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In a sports-crazed town, Steelers are kings

The Steel City can make a strong case for a new nickname.

The Steelers have won more Super Bowls than any team in the NFL, and are one victory away from hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy a seventh time. The Penguins have reached the Stanley Cup finals twice in the last three seasons. Pitt has developed into a Top 5 college basketball program.

They have beautiful new stadiums, state-of-the-art practice facilities, and a supportive fan base, too.

Perhaps the City of Champions is a more fitting moniker for this blue-collar, gritty town.

"It's a great label," Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "I would have to say it's accurate to a certain degree because of Steelers football, Pitt basketball and you can't discount hockey. They've always had big-time players and all of those players always come back."

Bostonians have a legit argument. The Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics have combined to win six championships since 2002. That's wicked good.

But in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, Pittsburgh is the hot city and the 'Stillers' are the hot team.

Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers are on the verge of winning their third Super Bowl in six seasons. They'll face the Green Bay Packers in Dallas on Feb. 6.

Sidney Crosby and the Penguins could make it two Stanley Cup titles in three years later this spring.

If the woeful Pirates could only go back to the days of Clemente or Stargell or Bonds, then Pittsburgh would be the clear-cut choice.

Then again, baseball is irrelevant here these days. Football is No. 1 among the sports-crazed folks, and the Steelers — as Jay-Z would say — run this town.

"The fans here don't just love football, they understand football," nose tackle Chris Hoke said. "They know the game, so it's great. You'll be out in the town and they'll come up and want to talk about the game. ... It's exciting to be here. They love the Penguins, but it's Steelers football 365 days a year."

Fans rooting for other teams don't even think about coming to Heinz Field wearing their colors. They may be a little more laid-back in western Pennsylvania, but the die-hards here are similar to those notorious Eagles fans in Philadelphia when it comes to defending their turf.

"You'd be in Washington and the Dallas Cowboys come to town, the stands are filled with Cowboys jerseys and Cowboys fans walking the streets, or New York Giants fans," safety Ryan Clark said. "Here, it's Pittsburgh or you may get jumped. That's what I think is amazing about this place. People are born fans. Kids, I can meet kids, they have no choice. Like if they want to like somebody else, they may lose parents. I think that's amazing."

Rooting for the Steelers is a birthright for fans, and winning championships is an expectation for every player that puts on a black and gold uniform.

"Since I've been here, we feel like we're always going to be in the hunt for the Super Bowl," injured tackle Max Starks said.

Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Co. set the standard when they won four Super Bowl titles in a six-year span in the late 1970s. There were some down times in the 80s and 90s, though Neil O'Donnell led the Steelers to the 1996 Super Bowl — a loss to Dallas.

After a 26-year drought, Roethlisberger helped the Steelers earn one for the thumb in February 2006. The Steelers added a record sixth title to their trophy case two years ago. Now, they're going for No. 7.

"Expectations are sky high in this city dating back to the 70s when those guys won four Super Bowls," cornerback Ike Taylor said. "We got Pitt basketball playing good ball and I jumped on the Penguins bandwagon a few years ago. Hopefully we can get the Pirates going sooner or later."

That's not likely.

The Pirates are coming off a record-setting 18th consecutive losing season, and their chances of contending wouldn't be any worse if Taylor and eight Steelers were penciled into the lineup every day.

Good thing fans here have the Steelers, Penguins and Panthers to cheer. About a dozen people lined up outside the Steelers practice facility Thursday, braving the cold, snowy weather in hopes that a player or two would sign an autograph.

"We love our Steelers," said Arlene Hopson, a student at Pitt. "The Packers don't stand a chance next week."

Hoke signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent out of Brigham Young in 2001. He grew up in California, but was familiar with the Steelers tradition before he joined the team. Then he got a dose of their fans.

"I knew the history, but once I got here and spent more time here, you start to realize how important this organization is to this area and how much you are loved and what kind of responsibility that brings," Hoke said.