From Steel Curtain to 'The Walking Dead,' loyalty runs deep in show's director

How the NFL is like a zombie apocalypse (3:41)

Actor Ross Marquand, who plays Aaron on "The Walking Dead" talks about how survival in the NFL mirrors the apocalyptic world from the television show, while several NFL superstars take on a zombie apocalypse of their own. (3:41)

If you’re a fan of shows that use a lot of makeup and special effects, you’ve probably seen some of Greg Nicotero’s work. He has been nominated for seven Emmy awards for makeup and visual effects for “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad,” and he has picked up two Emmy wins.

With "The Walking Dead," which has its season premiere on Sunday, he has been the main special-effects makeup artist as well as a co-executive producer and director of the show. If you watch the show, he’s part of the reason it looks so good.

On the set of "The Walking Dead," his Pittsburgh Steelers fandom has led to some fun moments. How did he become such a diehard fan of the Steelers? Nicotero explained that to ESPN, as well as why he thinks there’s a connection between NFL players and the show.

You’re from Pittsburgh, but how did you become a Steelers fan?

Greg Nicotero: I grew up, born in ’63, so I was in Pittsburgh when it was the City of Champions -- you know, when the Pirates won the World Series and the Steelers were winning, one for the thumb, all those Super Bowls. I lived there through the first four. Terry Bradshaw and Joe Greene and really when the Steelers were at their absolute best. So that was just sort of ingrained in who I was as a kid, spending time with the family watching football and going to games and stuff like that. I always find it interesting, people's interests and even the crossover, like we were talking earlier about people who are passionate. I was involved in a premiere for a George Romero film in Pittsburgh in 2005, and it became a big event. Quentin Tarantino came with me and Robert Rodriguez, and I brought a bunch of my friends, and when we were at this after-party, Jerome Bettis was there, and Franco Harris was there. There were a lot of Steelers VIPs who were wanting to meet Quentin Tarantino just to say they were fans of his work and vice versa. It really is a unique connection, but it’s what people are passionate about and what we love, and that’s what’s cool about "The Walking Dead." We’ve got this passionate, devoted fan base. Even with a football team, they’ll win some big games and lose some big games, but the fans are the fans, and the fans will never abandon their team. I don’t care what anybody says.

Once you’re a Steelers fan, once you’re a Cowboys fan, you generally don’t sway much, in my opinion. I think it’s the same with "The Walking Dead." We can kill off one of your favorite characters, but you’re still going to be devoted to the show, and you’re still going to be devoted to what we do because it’s part of the DNA. I think that’s critical in terms about why people are so passionate about stuff that they like, and in our instance, I would say we’re very similar to a lot of NFL players and sports figures in general because they are passionate about what they are passionate about, and that really doesn’t change. You either love it, or you never love it. With "The Walking Dead," the people that are really committed to the show, they might be bummed if we kill off a character if something crazy happens, but the great thing is they stay with it, just like fans of professional sports teams will stick with their team.

You mentioned going to Steelers games as a kid. Do you remember that first game? That first memory?

GN: I do. I do. It was at Three Rivers Stadium. As a matter of fact, I flew into Pittsburgh to attend the last game at Three Rivers Stadium before they tore it down. I’m a nostalgic guy, and I feel a very physical connection with places and people and things, so knowing that I spent the majority of my childhood going to that stadium, I felt like I wanted to be there to say goodbye.

What was the first trip like?

GN: It was friends of our family had season tickets, and we had four tickets, and I went with my dad and my two brothers, and any time you walk into a sports facility for the first time, you’re always struck by just the majesty of it all, and that was what I remember the most: walking out and seeing the field and just feeling that palpable energy. It’s like going to a concert. You feed off of the sort of communal experience. It’s like going to a concert or like when we have "Walking Dead" events at San Diego ComicCon. You walk out into a room with [6,000] or 10,000 people, and you can’t help but be affected by the energy that everybody gives off. I think that’s something that athletes and creative people share, that you feed off that. With "The Walking Dead," we feed off the energy of our fans just like football players do. If they are playing a game in a quiet stadium, it’s going to be very different than if they are in a stadium of 60,000 screaming fans.

Who was your favorite player?

GN: Well, I would probably say Jack Lambert. I just remember him being one of the most electrifying players just in terms of raw power. He was massive, and he was so great at what he did and such a great leader for the defense. The Steel Curtain, man, that was my era when I was growing up. It was Jack Ham and Jack Lambert and Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood. Those were the four guys that in many instances led our team to victory.

What’s your game-day ritual? I know it’ll change depending where you are.

GN: It does change. It’s kind of a bummer when I’m in Los Angeles because football is on at 10 o’clock in the morning, and it seriously bums me out. I grew up with football at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, and you could have the whole morning to get psyched for it. I got a bunch of Terrible Towels. I have a couple little Steelers helmets that have to come out. I have to kind of set everything up in a specific way, and sometimes it’s even me being superstitious to who I talk to the morning of the game. It’s very serious.

I have no doubt. During games, are you always at home? Or do you go to bars?

GN: I mix it up, but I get super anxious. Like, I can’t sit still. Like, I prefer going out to watch games versus watching games at home because I start pacing. It’s like, to me, I don’t care if it’s 28-0 -- I never relax. I always feel something is going to happen. It’s going to spin around. The Steelers had some amazing, amazing games last season. I can’t sit still. I like the energy of being in a bar in a place where you can watch it with people so you can share in their joy or their misery. I’m not so much about watching it at home because I feel I need more people around to burn off some of my manic energy.