Ultimate Fan Guide: Our Road Home

The power of fandom to cross great distances, overcome cultural barriers and bring the world back to Pittsburgh.




Photo by Dave DiCello
 

 

Being a sports fan is about loneliness. The myth is that fandom is built on the pillars of American togetherness – the tailgate, the suburban sports bar populated by impossibly good-looking light beer drinkers and, of course, the ubiquitous habitat of the well-adjusted American: the man cave. In the dreamscape of the senior marketing manager at Big Beer Inc., we are all there in the bar together – fist-pumping, ordering wing baskets and wearing giant novelty hats. But that’s not reality.

Unfortunately, life has a way of putting miles between old friends. We go to college. We take the promotion. We deploy, retire or simply drift away. Suddenly, lives play out on a Facebook timeline. Yet no matter how far apart we’re scattered, there’s a secret door we can walk through to return home, if only for a few hours.

At 5 a.m. local time in Beijing, Mike Lange’s radio broadcast streams over the laptop speakers of an expatriated puckhead, and, like magic, the pulsing neon skyscrapers outside the window melt into the shape of the Pittsburgh skyline. It becomes a Hockey Night in China. At 11 p.m. in Heidelberg, Germany, U.S. military personnel gather at a Steelers bar, where they order bottles of imported Iron City. A yellow banner hangs from on high: “You’re in Steelers Country.” At 1 p.m. somewhere in the U.S., a college freshman stands outside of a red brick building, calls his grandfather back in Pittsburgh and says, “Buccos’ pitching looks tough this year, Pap.” Then he goes inside, takes a seat in the back of the lecture hall and, with earbuds running inconspicuously up his shirt like a wiretap, he listens to the whip-crack of the first pitch of Opening Day.

And just like that, we’re all together again.

Pittsburgh fandom is different. Our borders are open. We’re nothing if not a melting pot.

When I was a freshman in college, nearly everyone in our dormitory would congregate in a tiny, unholy smelling “theater room” on Sunday afternoons to watch football. The room was equipped with a 32-inch, standard-definition TV, and furnished with beanbags and IKEA’s finest particleboard loungers. The place smelled of AXE body spray and carbohydrates. And yet the power of NFL Sundays was such that even most of the girls’ floor showed up to observe The American Manchild in his bizarre natural habitat.

On the first of these Sunday gatherings, a student from Mumbai named Amir peeked his head in the door, grimaced at the programming and immediately turned around to head off to the library. When asked to join, he shouted back, “American football is stupid.”

The comment solicited a hearty laugh from the football crew. Amir was a ghost for most of that year. He streamed cricket matches and Skyped home every day. Then, about a year later, I saw him walking through campus with his trademark 4-ton backpack and flip-flops. But he was wearing something completely unexpected: an authentic, stitched, genuine Hines Ward jersey. It had to be irony. But when I pointed to his jersey in disbelief, his response couldn’t have been more earnest.

He chanted in a thick accent, “Here we go, Steelers, here we go!”

Amir and I talked about the team for five minutes after that. He was sure they’d go on to win the 2005 Super Bowl that season, and he was right. When the Steelers finally got their elusive One for the Thumb, Amir ran through the Oakland riots half-naked, whipping that Hines Ward jersey around his head like a helicopter.

Amir didn’t fall in love with the complicated rules of American football, nor was he enraptured with big hits or blitz packages. He often mispronounced player names. Truth be told, he was more at home in a museum or a robotics laboratory than in a dorm room man cave. What he really fell in love with was Pittsburgh. He wore the Steelers logo on his chest as a badge of honor.

Amir is working in California now, and we still talk about the Steelers every now and then. In the fall, he walks to the pizza shop each Sunday with his Hines Ward jersey on and gives a knowing nod whenever he passes other members of Steeler Nation’s Silicon Valley chapter on the street. When he gets back to his apartment, he drapes a Terrible Towel over his television stand and starts texting friends around the world about the game.

And just like that, he gets to walk through the secret door. He visits his adopted home, if only for a few hours.

The myth is that sports fandom is the purest form of escapism — that we’re all running away from something by taking these schoolyard games to heart. Anyone who has ever been lonely, who has ever walked through the secret door, knows that’s a lie. When we turn our Pirates caps inside-out hoping against hope for a McCutchen-led miracle rally; when we waste away hours on Twitter debating Penguins free agency with adopted fans in Russia and Sweden; when we scream at the Steelers to please, God, send a blitz through television screens and laptops and radios in Hong Kong, Düsseldorf, San Francisco and Castle Shannon, there is only one truth: We’re not running away. We’re all running back home.



 

More from the Ultimate Fan Guide:

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our new, daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

The month's best bets in The 'Burgh.
Best Restaurants 2016

Best Restaurants 2016

Which 33 Pittsburgh-area establishments did our independent Restaurant Review Panel include among its top picks this year? Find them here.
Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

In addition to awarding Best Restaurant honors this year, our Independent Restaurant Review Panel also voted to recognize six chefs for their contributions to Pittsburgh’s culinary community in 2015.
Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

German blends a collage of community activism and soul-searching artistry.
PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

It only takes one person, one jagoff, one childish, attention-seeking, discourteous jerk to send a woo through PNC Park.
Daytripping: Canonsburg is a City of Antiques

Daytripping: Canonsburg is a City of Antiques

Nearby Canonsburg is a rare find for antiques collectors.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Richard DeShantz Plans Two New Restaurants at Salt of the Earth Building

Richard DeShantz Plans Two New Restaurants at Salt of the Earth Building

DeShantz owns three other Pittsburgh restaurants and is about to open a fourth.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


Highmark Stadium Pub Wants Your Attention

Highmark Stadium Pub Wants Your Attention

The in-house tavern at the Riverhounds' home stadium is now welcoming guests during weekdays. But is it worth a dedicated stop?

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Pens-Sharks Cup Final Lacks Mystery But Not Intrigue

Pens-Sharks Cup Final Lacks Mystery But Not Intrigue

Game 1 turned out to be as revealing, potentially, as it was riveting, for the Sharks and for the Pens.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Flip the Switch: Industrial-Style Lighting Made in Pittsburgh

Flip the Switch: Industrial-Style Lighting Made in Pittsburgh

An electrician by trade, designer Thomas Verscharen creates custom lighting out of repurposed pieces.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The X-Men Would've Done Better in Wonderland

The X-Men Would've Done Better in Wonderland

Reviews of "X-Men: Apocalypse," "Alice Through the Looking Glass," "A Bigger Splash" and "Love and Friendship."

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Get with the (Wedding) Program

Get with the (Wedding) Program

Have you ever considered making programs for your wedding guests? If not, think again and get creative.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
A Tiny House that's Big on Energy Savings

A Tiny House that's Big on Energy Savings

Spread out across the city for these upcoming events, including a “Tiny House” exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center displayed by the FIY Network.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Duquesne University to Host Small Business Networking Event

Duquesne University to Host Small Business Networking Event

The event will connect hundreds of small business managers and owners and provide useful information to help them take their enterprises to the next level.

Comments