Behind the Steel Curtain

Originally Published: December 17, 2009
By Paul Lukas | Page 2

The Steelers' postseason hopes are looking iffy at best. But at least Pittsburgh fans can depend on the team's uniforms, which rank among the NFL's most classic designs. Simple, timeless, elemental -- that's the Steelers uni.

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Or is it? A closer look reveals that the Steelers have had a surprising number of unique uniform quirks over the years, several of which continue to this day. Much like the Cowboys (whose uniform aberrations we examined a while back), the Steelers are a hotbed of uni anomalies hiding inside a deceptively simple-seeming package.

So here's Uni Watch's list of the Steelers' top 10 uniform eccentricities, along with an assessment of how unique each one is. Without further ado:

Look at the Steelers linemen from one side and you see their familiar helmet logo; look at them from the other side and you see lots of plain black space. That's because the Steelers wear their helmet logo on only one side. This quirk dates back to 1962, when club officials weren't sure how the logo would look, so they told the equipment manager to put the helmet decals on only one side, as a test. The team ended up having its best season ever up to that time, so the decision was made to stick with the one-sided format.

Uniqueness Factor: Very high. No other NFL team has ever gone with asymmetrical headgear.

Every August, like clockwork, Uni Watch HQ is flooded with e-mails from people pointing out that the Steelers' familiar front-helmet uniform numbers are missing. As Uni Watch patiently explains each time, this is one of the team's annual rituals. They go without the helmet numbers during the preseason and then add the numbers once the regular season starts. So if you don't make the final roster cut, no helmet number for you!

Uniqueness Factor: High. Uni Watch is unaware of any similar protocol in the NFL. The closest thing is in the NHL, where the Red Wings use straight block lettering for their player names during the preseason before reverting to their usual vertically arched letters on opening night.

The Steelers logo is based on the Steelmark, which was created by the American Iron and Steel Institute. The logo originally read "Steel" (not "Steelers"), and that's how it looked when it debuted on the team's helmets midway through the 1962 season, but owner Art Rooney eventually got permission to change the word to "Steelers" in 1963.

Uniqueness Factor: High. Other pro sports teams have had corporate tie-ins with other businesses (the team name "Mighty Ducks of Anaheim," for example), but the Steelers are the only team Uni Watch can think of whose logo is based on a design from a completely different industry.

Many fans aren't aware -- and others would rather forget -- that the Steelers wore these jerseys in 1966 and '67. The yellow shoulder yoke was officially called "the Golden Triangle" (a reference to downtown Pittsburgh's nickname), but the design quickly became known as the Batman uniform, because the yellow panel looked like a cape. Uni Watch actually thinks it looked pretty cool (you can see additional photos here), but the Steelers were a bad team at the time, so anything they did was quickly ridiculed. After two seasons, the Golden Triangle was quietly retired.

Uniqueness Factor: Fairly high. Plenty of NFL teams have worn contrasting shoulder panels, but the Steelers are the only ones who've used the cape-like shape.

All the colored accents you see on NFL footwear these days can be traced back to Steel Curtain mainstay L.C. Greenwood, who wore gold cleats back in the '70s -- sometimes high-tops, sometimes low-tops, always distinctive. According to a display at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, "He was fined every game for wearing them, but the fines were never more than $100, and the Steelers' organization 'forgot' to collect the money from him."

Uniqueness Factor: High for its time. Back in the day, nobody else was wearing anything but solid white or solid black.

The Steelers were the designated home team for Super Bowl XL. But instead of wearing their black home jerseys, they opted to go with their road whites. The move was rooted in superstition: The Steelers had reached the Super Bowl by winning three consecutive playoff games on the road, so they decided not to mess with sartorial success.

Uniqueness Factor: High. The Cowboys and Redskins have chosen to wear white in the Super Bowl, but that's because they normally wear white at home. And the Cowboys wore their road blues in Super Bowl V despite being the home team, but that was because the rules at the time required the designated home team to wear its colored jersey. The Steelers are the only Super Bowl home team that's chosen to wear its road uni for the big game.

Hey, is that the Steelers? Nope, it's the University of Iowa. Looks just like the Steelers, though, right? The similarities date back to 1978, when Hawkeyes coach Haden Fry, who'd been brought in to turn around the dismal Iowa football program, wanted to give his team the look of a winner. The school's colors were already black and gold, and the Steelers were in the midst of their late-'70s dynasty, so he got permission from Steelers owner Art Rooney to create a knockoff of Pittsburgh's uni design.

Uniqueness Factor: High. Georgia and Grambling wear the Packers' "G" logo, but Uni Watch is unaware of any similar examples of an NCAA team duplicating an NFL team's entire uniform.

Troy Polamalu's long hair usually obscures the rear-neckline area of his jersey. So it might surprise you to learn that he has a little cross embroidered right above his nameplate. That's a major violation of NFL uni regulations, but the league's position is that it's OK because it's usually covered by his hair. (Translation: "We reeeaaaallly don't want to get involved in a controversy about religious expression.")

Uniqueness Factor: High. Tim Tebow can cite Bible verses on his eye-black stickers all day long, but Polamalu is the only major-level athlete Uni Watch can think of with a religious symbol actually stitched into his team's uniform.

9. "C" NO EVIL
You know those "C" patches that team captains have been wearing for the past three seasons? The patch program is optional -- the Packers, for example, have worn them only in playoff games. And a few other teams have occasionally gone without them. But only one team has never worn the captaincy patches: the Steelers.

Uniqueness Factor: Go back and reread that last sentence.

The Steelers wore green in 1943 -- sort of. With NFL rosters depleted due to World War II, the Steelers and Eagles were forced to merge for one season, becoming the Steagles (yes, that's really what they were called), and creating a thorny uniform conflict. According to Matthew Algeo's book "Last Team Standing": "Eagles owner Lex Thompson would not allow his players to wear anything other than the team's usual colors of kelly green and white. [Steelers owners Bert] Bell and [Art] Rooney wanted the team to wear the Steelers' black and gold jerseys, at least when playing in Pittsburgh. In the end, Thompson won out. The team would wear Eagles jerseys for every game. Bell and Rooney probably gave in because it would have been too costly to clean and maintain two sets of uniforms all season anyway." Steagles photos are rare, but a recent episode of "Amazing Sports Stories" interpreted their uniforms like so. Hey, it could've been worse.

Uniqueness Factor: The following year, the Steelers again had to merge with another team -- this time the Chicago Cardinals. According to football historian Tim Brulia's breakdown of early football uniforms, the merged team, which was called Card-Pitt (man, that's even worse than the Steagles) wore "a white helmet; red jersey with white numerals (blue jersey with white numerals for game at Redskins); white pants; red socks." Just another weird chapter in Steelers uni history.

As Gregg Easterbrook likes to point out, the multicolored icons on the Steelers' logo are not stars -- they're hypocycloids. That's true as far as it goes, but it's not specific enough. If you really want to get geeky about it (who, Uni Watch?), call them by their proper name: astroids, which refers to a four-pointed hypocycloid.

Uniqueness Factor: How many other teams provide a geometry lesson at no extra charge?

The nameplate lettering on the Steelers' road jerseys has always been gold -- except in 1997, when it was black. ... For decades now the Steelers' socks have featured thick vertical ribbing, which add a nice textural element to the proceedings. ... Back in the 1970s, the lettering on the team's helmet logo was rendered in a surprisingly cutesy typeface. ... The Steelers don't have cheerleaders, but they used to. The Steelerettes, as they were called, were active from 1961-69 and had some groovy uniforms.

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, your Pittsburgh Steelers -- a team with much more than meets the eye.

Meanwhile, Over on the Diamond

If your favorite MLB team just traded for Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay, well, good on ya. But for all the disgruntled baseball fans whose hot-stove seasons have so far been more like lukewarm, some gorgeous old wire-service photos might be the perfect pick-me-up. You can see dozens more of these amazing shots here.

Paul Lukas would like to see the Steelers revive the Batman design as a throwback. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.

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