'Steelers Nation' invades Tampa
Cardinal fans few, but vow to be vocal at Super Bowl
by Mike Celizic, NBCSports.com contributor
TAMPA, Fla. - Maybe it would have been easier if it hadn't been raining and the fans weren't huddled in their hotel rooms waiting for the weather to break. Or maybe the reason it took three hours to find two people dressed in Cardinals red and warming up for the big game with a beer or six was because Arizona fans simply haven't yet figured out what to do when their team wins.
Cindy and Craig Nelson swore that they'd seen other Cardinals fans in town on Thursday. But around 8 p.m. in an Ybor City bar, they were alone in a growing swarm of Pittsburgh fans clad in black and gold and determined to party.
The couple lives in Gilbert, Ariz., and had bravely kept buying season tickets for 12 years to watch and cheer for a team whose biggest talent for the 62 years since their last - and only - championship has been to make its fans wake up depressed on Monday mornings. They had left the kids at home and packed off to Tampa, arriving on Thursday, not quite sure how to do this Super Bowl thing.
"At the beginning of the season, our hopes were that we'd get to the playoffs," Cindy said. She and her husband fondly remember 1998, when the Cardinals last made the playoffs and even beat the mighty Dallas Cowboys in the first round before remembering who they were and losing.
"We're not used to getting in the playoffs," added Craig. His wife explained that their rooting style consists of "cross your fingers, cross your fingers, cross your fingers."
Elsewhere, Steelers fans were talking about how they expected their team to win a record sixth Super Bowl. But the Nelsons were willing to take what comes on Sunday. "Either way, we won't be disappointed," Cindy said.
The couple insisted that Cardinals fans would make themselves heard. On Friday, a local eatery called "Wings Gone Wild" was hosting a pep rally for Cardinals fans, and they said they'd be there.
The Nelsons, who already had their Super Bowl tickets, were enjoying a quite dinner as they spoke. The Steelers fans who roamed Seventh Avenue, Ybor City's main drag, as well as Tampa's newer Channelside entertainment district, were also enjoying themselves, but they were considerably less quiet.
Steelers Nation has an amazingly broad reach. As Pittsburghers left their hometown in search of the jobs the Steel City no longer offered, they carried their team devotion and Terrible Towels to every corner of the country. The great Steel Curtain team that won the franchise's first four Super Bowls ending in 1980 also created a lot of fans.
You probably won't find a lot of Cardinals fans who don't come from Arizona. But the Steelers fans down here come from everywhere. Many of them don't even have tickets. When their team made it to the Super Bowl for the second time in four seasons, they simply hopped on planes and descended on Tampa. Thanks to Snowbird relatives, many even had places to stay, which would help when it came time to lay out big cash for tickets.
In Channelside, where a gigantic Hooters anchors a plaza ringed by restaurants and bars, four guys from Brooklyn - Walter Natiw, Eric Woodley, Kevin Collins and Tim Smyth - palmed cold beers and talked about how they'd gotten their tickets for $1,500 each before coming to Tampa. But, being New Yorkers, they'd already sold the tickets at a profit and were planning to get cheaper ducats just before the game, when they expect scalpers to be selling at bargain prices.
In another Channelside bar, James DiPasquale and Joe Rynn hadn't really begun to think about tickets. Native Pittsburghers, they had begun the week fully expecting to watch the game in Fulton, Ky., where they are engineers on a bridge project. But an ice storm knocked out power and shut their job down on Wednesday. So on 2 o'clock Wednesday afternoon, they jumped in car and drove 13 hours to Tampa.
Waiting for them was a fellow Steelers fan, Bubba Grooms. A native of Tennessee, Grooms had gotten the Steelers bug early in life and when he opened Bubba's Smokehouse BBQ in Fulton, he made the Steelers' the joint's official football team. That got him a listing on one of several online lists of hundreds of "Steelers Bars" around the country. He also joined a Steelers' chat room, where he met DiPasquale and Rynn, who became regulars at Bubba's Smokehouse when they were assigned to the bridge project.
The media has been full of stories of the prices people are asking for housing down here, with some houses and condos going for $10,000 for the week. Grooms said he drove down, picked up a newspaper, and found a beachfront condo for about $1,000 for the week.
"Nobody told them there was a football game in town," Grooms joked. He snapped it up and welcomed his two engineer friends when they arrived.
As it got later, the night spots started to fill up. Back in Ybor City, lifetime fan Tasso Batis was justifying his trip as a 50th birthday present to himself. A season ticket holder for years, the Pittsburgher is a member of the HellGaters, a group of about 45 fans who have been tailgating for so long at Steelers games they have their own website.
Gleaming stretch limos were just starting to prowl the brick streets, taking swell folk to Ybor's trendiest clubs. But Batis and members of his crew were hanging out in front of Gaspar's Grotto, a big club were beer is the drink of choice, plotting their evening, which would eventually lead to the Crowbar, a bar that features hard rock bands and Steelers flags and banners.
"We are the vanguard of Steelers Nation," declared Batis' friend, Jim Botti. "We are like the Roman army invading the town." Referring to the black jerseys most Steelers fans wear, he added, "This town is going to be solid black."
Most of the members of the group, which already had tickets through the team lottery, have been to one or more previous Steelers Super Bowls. Botti bragged, "I've missed five games since the AFC Championship Game in 1979. Three, I was in the hospital. One was to go to my father's funeral."
The only other game he missed was to go on his honeymoon. "If I could do it again, I'd do that differently," he said. The marriage ended in divorce. But he's still got the Steelers.
Not every fan who came here expects to get into the game. It's enough just to be in on the parties and close to the action. P.J Good, an Air Force crew chief in Pittsburgh, came down with fellow enlisted man Mike Myers and their friend, Matthew DiLullo. All moved in with Good's mother, Phyllis Phillips, who lives in the Tampa area.
Good said they'd try to get tickets, but they're not going to break their bank accounts for them.
"We'll hang around at the stadium and find a place to nearby to have a beer and watch the game," he said.
Mike Celizic is a contributor to NBCSports.com and a freelance writer based in New York.
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