'Terrible' influence yields good results

TAMPA, Fla. -- Technically, Super Bowl XLIII is a home game for the Arizona Cardinals, who will wear their red jerseys for their first trip to the big show.

But Sunday, Raymond James Stadium likely will look and feel like Pittsburgh's Heinz Field. Steelers fans have descended on this city all week long in increasing, improbable numbers. The Terrible Towel, the madly twirling, swirling instrument of their passion, is likely to dominate the game.

The living legacy of the Terrible Towel lies nearly 900 miles north, just west of Pittsburgh, in the small village of Corapolis, Pa., on the banks of the Ohio River. Drive over the brick streets of the town center, up a steep hill and, finally, around a sharp turn and you will discover the Allegheny Valley School.

There are group houses scattered comfortably around what looks like a prep school campus, an achingly quiet, insular community that is home for the autistic and mentally disabled.

This is the story of how the disparate worlds of the Allegheny Valley School, where communication is often difficult, and the thunderous, full-throated ecstasy of Pittsburgh's fanatics are tied together by a common, 100 percent-cotton thread, the very fabric of Steeler Nation.

"This towel is very, very powerful," said Regis Champ, the president of the school. "The people of Pittsburgh understand what this towel does and they love the Steelers. It's a great combination for us."

The Steelers themselves are acutely aware of the power.

"I think every great nation has a flag," Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu said. "I think the Steeler Nation, it's obvious that that's our flag."

Added Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, "When they wave that towel, it's just something that comes from in their soul and tries to reach out to us players."

The Terrible Towel has evolved over 33 years into the best-known fan symbol in professional sports. According to the Steelers, more than 6 million towels have passed into the population, not to mention a myriad of related items, such as scarves, tote bags and gloves. The price is relatively modest; for $7.95 you can own a piece of history.

The most devoted Steelers fans have towels for each of the past five Super Bowls in which their team appeared. For nearly two weeks, the McArthur Towel and Sports Company of Baraboo, Wis., has been cranking out the signature towel for Super Bowl XLIII. So far, 500,000 have come out of the factory. If the Steelers win, according to president Gregg McArthur, a victory over the Cardinals would create a demand for 500,000 more.

Do the math. That's a million Terrible Towels, roughly the same number produced when the Steelers defeated Seattle in Super Bowl XL three years ago. McArthur attended the 2009 AFC Championship Game against Baltimore.

"I never experienced anything like that," McArthur said. "It was amazing. No one holds a candle to what the Steelers do with the Terrible Towel."

It's not much to look at, really. It measures only 16 by 25 inches and weighs a little more than 3 ounces, but the Terrible Towel inspires an almost irrational loyalty.

When President Barack Obama visited Pittsburgh last April, he was presented with a Terrible Towel; eight months later they were seen among the sprawling crowd at his inauguration. When Kevin Cherilla, a native of Hampton, Pa., scaled Mount Everest in 2007, he left the Sherpas behind, but not the Terrible Towel. When he shares his slide show with local schoolchildren, the shot of the towel flapping at the summit invariably draws the most applause. The Terrible Towel has appeared on "Saturday Night Live," been waved at Vatican City, the Great Wall of China and has traveled with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After the Steelers beat the Ravens to advance to the Super Bowl, Mike Fincke celebrated. Fincke, who grew up in Emsworth, a small suburb of Pittsburgh, is the commander of NASA's Expedition 18 to the International Space Station. He looked into the camera and, in the gravity-free atmosphere high above the Earth, he unfurled his Terrible Towel and laughed.

Over the top

Great things are sometimes born of desperation and the Terrible Towel is no exception.

The Steelers won their first Super Bowl at the end of the 1974 season and the following season they won 12 of 14 games and advanced to the playoffs. The brain trust at WTAE, the team's flagship radio station -- general manager Ted Atkins, sales manager Larry Garrett and broadcaster Myron Cope -- tried to come up with a gimmick that would ride the crest of the team's success.

"I said, 'I'm not a gimmick guy,'" Cope said in a December 2006 interview with ESPN. "One of them reminded me my contract was coming up for negotiation ... and I said, 'I'm a gimmick guy.'"

The first idea was a black mask in the likeness of head coach Chuck Noll embossed in gold letters with his credo, "Whatever it takes." When the local novelty manufacturer quoted a price of 50 cents per piece, the Terrible Towel quickly became Plan B.

"Larry Garrett said, 'How about a towel -- everybody has a towel,'" remembered Bill Hillgrove, who broadcasts Steelers games today on WDVE. "And Cope immediately said, 'We'll call it the Terrible Towel and it will wreak its powers terribly on the opposition.'

"He's the only guy who could have given that life."

Cope was a character. He had a vivid imagination and he hyped the Terrible Towel in the days leading up to the 1975 divisional championship game against the Baltimore Colts at Three Rivers Stadium. He raved about it on his radio shows. He talked about it as if it were alive. He tossed towels at the anchor and weatherman on the 11 o'clock news.

"The Terrible Towel is poised to strike," Cope said, over and over again. "Bring a yellow, gold or black towel to the playoff game, and if you don't have one, buy one, if you don't want to buy one, dye one."

On the day of the game, the Steelers placed two gold towels in each player's locker. They weren't impressed. Safety Mike Wagner was in the tunnel, awaiting the introduction of the defense, when his pregame concentration was interrupted.

"All of a sudden, a couple of fellows were trying, were sticking these yellow rags, these things in our hands and asking us to run on the field for introduction spinning them around," Wagner said. "We looked at the fellows and said, 'I don't think so. We're trying to play football here.'"

The Steelers of the 1970s were a no-nonsense group, cast in the stoic image of Noll and the Rooney family, which owned the team. But when the defense was introduced, an estimated 30,000 of 50,000 fans pulled out their towels and started waving them and cheering. The players were impressed, but hardly moved. But when linebacker Andy Russell returned a fumble 93 yards for a touchdown, Three Rivers became a sea of shimmering, living gold.

The following Sunday, in the AFC Championship Game against the Raiders, wide receiver Lynn Swann put the towel completely over the top when the offense was introduced at Three Rivers.

"You have to understand that we were doing things as a team and that things weren't premeditated," Swann said. "Back in the '70s there were no Sharpies in your sock and I wasn't hiding a phone in the goalpost. It was a cold day, a wet day and I didn't have a towel. I grabbed the Terrible Towel and put it in my hand, and it was almost a nervousness.

"There was no choreographed move here, and I was standing there looking up into the stands, and I had the towel in my hand, and so I just started waving the towel. And when they saw me just hitting it against my leg and they saw me waving it, then all the sudden they picked up their towels and started waving their towels."

Said Hillgrove, "When Swannie, who was one of the leaders of that team, came out with the towel, I think the others took their cues. He was the guy. When Swann said 'Let's do it,' you know, I think the fans just grabbed. And they're still grabbing."

Wagner, an old-school guy to the end, never, ever waved the towel. His punishment? He's autographed thousands of them for fans over the years. Try autographing a towel with a Sharpie -- it's not that easy.

"Myron Cope was the unique guy," Wagner said. "He always was referring to it, and he was able to do it in a way that the fans here in Pittsburgh said, 'Yes, yes, this is important to us. This is our role here. Our role is to own a Terrible Towel, to wave it at opportune times, to work its magic.'"

An enduring legacy

Cope was ecstatic over the success of the Terrible Towel, but uneasy with the perception that he was making a financial killing. He donated his portion of the proceeds to several area charities, but in 1996 he signed over his copyright to the Allegheny Valley School.

"He came in, shut the door, came over and threw a sheaf of papers on my desk," remembered Champ, the school's CEO. "[He] said 'These are from my attorney. You are now the proud owner of the Terrible Towel. The Terrible Towel, it's yours, take care of it, protect it.'

"I was speechless. I immediately understood the importance of this. This was a very powerful symbol for Pittsburgh, all of Pittsburgh and he was turning it over to us."

Cope, as it turns out, had been visiting the school for years, along with his wife, Mildred, and daughter Elizabeth. The charismatic broadcaster who made a living crafting words had a son, Danny, who has never spoken a word in his life. He is autistic and for 27 years the Allegheny Valley School has been his home.

"Myron's love of his children was unsurpassed and he was so excited that he came up with the idea to donate it to the school and leave a legacy for his son," Champ said. "Not only his son, but all his son's friends and all the people we care for here at the Allegheny Valley School."

Daniel Torisky founded the Autism Society of Pittsburgh, along with Cope, with the $400 in royalties the Terrible Towel earned Cope in its first year.

"I don't want to sound preachy," Torisky said, "but [the towel is] a symbol of personal excellence, both in caring for people who are the most vulnerable citizens as well as caring for a pal who is helping you achieve an objective, like the Super Bowl.

"In the center of Pittsburgh is the Terrible Towel, believe it. This was the final meaning of his life -- talk about a legacy, pal. I believe he was aware that this would live beyond him."

Cope died last February. With snow falling outside Town Hall, more than 350 friends paid him tribute. They roared and waved the Terrible Towels that bore his name.

To date, the Allegheny Valley School has received more than $2.5 million from sales of the Terrible Towel and related merchandise.

Many major sports franchises have tried at some point to market a similar towel, but none of them has had the staying power of the Terrible Towel. Why? Exquisite timing, early in the curve of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl success. Luck. The belief of a frenzied fan base. The towel, like Dorothy's ruby slippers in "The Wizard of Oz," has no inherent magical power. It's what you bring to the towel. The Steelers' fans who wave it have an enduring optimism that something good will come of it.

And what of those who disrespect the towel? History is littered with casualties. In 2005, Cincinnati receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh wiped his feet with a Terrible Towel after scoring a touchdown. The Bengals won the game, but the Steelers extracted their revenge, beating Cincinnati in the playoffs during their road to Super Bowl XL. After Ravens receiver Derrick Mason jumped on the towel before a September 2008 matchup, Baltimore lost all three of its games against Pittsburgh. For those looking for an omen, consider this: On Monday, Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon pretended to blow his nose in the Terrible Towel and then threw it to the ground.

The Steelers' record in the 43-plus years before the towel is 230-299-20 (.435), with only four playoff victories and one Super Bowl. In the 33-plus years after the Terrible Towel was conceived it's 335-222-1 (.601), with 24 playoff victories and four Super Bowls. Pittsburgh has a chance to win an NFL-record sixth here in Tampa.

"The stadium will be moving," Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "So many towels going around, you know, they're twirling in a circle motion. It's crazy."

Swann is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is an accomplished broadcaster. He was the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania last year. But for some Steelers fans, he will be best remembered for bringing the Terrible Towel to life at Three Rivers Stadium.

"There is only one Terrible Towel for any team in the National Football League," Swann said. "Anyone who is waving any other color, means nothing. It's just one Terrible Towel."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.