Steelers Nation invades Arrowhead Stadium
Monday, November 23, 2009
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Consider the weekend events arranged by the Kansas City Steelers Fan Club at its headquarters at Johnny's Bar in Overland Park, Kan.

In an earlier time, Overland Park was the starting point of three great routes west -- the Santa Fe, Oregon and California trails. Over the weekend, it seemed like all roads led back to Johnny's because of the Steelers fans who came from far and wide to encourage their team against the Chiefs.

"It's like being back home in Pittsburgh," said Bob Hite, a fan club member who is general manager of the local Doubletree Hotel. "No other team has a fan base like the Steelers."

Indeed. The Chiefs play in a stadium called Arrowhead, and highway signs refer to places in Missouri and Kansas. But it sure had the look and feel of Heinz Field West yesterday, at least it did before the Steelers lost a 27-24 shocker in overtime.

That's part of the mystique of the Steelers. The fan base openly unfurls its towels and battle flags to rename whatever enemy territory with a simple proclamation: You're In Steelers Country.

When the TV cameras find Terrible Towels in an opponent's stadium, announcers marvel that Pittsburgh fans travel well. They do, but that's only part of the story.

John Supp of the South Hills organized a trip for 27 people to attend the Kansas City game.

"It's a chance to go places and be with friends. This is the 14th city I've seen," he said. "People are galvanized by the Steelers. On the way out, we were talking about the tough economic times, and how everyone's working harder these days.

"The Steelers are recession-proof. If you still have two nickels to rub together, you're coming on this trip. If you have to give up everything else, you're coming on this trip. People have a lot of pride in their city. We're not a bunch of transients. It's a tight town. Are we going to be unhappy if they lose? Yes. But will we support them no matter what? Hell, yes."

On the other hand, the nation's heartland is home to a number of transplanted Pittsburghers. But of the 270 or so members of the Kansas City Steelers Fan Club, only about 70 have ties to Western Pennsylvania. The others, like club president Ed Kovac, grew up watching the Steelers and adopted them as their own.

"I have a picture of me when I was 4 years old dressed in Steelers stuff," he laughed. "I don't consider myself a convert. I've been a fan all my life."

Through the local fan club, a party was arranged on Saturday, complete with pierogies and Iron City beer. Four busloads of amped-up fans made the trek from Johnny's to Arrowhead.

With the Steelers in town, the weekend felt like part Thanksgiving, part Christmas and part reunion, particularly for the Leo Gaertner family.

Two brothers came up from Austin, Texas, to hook up with another brother and their dad, Leo, a West View native who lives in Cooke City, Mont., on the edge of Yellowstone National Park. In their group was Bill Anderson of Wichita, Kan., who was attending his first NFL game.

"My wife and I go to Yellowstone to watch wolves, and we got to know Leo Gaertner. Before you know it, he had us at the Steeler bar in Montana, so here I am," Mr. Anderson said.

Observing predators in packs requires a different mind-set than viewing football, and it was the Steelers who had a bite taken out of them yesterday.

A victory celebration had already been planned, but the stunning loss took the joy out of the afternoon. Still, those who came through the doors at Johnny's included fans from Arkansas, California, South Dakota, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas and across the Rio Grande from Monterrey, Mexico.

"It's amazing to me. These fans sort of come out of nowhere," said Amber Barnes, general manager at Johnny's.

Jerry Plantz, a local journalist and South Side native, marveled at the number of people who have no formal ties to Pittsburgh but who follow the Steelers.

"For some of them, the only thing they know of Pittsburgh is the view from the blimp. It's amazing. They're die-hards, too," he said. "There are pockets of fans all over the place. The fan club has outgrown a couple of places so far. I guess we'll have to get a convention hall next."

Kansas City was an attractive destination for a number of reasons, not the least of which was availability of tickets. The Chiefs don't sell enough season tickets to sell out, but they do recognize the law of supply and demand. Anyone who wanted a ticket to the Steelers game also had to buy a $100 ticket to the Seahawks-Chiefs pre-season game.

Other tickets could be bought easily on-line or through scalpers. There were almost as many empty red seats at Arrowhead as there were red-clad Chiefs fans.

For their part, the players find a measure of comfort in knowing that they will have visible and vocal support, no matter where they play.

"It makes you feel like you have home field advantage on the road," said defensive lineman Chris Hoke.

"One of the reasons we're so lucky to be playing for the Steelers is that no matter where we are on the road, we feel the love from Steeler Nation," added defensive end Brett Keisel. "I can't tell you how many road games we played when our fans are more into the game than [home team] fans."

The loyalty of the fans in black and gold brought a smile to nose tackle Casey Hampton's face.

"You get spoiled by it," he said. "A few years back, we were playing in Dallas and I was taken to the locker room after I got hurt. I heard this eruption, and I figured Dallas had done something. But what happened was, Kimo [von Oelhoffen] had picked up a fumble. I thought it was their fans going crazy."

The buses ferrying fans from Johnny's to the game and back was a microcosm of the black and gold fan base.

Marilyn Turner, who moved to the Kansas City area from Canonsburg, maintains her roots to home through the Steelers.

"Even if you leave there, you still consider it home. There's so much pride in being from there," she said. "Pittsburgh defines who we are -- the work ethic, the importance of family."

Becky Robinson, a Charleroi native, came to Kansas City by way of Fort Worth, Texas, where she runs the local fan club.

"We tried to get tickets to a Heinz Field game, which is impossible. So we drove the 81/2 hours to get here," she said. "To me, the Steelers are like family. We eat, we drink, we watch football and the stadium is like a big living room. Rooting for the Steelers isn't a hobby. It's a lifestyle. It's ingrained."

One of the more garish vehicles in the stadium parking lots yesterday belonged to Darrell Earnhart of Fayetteville, Ark., who became a Steelers fan after meeting his fiancee, Erie native Wendy Palmer. In a sea of red, his jeep was a bold yellow adorned with hypocycloids and Steelers flags.

"People ask me why I root for Pittsburgh if I live in Arkansas," he said. "I always ask them, 'Why not be a fan of the greatest team on earth?' "

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