Black n’ gold flooded the intersection. I waved my Terrible Towel with the masses, trudging through the snow toward a mammoth Steelers flag, our homing beacon swaying in the wind. A portly doorman sporting Steelers everything—parka, scarf, even earmuffs—checked IDs from the line of fans that stretched down the block and around the corner.
Inside, “Here we go Steelers, Here we go” chants were deafening. Conversation beyond ordering a bucket of I.C. Light and “tots,” was futile. And while Steelers murals, banners, and Terrible Towels covered the walls, the prime real estate were the plasmas above the bar. It was the playoffs, it was the Ravens, and it was time for kickoff.
There’s nothing more magical than playoff football in Pittsburgh.
Except we were nowhere near Pittsburgh. We were three states and nearly 500 miles away in Chicago. Bears territory.
It was one of hundreds of Steelers bars across the country where fans like us flock to watch their team. Call it a temple, call it a church, call it whatever—we all need a place to practice our religion. For Steelers fans outside Pittsburgh, it’s the local Steelers bar.
Pittsburgh’s diaspora decades ago—the loss of jobs following the decline of the steel industry—led to Steelers fans in places far beyond our city. Not to mention the network of people nationwide—the Steelers nation, that is–who have adopted the team as their own. After forty years of losses, one thrilling season after another attracts a fan base from all over.
There’s more than one website, such as steelerbars.com that lists more than 800 Steelers Bars worldwide, most in the U.S. Traveling and missing your team? Enter your city and the closest Steelers bars pop up.
My first taste of Steelers country outside Pittsburgh was in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. I moved there in 2005, having recently graduated from Pitt. As I explored the shops and boutiques on Halsted Street, I thought I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a flash of Steelers insignia but dismissed it to homesickness.
And then I saw it: Durkins Tavern, proudly waving a Steelers flag from its door. I stepped inside and was greeted with a banner that blared, “You’re in Steelers Country.” I had found my first Steelers bar.
A home away from home.
The crowd featured an eclectic cast of characters, including canine fans on occasion, sporting Steelers paraphernalia. Everyone was a regular, including me. We knew each other by the name on our jerseys, where in Pennsylvania our families were from, and how we liked our Primantis’ sandwich. At half time the loud speaker announced black n’ gold shot specials and Steelers trivia.
We traded stories during commercials of favorite players and games from years past. We debated which Steelers should be in the Hall of Fame and why we lost heartbreakers like the 1994 AFC Championship and Super bowl XXX. A group trip to Canton was planned for the day they enshrine “The Bus.” Together, we shared in the smiles and tears that come with Steelers triumph and defeat.
For us, the best days were Sundays and the best part of Sundays were our team’s touchdowns.
A 6-foot burly sixty something, called “the Godfather,” served as the cheer and chant commander of the bar. When he said “Dee” we said “Fence.” When we scored, the familiar polka erupted from the speakers, bellowing out the classic 1970’s tune, “We’re from the town with that great football team, We cheer the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
And that was his cue. He selected a young woman from the crowd and they danced the polka, hand in hand, up and down the bar while the rest of us clapped, high-fived, and sang on tables, chairs and booths.
This repeated every touchdown. Score!
Durkins wasn’t the only game in town. My second go-to Steelers bar was Lucky’s Sandwich Company near Wrigley Field where the owner, a native Pittsburgher, served a Primantis style menu. Joe’s Bar on Weed Street and the Dark Horse Tap rounded out the others. Once while dining out, I noticed the Blue Bayou Bar across the street had put up a Steelers banner on their façade as well.
That made five Steelers bars in a 2-mile radius.
And no, Chicago is not an anomaly. Fate leads me to Steelers bars when I’m traveling and not even seeking them out.
On a trip to Orlando, I looked out my taxi’s window and there was a Hooters sporting a large banner, notifying me that I was in Steelers country.
While bicycling through Key West in a downpour, my friends and I ditched our bikes and jumped into the Shanna Key Irish Pub and Grill for shelter. What we found was the southern most Steelers bar in America. Get aht!
The furthest south I’ve ever stumbled upon a Steelers bar was in Costa Rica. The proprietor was a life-long Steelers fan, and his mother lived down the street from my parents in Ridgway, PA—population 4000. Small world.
Stories are legendary and I love hearing them.
My brother spent a summer studying in Rome, and watched the Penguins win the Stanley Cup at La Boticella—home of Steelers Nation Italy. It’s a “must-visit” on my travel list.
Our friends recently took a cruise with a stop over in Puerto Rico and caught the game at the Steelers bar they found in old San Juan.
I even had a client tell me his family watched Super Bowl XL from their local Steelers bar in Hawaii, which served black n’ gold omelets for the occasion.
If the Cowboys are America’s team, the Steelers are the World’s team.
When I hear that Seattle’s fans—“the Twelfth Man”—are the NFL’s greatest, and no fan base is larger than Raiders Nation I think, wow, that’s cute. Google Terrible Towel and you’ll see it at the Taj Mahal, Mount Everest, and the International Space Station.
Steelers fan clubs span the globe. I’ve seen international fandom for soccer clubs like Manchester United—but never an NBA, MLB, or NFL team—with the exception of the Steelers.
The diaspora explains why Philly Steelers fans flock to the Fox and Hound and those in Baltimore have NcDevins for Steelers Sundays. As one who’s left Pittsburgh and come back, I can only say that Pittsburgh pride seems deepest amongst its ex-pats. For them, the Steelers are more than football—they’re an identity, and the logo is their flag.
Why an Italian has a bar dedicated to the Steelers in Rome and why large contingents draped in Mexican flags and Steelers jerseys pilgrimage to Heinz field each season is still a mystery to me, and I love it.
There’s something about the mystique and allure of this franchise that’s unexplainable and undeniable, win or lose. I’m just happy to be a part of it.
The writer is now living in Pittsburgh where every bar is a Steelers bar.