I MISSED the Immaculate Reception. � It was Dec. 23, 1972. I was 10 years old, a Pittsburgh native recently transplanted to Connecticut and so profoundly wrapped up in the Steelers that I literally could not watch as they made their first postseason appearance since I'd become conscious of their existence. Something about the brutal finality the game would provide scared me off, the prospective agony of defeat far worse to contemplate than the potential joy of victory. And so, as Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and the rest of my heroes were locked in battle with the Raiders in an AFC divisional playoff at Three Rivers—only the third playoff game in the team's history—I was in a strip-mall cinema with my pal Tom Harlan, watching Don Knotts and Barbara Rhoades in The Shakiest Gun in the West.
When I walked into my house after the movie, I found my entire family sitting in front of the TV in a kind of dumbfounded rapture. "You won't believe what happened in the Steelers game," my brother said. They'd shared something that I lost out on, a regret I've carried with me for as long as I've been a fan.
I didn't miss many Steelers games after that, and thankfully, the team made it easy to watch. As the '70s rolled on, the Steelers rewarded their hard-core fans, most of whom had suffered far longer than I had, and did so in style. While the first Super Bowl victory, against the Vikings, wasn't the prettiest of games—for one, the Steelers were clad in their white jerseys, never their best look—L.C. Greenwood brought some color to the affair, his golden boots flashing in the New Orleans gloom as he leaped again and again to swat down Fran Tarkenton's passes.
The victory tugged at the heartstrings too, no more so than when beloved owner Art Rooney, the Chief himself, trundled through the locker room at Tulane Stadium after the 16-6 victory to accept the Lombardi Trophy. His first NFL championship had been 40 years in coming.
He didn't have to wait long for another. In the ensuing years the great moments came in waves: Lynn Swann's acrobatic catches in Super Bowl X against the Cowboys, the last one a 64-yard bomb to seal the victory; Jack Lambert's tossing Dallas's Cliff Harris to the turf like a rag doll in that same game, after Harris had taunted Pittsburgh placekicker Roy Gerela; Franco's 22-yard touchdown rumble on third-and-nine in Super Bowl XIII, followed almost immediately by another picture-book Swann touchdown; and John Stallworth's fourth-quarter, over-the-shoulder snag that killed off the Rams in Super Bowl XIV. Such moments are etched in the memory of Steelers fans, and it was a wonder to be one at the time, to come to the realization that once these Steelers made it to the Super Bowl, they simply couldn't lose.
While Pittsburgh's style of play—dashing on offense, devastating on defense—won on the field, the characters who populated the roster endeared themselves to the fans. The quarterback was a good ol' boy from Louisiana thrust into a gritty Northern steel town, mocked for his supposed lack of smarts but bright enough to call his own plays (one of the last NFL quarterbacks to do so). The star running back was the son of an African-American GI and an Italian woman the soldier had met while stationed in Europe (hence the fan group, Franco's Italian Army). The fullback, Rocky Bleier, was a war hero whose legs were nearly blown off by an enemy grenade in Vietnam. The star receiver bore a name—Lynn Swann—as balletic as his game. The middle linebacker, Lambert, struck terror into quarterbacks and ballcarriers, as fierce a hitter as ever played the position, though he weighed a mere 220 pounds. There was the Jewish tight end, Randy Grossman, and a defensive tackle, Ernie Holmes, who shaved an arrow into his head. Even the placekicker had a cheering section: Gerela's Gorillas.
Pittsburgh loved them, western Pennsylvania loved them, and America loved them too. The Steelers rose to prominence just as the NFL came to dominate the sports landscape, and it didn't hurt that those black-and-gold uniforms looked great on color TV. The team seemed ready-made for the slightly skewed popular culture of the '70s—more so, arguably, than their Super Bowl rivals from Dallas, so-called America's Team. It was Greene, after all, not Bob Lilly, who appeared in one of the most memorable commercials in television history, playing off his ferocious image to reveal the kind heart underneath. Bradshaw, too, crossed over into the mainstream, marrying a figure skating star, cutting gospel albums and milking his aw-shucks persona in movies and commercials. The Steelers were named-dropped by both Charlie Daniels and Monty Python. When it comes to pop culture, you don't get a more wide-ranging impact than that.
The legacy of those '70s teams lives on. It survived the lean years of the '80s, as the onetime greats traded in their black-and-gold for busts in Canton, and today the Steelers are still undoubtedly one of the NFL's most beloved teams. And some of that same magic, on the field and off, was recaptured in 2005, when Pittsburgh finally got that one for the thumb. The latest Super Bowl title, like the four before it, was a victory driven by character—in the form of rock-solid coach Bill Cowher—and by characters: Big Ben Roethlisberger, Bradshaw's long-awaited successor; Hines Ward, son of an African-American GI and a Korean mom, a receiver who'll smile all the way to the end zone; brash, big-play linebacker Joey Porter; wild-haired, pile-driving safety Troy Polamalu; and of course Jerome Bettis, the Bus, who carried the team toward Super Bowl XL, in his hometown of Detroit, seemingly on the very strength of his goodwill.
That week in Detroit, I was reminded of the scope of Steelers Nation and the depth of its passion. Over the course of a couple of days, the Motor City had been transformed into Pittsburgh north, tens of thousands of Steelers fans flocking to town from far and wide, most of them without tickets or much hope of getting them. With time to kill before meeting colleagues for dinner, I strolled the streets until I came across a bar with a large Steelers banner strung over its door. I stepped inside, to a place packed wall-to-wall with patrons in Pittsburgh jerseys: ROETHLISBERGER, BETTIS, PORTER, and also LAMBERT, HARRIS, BRADSHAW. A deejay was spinning homegrown Steelers anthems, and on the televisions overhead, historical highlights played on an endless loop. The distinctive Pittsburgh accent, unlike any other and instantly identifiable to those familiar with it, hung in the air. Chants would start up every few minutes—"I've got a feeling, Pittsburgh's going to the Super Bowl," "Let's Go Stillers," countless others—and I came to realize something I didn't know back in 1972 as a 10-year-old who couldn't bear to watch: that a shared passion insulates the fan from the agony of defeat and makes victory that much more joyful. Steelers fans know that, which is why they band together in bars and dens and stadiums across the country on fall Sundays, to cheer on their heroes in black-and-gold. Because no matter where he or she may be, a Steelers fan is never far from home.
Mark Mravic is a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED senior editor. He still has a Myron Cope bobblehead doll.