Published November 20, 2014
A Pittsburgh hospital swaddles its newborns in "Terrible Towels." A Wisconsin man dresses up like a bishop and calls himself "St. Vince," as in Lombardi.
Fans of the Super Bowl-bound Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers live and die with their teams, taking their passion for football from cradle to grave as two of the most rabid, far-reaching bases in pro sports.
Forget Dallas and its self-proclaimed "America's Team" label. That franchise is a baby compared to the Packers (established 1919) and the Steelers (1933), whose fans in two of the NFL's smallest markets would beg to differ.
Steelers fans are in another realm, argues the co-curator of a Pittsburgh exhibit called "Whatever It Takes: Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals and Obsessions."
"It's a unifying force that crosses all demographic boundaries," said Astria Suparak, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Miller Gallery. "It crosses class, races; your bus drivers, your doctors, your anarchists, your artists are all Steelers fans and that's very unusual. There are some very clear lines in other cities for sports fans that don't get crossed — but not in Pittsburgh.
"It's very ritualistic. It's passed on from generation to generation."
Just like Tyler Daniel Indof, who was wrapped, as are other newborns at UPMC Magee-Women's Hospital in Pittsburgh, in a "Terrible Towel." The gold-and-black dish rags that Steelers fans twirl like maniacs at games are, coincidentally, made in Wisconsin by a company headquartered just 135 miles from Lambeau Field.
Parents Tracy, 31, and Ross Indof, 29, were nonetheless prepared for their second child's birth on Jan. 27. The Indofs have Steelers booties for the boy, and a tiny Troy Polamalu jersey he'll wear on Sunday during the Super Bowl. And, of course, he's been fittingly named.
"My husband insisted that our son had a middle name that started with a 'D' so his initials would be T.D.," Tracy Indof said.
How about naming a newborn after a player?
In 1997, the baby name "Brett" was the 39th most popular boys' name in Wisconsin following Green Bay's last Super Bowl victory. Favre's not around anymore, and neither is the name. It dropped out of the top 100 after 2005.
While there is no sure-fire census of Pittsburgh fans, Suparak and co-curator Jon Rubin catalogued nearly 2,000 fan clubs or Steelers bars in all 50 states, every Canadian province, and in 27 countries.
They include Blozik's Blitzburgh Cave, a bar in Bosnia, and La Botticella, another bar, in Rome, which is linked to the CMU exhibit by Skype so gallery patrons can interact with its customers over a live feed.
If the fans are practically family, the reunions are certainly at the teams' stadiums — where every game has been a sellout for generations.
The Packers boast 293 consecutive sellouts at Lambeau Field and a season-ticket waiting list with 83,000 names. Pittsburgh doesn't say how long its waiting list is, but the Steelers have sold out 303 consecutive regular season and playoff games at Heinz Field and, before that, Three Rivers Stadium.
Allan Hale feels like he's going to a family reunion every time he walks his section as a longtime beer vendor at Lambeau. The Packers not only have their own team Hall of Fame, but a select area honoring specific fans. The 73-year-old Hale was inducted in 2008.
"I've been around these people 47 years — my section is my family," said Hale, who couldn't work this year after quadruple bypass surgery in October. "There's all different types of family, but once you were a Packers fan, you fall right into it and it's unreal when you think of how many people there are that consider themselves Packers fans."
Packers center Scott Wells understands the family connection between the fan bases and both franchises' players, even if it gets a little too close for comfort sometimes. He grew up in Texas as a Cowboys fan, lived for several years in Brookville, Pa., in the western part of the state for about six years until he was 16 and was later drafted by Green Bay. He said fans recognize the players, and will come up after bad games and tell him what he should've done differently.
"We travel well here. Fans seem to be everywhere we go," Wells said. "The Steelers have a lot of diehard fans. . I'm still friends with a lot of them."
Except this week when he's gotten messages on Facebook that they're rooting against him. Still, he expects an even split when he plays Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.
"There will be 50,000 fans for us," Wells said. "And, 50,000 fans against us."
Both fan bases often describe their passion for football as a religion.
The Packers have a traveling "saint" in St. Vince: 58-year-old John O'Neill, a retired correctional officer from Middleton, Wis., wears a green bishop's outfit and miter (with legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi's face on it) to Packers games.
O'Neill first donned the costume in 1997, when the Packers defeated the Patriots for a third Lombardi trophy and 12th NFL championship in franchise history.
"It was going to be a one-time thing," he said. "The idea of my outfit is based on trying to represent the spirit of Lombardi come back from heaven to see his Packers in yet another Super Bowl."
It caught on.
St. Vince shows up in Lambeau every game and occasionally on the road, too. O'Neill was in Dallas and still looking for Super Bowl tickets on Wednesday afternoon, hoping for divine intervention, or at least a pair at face value.
James Henry Smith's request when he died in 2005? The 55-year-old Smith wanted to be remembered where he was happiest in his life so he was laid out in a recliner, wearing black-and-gold silk pajamas, next to his beer and cigarettes, with Steelers highlights on a TV in front of him.
Pittsburgh funeral director Roland Coston-Crisswell said the Steelers front office contacted him — not the other way around — when he handled the funeral, so they could send a letter of condolence and Steelers memorabilia to his widow.
"It's like the identity of Pittsburgh: hard-working, wholesome, you do the right thing — and when you do the right thing, it turns out right," he said.
Even permanent resting places turn into makeshift exhibits.
Fans often place Packers-related items at Lombardi's tomb in New Jersey. The cemetery where Curly Lambeau, a founder of the Packers, is buried is often visited during training camp when families make their summer pilgrimages to watch Green Bay's training camp practices.
Administrator Steve Gooding of the Allouez Catholic Cemetery and Chapel Mausoleum said he finds trinkets and impromptu gifts on a monthly basis.
"We've found quite a few things, banners and bobblehead dolls," Gooding said. "We have quite a few visitors, especially those from out of town for a game. This is one of the landmarks they want to visit and they'll go ask where his grave is to pay their respects."
But there are not as many visitors this week to the small marker and Gooding knows why.
"It's not climate controlled," he said. "It's in the frozen tundra."
Mandak contributed from this report from Pittsburgh. Associated Press writer Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee contributed to this report.