I attended my first Pittsburgh Steelers football game this past Sunday (special thank you to Mr. Robert Kraft), but before I share some impressions, I must give special recognition to Menorahgate and one of its organizers (among several I understand), Andrew Exler. What started as a sincere effort to raise the simple sum of $1000 for the Tree of Life, where he became a Bar Mitzvah years ago, turned into a remarkable response by the greater world to the sum of $30,000. I look forward to growing a relationship with Andrew and his peers, as they too are working through the horror of October 27.
Everyone at Heinz field was wearing some sort of official Steelers paraphernalia, which by sheer variety was astounding. There were also handfuls of New England Patriots fans equally regaled, and no, I did not wear any NY Giants clothing. The fans in my immediate area (near the 50-yard line, ten rows up from the Patriots bench) were knowledgeable about some of the minutiae of football, and there was quite a bit of witty repartee. Of course, this being a home game, any positive yardage by the Steeler offense or a defensive stop was loudly cheered. Most particularly towards the end of the game, with the possibility that the Patriots might eke out a win, the volume of the crowd was deafening. It was interesting to hear the pride with which fans spoke after the game, as though they personally had a hand in the victory.
This spoke to me as a sort of public religion. The most rabid fans worship their team, and attend the team’s temple for every home game, frequently having the Kiddush luncheon before the service. They speak glowingly of the greats of the past, as though there is a pantheon of saints to which retired players belong. Where else can you have an unbelievably athletic catch by Franco Harris termed “The Immaculate Reception” and spoken of reverently? Many will tithe their annual income to afford season tickets and parking, with an additional tithe for food and beverages during the game. It is a community that has faith – faith that their team will always succeed. They rise in obeisance with every touchdown and interception. Their liturgy includes finishing the words of the announcer on high with “first down” and pointing in the correct direction. The referee is brilliant when he calls a penalty on the opposition, and uneducated when he calls a penalty on the home team, with the accompanying liturgy of boos, catcalls and obscenities. A win over the Patriots put all who attended, as well as those who are fans, in a near religious frenzy of joy, with strangers hugging each other, and this euphoria carried over into the following week.
I speak not disrespectfully of Steelers fans, but merely share my observations of interesting similarities to religion. The devotion by the fans is extraordinary, and the civic pride that swells from the success of the Steelers is palpable everywhere in Western Pennsylvania. Some might say that “it’s just a football game”, and to some that might be true. But here in Pittsburgh, it is much, much more.