TAMPA -- There are football fans. And then there are Steeler fans.
Nick Neupauer is president of Butler Community College in northwestern Pennsylvania. He’s 41 years old, married with two kids, and he wears a tie to work every day.
He’s also been a Steelers fan his entire life, which makes him, well, sick.
Take his 1994 wedding to his wife, Tammy. At the reception, Nick got on one knee to slide the garter off his wife’s thigh.
Instead of grabbing the undergarment, however, he pulled a Terry Bradshaw doll from one sleeve of his tuxedo, a Terrible Towel from the other and then cued the disc jockey, who began playing the Steelers’ fight song.
Then there was the time Nick and his younger brother Mike needed to pay for their trip to Super Bowl XXX in Tempe. Mike entered a Toughman competition and was pummeled in his first fight.
“We went anyway,” Nick said.
On the flight to Phoenix, Nick was so overjoyed by Pittsburgh’s first Super Bowl game in 16 years that he stood up and started singing Steeler fight songs. The flight attendant motioned him to the front and handed him the microphone.
Nick was five songs into his set when the pilot stormed out of the cockpit.
“Can you please keep it down?” he said. “I can hear you screaming every word.”
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Arizona is just now embarking on a love affair with the Cardinals. Whether it lasts or is ended by irreconcilable differences, no one knows.
The Steelers, on the other hand, are the love of Pittsburgh’s life. Fans know the voice of NFL Films legend John Facenda as well as their child’s cry. The Steelers are Pittsburgh, as much as the old steel mills, Iron City beer and the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.
“I feel that sometimes we’re the heartbeat of the city,” linebacker James Farrior said.
The Pittsburgh Pirates once got the blood pumping – all of Pennsylvania danced to “We Are Family” as the 1979 Pirates won the World Series – but when the baseball team became irrelevant and the steel mills began to close down in the early 1980s, the city turned to its football team for respite.
“They have had difficult times in Pittsburgh and we sort of filled the void,” Steelers owner Dan Rooney said. "They could have something there for their pride."
The Steelers haven’t always been successful – they won just one playoff game from 1981 to 1993 – but their spiritual connection to the city never wavered. Even now, when the city is dotted with universities instead of steel mills, and you’re just as likely to find someone driving a BMW as a Ford truck, Pittsburgh takes its cue from its football team.
“When we win the city is happy, it seems like the sun is shining and there’s no traffic,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “When we lose, there’s traffic, the skies are dark and everybody is mad.
“That’s just what makes the city special. The city genuinely loves and appreciates what we do.”
The Steelers return that devotion with their success – five Super Bowl titles – and their mindset. Pittsburgh is tough, hardnosed, blue-collar. So is its football team. When the Steelers finished 8-8 in 2006 and had 53 more passing attempts than rushes, fans complained they had gotten away from “Steeler football.”
“It is unbelievable the charge people get when the defense takes the field,” Neupauer said. “How many cities are like that?”
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Two more Neupauer stories:
His daughter, Meredith, turned 11 on Dec. 26. But the family didn’t celebrate her birthday. They waited until last Saturday and combined her birthday with a Steelers’ Super Bowl celebration.
“It was great,” he said.
Before Neupauer married his wife, he made sure her devotion to the Steelers was pure and complete. He didn’t quiz her on the franchise’s history, like Baltimore Colts fanatic Eddie in the movie, “Diner,” but he had seen mixed marriages fail.
“She wouldn’t be my wife, otherwise,” he said. “I had a friend who married a Cleveland Browns fan. That didn’t work out.”