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A VISITOR TO Pittsburgh needs driving directions, and they will be provided. On a bitter January morning, Jon-Paul Malezi, 38, doorman at the downtown Omni William Penn Hotel, ducks into the valet parking alcove, scribbles instructions on a piece of scrap paper and hands it over. But this is not enough; there must also be a story told, because the Steelers are bound for the Super Bowl and the city's heart beats with theirs. Every journey is draped in black and gold. � "Right here on Second Avenue, when you pass the 10th Street Bridge," says Malezi, tapping the paper with a gloved hand and sending steamy breath into the winter air. "That's where Ben had his motorcycle accident. June 12, 2006. I guess you can call that a 'Where were you?' moment." Kennedy shot. 9/11. Big Ben's crash. "I was playing golf," Malezi says. "We had a foursome. As soon as it happened, all our phones started buzzing." The words come dispassionately, as if the tale is not unique but ingrained.
On Sunday in Tampa the Steelers and Cardinals will play a Super Bowl matching two of the five oldest franchises in the NFL. (The Cardinals and the Bears are the only charter franchises from 1920 still in existence; the Steelers were founded in 1933.) For many years they shared not only age but also breathtaking futility. The Cardinals won just two championships, in 1925 and 1947. They moved twice, to St. Louis in 1960 and to Arizona in 1988, and played only four postseason games in 60 years. The Steelers were worse. In their first 36 seasons they were 96 games below .500 and had just eight winning records. They played one postseason game—losing a playoff to Philadelphia in 1947 for the right to face the Cardinals in the championship game—and took solace in a reputation for leaving victorious opponents battered. "Hard-hitting, lovable losers," says Joe Gordon, 73, a Pittsburgh native and the team's public relations director from 1969 to '98. "Every Monday the Chief [team founder Art Rooney] would take the back streets to work so he didn't run into any fans."
In January 1969 the franchises' paths diverged. Dan Rooney, the Chief's then 36-year-old son, wanted to hire Penn State's Joe Paterno to coach the Steelers. When Paterno chose to stay in State College, Rooney turned to a Baltimore Colts defensive assistant named Chuck Noll. In the 39 years since, Pittsburgh has won five Super Bowls and made the playoffs 24 times. The key to the Steelers' greatness has been a bedrock, across-the-board stability that is nearly unprecedented in American sports.
In a league in which 17 coaches have been replaced since December 2007, the Steelers have had just three coaches since 1969: Noll for 23 years, Bill Cowher for 15 and Mike Tomlin for the last two. They have consistently emphasized down-to-earth defensive play and mostly shunned flash (seldom signing big-money free agents or taking risks on marginal personalities)—a philosophy that has solidified the bond between the franchise and its fans, themselves products of a blue-collar culture from generations past.
"One of the most critical elements in the success of the NFL is that a team takes on the character of its community," says NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. "Nobody does that better than the Steelers. The team reflects the values of the community."
John Mara, president and CEO of the New York Giants (and son of the team's longtime owner, Wellington Mara), says, "Over the years you've seen Pittsburgh teams that are always tough and physical. The identity of the team is the identity of the city. I don't think that's an accident."
It most surely is not. There is a line that connects the '70s teams of Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Jack Lambert to Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and James Harrison three decades later; and Noll to Cowher to Tomlin. The NFL—like all of commercial sport—has undergone epic change in the last four decades, transforming itself into a multibillion-dollar entertainment machine. The Steelers are very much a part of that growth; during an ownership restructuring that was finalized in December, the franchise's value was placed at $800 million. But they are also in fundamental ways little changed from the team that suddenly rose from the depths of incompetence to become a dynasty.
Their defense is the best and most brutal in the NFL, anchored by Harrison, the Defensive Player of the Year, who was cut three times by the Steelers before securing a roster spot in 2004. Their star is a no-frills quarterback whose work is inartistic but effective, whose great personal controversy involved riding a motorcycle without a helmet and who could be seen last week scurrying across a city street en route to a Pitt basketball game wearing jeans and a baseball cap turned backward, dodging evening traffic.
Their Super Bowl XL MVP, Ward, is a wide receiver known as much for his vicious blocking as for his pass-catching, and is among the players who fulfills a long-held role in safeguarding the Steeler Way. "It's a game of follow-the-leader," says the 11-year Pittsburgh veteran. "You don't see many character issues around here."
Dan Rooney, now 76 and the team's chairman (son Art II runs day-to-day operations), is equally at home attending an inauguration eve black-tie dinner in Washington (where he presented an AFC Championship Game ball to President-elect Barack Obama) or poking his head into the Steelers' press room in the early evening, trading stories with newspaper reporters and bloggers. Rooney almost always eats lunch in the team cafeteria, patiently taking a tray and standing in line. "Where else can you eat lunch every day with the owner?" says linebacker James Farrior, a 12-year NFL veteran who spent his first five seasons with the Jets. "Where else can you see the owner driving around, looking for a parking spot?"