"Isn't it because we had a good team once?" hypothesizes a friend of mine who isn't even old enough to remember the Steelers of the 1970s. Then again, she also isn't old enough to remember the Steelers of the 1980s ... or all of the other decades in which they sucked with the burning intensity of 10,000 suns. Older residents know that Pittsburgh's manic-depressive devotion to the game is bigger than the Steelers' former greatness, bigger than the NFL itself. The high schools in Monaca and Rochester, for example, play every year for the rights to name the Ohio River Bridge that connects them.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that our region puts heavy emphasis on football. Much of it is gathered in an invaluable article by Curt Miner, titled "Gridirons and Iron Men" and published in the Winter 2000 issue of Western Pennsylvania History. For starters, Miner cites a study by geographer John Rooney, who tracked the hometowns of college football players in the 1960s. On a per-capita basis, five of the top dozen counties for producing college football talent were in western Pennsylvania. Another five were located either in Ohio or the panhandle of West Virginia. Another 1960s-era study showed that in the "football belt" of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, high school football stadiums had an average capacity that was five times the size of their student enrollment. In one Beaver County school, the ratio was 15 to 1.
Science has a harder time saying why that is so. It's difficult to test enthusiasm in a laboratory, and the truth is that no single area has a monopoly on football madness. (If you doubt it, just read the book Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer about college football mania in Alabama.) But there are hypotheses about why football does better here than in many other places.
The most popular supposition is what I call the All the Right Moves theory, named for a Tom Cruise movie: A young Cruise hopes a college football scholarship will take him away from a dead-end life in a steel town. People are used to thinking of Pittsburgh as a great place to get away from, which adds to this theory's appeal. In the 1950s, a Sports Illustrated reporter opined that once you saw Pittsburgh's "slag heaps and grimy factories," one could "see why Pennsylvania turns out so many good players. For many, it is the only escape."
Indeed, as Miner points out, there is some empirical evidence to suggest that Pittsburgh had an edge when it came to making people miserable. A researcher named Douglas McDonald compared five strong football counties in the "football belt" with "weak football" counties elsewhere. Among other things, McDonald found that the most important factor in producing athletes "was the percentage of residents involved in manufacturing, particularly in single-industry towns."
Many observers conclude from this kind of data that tough jobs make tough football players. Gritty, physical industries like steelmaking reinforce a gritty, physical style of play on the football field.
But if you need a strong steel industry to manufacture strong football players, what will happen to Pittsburgh sports now that our industry has withered away? Will we end up yielding our dominance of football production to the Japanese and the Brazilians, just like we did with steel? What if Silicon Valley takes the lead in producing football players as well as software?
To some extent, it's already happened. Miner notes that in recent decades "the epicenter of football talent has shifted ... to such states as California, Florida and Texas." In other words, football players have moved along with everybody else -- out of the Northeast and to sunnier climes.
But there are reasons to think Pittsburgh will never fully lose its place as a hotbed of football talent. First, if Tom Cruise is right -- and who could ever doubt him? -- misery likes football. And given the local economy, we seem assured of having a favorable football climate for some time to come. And as Miner points out, "Tradition is worth considering as a prerequisite for the sport's popularity in Western Pennsylvania." In other words, football is popular because it always has been -- and presumably, it always will be. The fan base inspires the athletes of today, who will become the rabid fans of tomorrow.
Unless, of course, we lose to New England in the championship again next year. Then all bets are off.