The lives and passions of Steel Women

Alyssa Roenigk, third from left, catches up with friends and family to find out why Pittsburgh women love their hometown Steelers. Courtesy Alyssa Roenigk

"When you play Pittsburgh, you play the whole city." -- Howard Cosell, Oct. 9, 1982

In the winter of 2009, I opened the front door of my Santa Monica apartment to receive a Fed Ex delivery I was hoping would arrive before I left for the airport that morning. As I signed for the box, I noticed the deliverywoman, new to my route, staring into my living room. It was late January and I was leaving to cover a snowboard contest in Park City. "Is that a Terrible Towel in your suitcase?" she asked. "And a jersey? Are you going to the game on Sunday?"

"No," I told her. "I'm going to Utah." Then, a bit embarrassed, I attempted to rationalize my packing: "The Steelers are playing in the AFC Championship Game! I'm bringing the towel for good luck. I'm going to snowboard in the jersey." I realized I sounded crazy.

"Oh, I understand," she said, peeling back the lapel of her black FedEx work shirt to reveal a round Steelers pin. "I'm from Pittsburgh, too."

There's no question Steelers fans carry our allegiance with us, whether on the front of a T-shirt, in the pocket of a suitcase or hidden somewhere only we know is there. The transitive property of the Pittsburgh Steelers is perhaps the strongest of any team in the nation, Terrible Towels populating the stadiums of rivals and giving road games a hometown feel.

I was born in Pittsburgh and took some of my first steps in black-and-yellow sweatpants. I learned the names Franco and Terry before Ernie and Bert. But while my dad taught me to throw a spiral and watch the ball into my hands, my mother made me a fan. It was she who bought and dressed me in those Steelers sweats, showed me when to cheer and demonstrated the best angle at which to throw a pillow at the TV when things didn't go our way. Even as a kid, I watched football as my mom did, intensely and with passion, in a voice a few decibels above my everyday. I still do. So does my sister. And my cousins. My 94-year-old grandmother still watches the games every Sunday, provided my Aunt Carol remembers to stop by and tell her what channel is carrying the Steelers.

"Oh, no. It's not OK to not be a Steelers fan," says Jody Drechsler, 42, who missed attending only two games last season, one on the day her granddaughter was born and a second the day her best friend, Kim, gave birth to a son. "But is it true women in other cities aren't like we are? They don't follow football? I had no idea."

The women of Pittsburgh have been captivated, and that is a powerful thing. Women run their households, hold a majority of the buying power and decide how to dress their kids. Over the past several decades, they've passed down their passion to sons and daughters and packed their loyalty into boxes when they moved out of Pittsburgh with the steel industry or, like my family, in search of warmer temps.

But how did the Pittsburgh Steelers manage to capture women in a way no other NFL team has, and how have they held onto us for so long?

I'm returning to Pittsburgh to find out.

Fans recently converged to Heinz Field and explain what makes their Steelers so lovable.

One by one, the women filter into The Fieldhouse, a sports-themed restaurant in the Pittsburgh suburb of Cabot, shake off the October chill -- "football weather," as they call it -- and compliment one another's apparel. It's a Thursday afternoon, three days before the 1-4 Steelers will take on the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field, and I've invited them here to talk football.

Within an hour, I'm surrounded by three generations of Steelers fans, a makeshift fan club that includes my mother, Joy, her 79-year-old Aunt Winnie, two of her high school girlfriends and a few friends of friends. To a woman, they're dressed in black-and-gold jerseys and jackets, carrying Steelers purses and wallets and accessorized in logos from earlobes to toes, Pittsburgh versions of their Sunday best.

"There were a lot of fair-weather fans in the '60s," says Jean Spinetti, 64, who's wearing one of the three black, No. 7 jerseys she owns. "Then Terry Bradshaw came along. The Steel Curtain. And Franco and the Immaculate Reception. That's when it all started. That's when we all became fans."

"Remember when we watched the games at your cousin, Walt's, house? We were, what, 19, 20? And your cousin Bob lent us battery-powered TVs from his electronics store to take to Three Rivers," my mom says. She's dressed in the No. 43 jersey she borrowed from my sister, Mandee, who's more partial to her No. 86. "We didn't have JumboTrons back then. That's how we watched instant replay."

Jean's daughter-in-law, Kim Spinetti, was recently denied entry to a game for carrying a purse. On Sundays as a kid, Kim, 37, says she and her younger sister crowded onto the family couch alongside Mom and Dad to watch the Steelers games. At first, those afternoons were about spending time with her family. But as the excitement seeped in, she fell in love with the game. Today, she's passing her passion along to her 1-year-old son, Jordan. And if the photo gallery on her iPad is any indication, Jordan has already spent much of his young life in black-and-gold gear, despite the fact that Kim is married to Jean's son Jason, a Dolphins fan.

"I allowed him to buy one Dolphins shirt," she says, joking that Jordan will likely outgrow it before the tags are removed. When Jordan was born last October, the nurse at Magee-Womens Hospital wrapped him in a receiving blanket, covered that blanket in a Terrible Towel and handed him to Kim and Jason. Jordan was born on a Sunday.

"I tried waiting as long as I could," says Kim, who delayed her hospital admittance until she was able to set her fantasy lineup and triple-check the Steelers' start time. "Fortunately," she says, "there was a TV in the delivery room."

When Steelers athletic trainer Sonia Gysland, who grew up a Vikings fan in Minneapolis, moved to Pittsburgh in 2011, she was struck by how un-unique she'd become. "I always prided myself on knowing a lot about football," Gysland says. "But here, every woman knows the game. It's not like this in other cities."

I found that out in the third grade, when I moved with my family to southwest Florida. There, football allegiances were split six ways to Sunday, a day when most of my friends' moms offered to drive us all to the beach. In Pittsburgh, football had been a nondenominational religion worshiped by moms and grandmas and sisters as devoutly as by granddads and dads. Families like mine attended church, returned home for Sunday supper and then crowded around a television to watch the game and use our outside voices in the living room. But we were far from unique.

In 2007, a Scarborough Sports Marketing survey found that nearly 35 percent of women in Pittsburgh self-identified as Steelers fans. The company surveyed more than 220,000 residents in 75 U.S. markets on a variety of topics and, in this instance, Pittsburgh's numbers more than doubled the national average. This finding seemed so out of the ordinary, so special, that it prompted national coverage. But I couldn't help but think that number sounded low.

Then, in 2012, an ESPN poll reported that 55 percent of Steelers fans are women, giving Pittsburgh the most lopsided and estrogen-rich fan base in the NFL. This number, unlike that of the first study, accounted for fans across the nation, not just those who reside in Pittsburgh. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 51.3 percent of people in Pittsburgh are women (and 50.8 percent of people in the U.S.), so this math seemed to check out. If you're a woman and you're from Pittsburgh, you're a Steelers fan. And if you aren't, then you lie to a survey taker and say you are.

Out of these findings came many stories attempting to explain the deep-rooted connection between the team and its female following. But none of them felt complete. And after four days in Pittsburgh, I don't believe that connection has anything to do with pink jersey sales, the team's annual camp for women or the fact that the Steelers hired the first and second female athletic trainers in NFL history -- Ariko Iso, now head trainer for Oregon State football, and Gysland, who was hired full time in 2011. Those are simply examples of a team catering well to its 55 percent female fan base and, in spite of long-held stereotypes and fear, hiring the best person for a job.

Some of the women I spoke with cited the city's incredible high school football culture, which bred many of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks -- Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Joe Namath, to name a few-- and allowed moms who supported their sons to fall in love with the game. Others imagined the connection beginning with the Terrible Towel, or the team's tie to the steel industry that employed their husbands and dads.

At the stadium, I met Carol Green and Jane Raupp, friends who've had season tickets and sat next to each other on Sundays for 45 years. They said the type of players Pittsburgh attracts, attracted them. "They're nice people who give back to the community," Green, 71, says. "The owners, too. And the atmosphere at the games is family friendly. In almost 50 years, I've never seen a fight. I feel comfortable bringing my grandchildren here."

One woman reached out via Twitter and offered the absence of a Steelers cheerleading team as an explanation. In her mind, a lack of women on the sideline meant more women in the stands.

I believe they're all correct. After all, this is their story as much as it is mine. But the genesis of the connection, I believe, lies in the stories of women like my mother, the Baby Boomers who fell in love with the Steelers in the '70s, raised a generation of fanatics and are now grandmothering the next.

In 1970, more than 1.2 million women lived in the city of Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas. But before that year, few of the women I spoke with said they would have called themselves Steelers fans. Some of their husbands and fathers watched the games when the team was in town and the games were televised and, of course, the Pirates weren't playing. Back then, it was the Pirates, led by Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente, who captivated the city. The Steelers, by comparison, were downright abysmal.

Then, in 1969, a perfect storm began to stir. That year, the Steelers hired 37-year-old Chuck Noll as head coach. Noll used his first draft pick to select defensive tackle Joe Greene and then, after an embarrassing 1-13 debut season, drafted quarterback Terry Bradshaw with the No. 1 overall pick. Also that year, Myron Cope began his 35-year tenure as the voice of the Steelers, "Monday Night Football" debuted and Three Rivers Stadium was completed. As Pittsburgh's economy declined in the midst of a national recession and the steel industry began to abandon the city, the industry's namesake football team began its steady upward climb.

And then came December 23, 1972, a day Pittsburgh fans remember like the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Although I was not yet alive, it's easy to imagine that day through the memories of the women I spoke with this week. I can imagine my mom, who grew up in a sports-agnostic household, hanging out with Jean and their friends at a playoff party at Walt's house. It's the days of new feminism and the year Title IX is passed. Jean is dressed in a black Bradshaw jersey. My mom is 20, wearing a black Franco Harris T-shirt and bell-bottom jeans and doing something of which her dad likely wouldn't approve. She's drinking beer, listening to Cope on the radio, watching the sellout game on NBC and, with a little more than a minute left, certain the Raiders have ended her team's season. And then it happens. An early Christmas present.

"We thought it was over. We thought we lost," my mom says. "And then Franco catches that crazy pass. The Immaculate Reception. I will never forget it." At that moment, she was hooked. Her girlfriends were hooked. That they lost to the Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game the next weekend didn't matter. That catch, that improbable win, is the moment the city remembers. It was the moment that gave them all hope.

But it wasn't just that the team was winning. Those same players who were larger than life on Sundays were also accessible on the days in between. They shopped in the same grocery stores as fans, ate at the same restaurants, walked to the stadium on game days and rode the bus home at night. They took part in community service drives, fashion shows and holiday events, handed out black-and-gold Christmas stockings to local businesses, called in to local radio shows and hung around after games to sign autographs. Even the team's founder and owner stood outside the stadium on game days, shaking hands and yukking it up with fans.

"Art Rooney was the most accessible owner in sports. He understood how to relate to people and how important that connection was, and his players were expected to be accessible to the community," says sports historian Jim O'Brien, who's written 12 books on the Steelers and says more than 75 percent of his book sales are to women. "That culture has been kept in place. The players here aren't movie stars. That wouldn't work in Pittsburgh."

And while relationships matter to everyone, that connection is especially important to women. We're a tough set. If we're going to buy in to a game we do not grow up playing, we want to know the people for whom we cheer. Most of us fell in love with the team first, and then we learned the game. And the better we knew the players, the more connected we felt to their stories, the louder we roared.

"I credit it all to the old man. I saw how involved he was in the community and how important that was to him, and he was my mentor," says Franco Harris, the orchestrator of the greatest moment in Steelers history. "I wanted to be like him."

If anyone represents the prototypical Pittsburgh player and the team's connection to the community, it is Harris, an icon so rooted in the city that side-by-side statues of him and a young George Washington welcome visitors to Pittsburgh International Airport. It seemed as if every woman I spoke with had a "that time I met Franco Harris" story to share.

Like that time Amy Zylinski, 47, met him while walking into the Great Hall in downtown Pittsburgh and he stopped to take a photo. The time my cousin Shannon met him at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a community rails-to-trails unveiling and the day Courtney Desimone and her mom, Mary, met him on Penn Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh a few hours before 25-year-old Courtney attended her first game at Heinz Field. Each of these women left their encounter with a story to tell and a deeper connection to the team, one more link in an ever-strengthening chain.

"I feel connected to this community," Harris says. "I always knew I would stay in the city where I was drafted. But Pittsburgh is special. Was what happened here the perfect storm? Was it fate? I don't know what else I would call it."

Harris is walking down Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh's bustling Strip District, where a steady stream of fans dressed in black-and-gold gear head to the game, which the Steelers will win, 19-16. More than half of the fans who pass by are women, a detail that does not go unnoticed given the topic of conversation.

"I don't know if this all could have happened anywhere else," he says. "But this is Pittsburgh."

I'm standing naked in a hallway lined with orange-and-brown shag carpeting and light wood wall paneling, my pruned feet gripping the carpet for warmth. It's 1981. I'm 4 years old, fresh out of the bathtub and starting to shiver. It's fall, football weather, and the cool air is seeping in through tiny cracks in the walls. I probably should have stepped out of the bath and straight into a towel. Instead, I wait.

"Hey, kid," my mom calls from a few steps away, oversized warm towel in hand.

That's my cue. I turn to face her, smile and reach out my arms.

"Catch," she says as she tosses the fuzzy towel. It lands in my arms, I pull it in and wrap it around my body. "Wow," I say. "Thanks, Mean Joe."

I can't say with certainty that this is my first memory of my relationship with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it's the story I like to tell. In my mind, I can almost hear the theme song from that 1979 Coke commercial playing in the background, as if the two scenes are taking place simultaneously, Mean Joe Greene and my mom standing elbow to elbow, catering to my post-bath needs. Telling that story always makes me smile, and my telling of it is usually prompted by a string of familiar questions:

"Why did you want to write about football? Have you always liked football? Was your dad a big Steelers fan? Did he teach you the game?"

That's when I tell them about my mom.