steelers flags in the ice. Talk about a Steelers Nation.
My husband the sportswriter hopped in his car almost immediately after Pittsburgh defeated Denver in the American Football Conference title game. He beat the players back to town, I think. He went to talk to fans, to Pittsburghers, as only another Pittsburgher can. All football fans are crazy, he reported, but Pittsburgh fans are off the charts, crazy with excitement.
"I went into a grocery store and there was so much Steelers stuff on the shelves, it was like a Steelers store that also sold bananas," he said. Well, bananas are gold, I thought.
People are doing more than wearing black and gold. My niece chose Steelers colors for her braces. And they are doing more than naming sandwiches after players (the "Roethlis-burger"); they are naming their children after players. Just last week, the parents of a newborn boy chose "Ben" in honor of the quarterback.
It has been 26 years since the last Steelers Super Bowl victory. An entire generation of Steelers faithful has grown up without a championship. For them, Terry Bradshaw should be a balding football analyst, not a strapping blond throwing touchdown passes just as he crumples beneath the weight of on-rushing defensive linemen. But memory is a funny thing and, thanks to NFL Films, my children and their cousins all think they actually grew up during those championship years.
The city has grown up as well. Medicine, not steelmaking, might be the leading industry in town today. The three rivers have more leisure boats than coal barges. But there is still a Hunkie quality about Pittsburgh, a comfortable ethnic, working-class subtext to even the plush suburban sprawl. Iron City beer is still the preferred drink, and kielbasa is served at every family gathering. My children revert to their Pittsburgh accents when they are there, as if it is their mother tongue.
And Pittsburgh loves its Steelers, a devotion that Pitt, the Pirates and the Penguins envy and a faithfulness that knows no geographic obstacle. Fans in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Baltimore already know what fans in Indianapolis and Denver learned during the playoffs: you are likely to be sitting next to a Steelers fan in your own stadium.
The Super Bowl is in Detroit. Heck, that's only five hours away from Pittsburgh. That's practically a home game. My guess is, fans without tickets have been hanging out in the Motor City all week. Just to be there.
Today's game is considered a homecoming for Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, a Detroit native, and perhaps the most beloved Steeler since founder Art Rooney died. He will probably retire after this game and his fans want to send him off with a ring, not a watch. Grown men will weep if it does not happen. Pittsburghers can be flinty and abrasive, but they are sentimental, too.
It is that sentimental side of me that will always turn to face Pittsburgh. My first sports interview was with Terry Bradshaw. My husband's first gift to me was a Franco Harris jersey. Art Rooney blessed my marriage to one of his favorite sportswriters. A candid picture of my husband with legendary coach Chuck Noll was my Christmas gift to his parents. It still sits on his mother's dresser, God rest her soul.
My son's life plan is to retire to Pittsburgh and become a Steelers season-ticket holder. It is a worthy goal for this child, who quotes Chuck Noll as if he played for him, but it will be a difficult one: Steelers tickets are in wills, not will-call windows. But if he can't get into the stadium that's named after the city's favorite condiment (Heinz ketchup), he will be always be welcome in the homes of any of his many Pittsburgh relatives, where everyone will be wearing black and gold, drinking Iron City and eating kielbasa.
We will be doing that at my house in Maryland, today, too. Heck, I'm only five hours away from Pittsburgh. It'll seem like a home game.
To hear an audio clip of this column and others, go to baltimoresun.com / reimer.