Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Blog Release: Steelers Road Nation

A few of you readers might remember sportswriter Jim Wexell's tour of Steelers Nation. His book, Steeler Nation: A Pittsburgh Team, An American Phenomenon, detailing this journey is now available. Jim is an excellent storyteller and, ironically, the players take center stage. The men who play for the Pittsburgh Steelers create a different sort of diaspora in their hometowns, trasnforming those places into enclaves for Steelers Nation. Consider this excerpt about current defensive end (and reluctant superstar) Aaron Smith:

... Let’s start with Great Grandpa Smith. He was run over by a freight wagon and killed, so his son had it rough growing up 40 miles east of here in the town of Rush.

“No matter what we tell you about my father,” said Aaron Smith’s older brother Steve, “he was so much more milder on us than his father was on him.”

Aaron’s mom and dad lived with the four boys in Colorado Springs, but Mr. Smith’s construction partner cleaned out Smith’s accounts and left town. So when Aaron was six months old the family moved to a small farmhouse near Rapid City, South Dakota. The town was booming, so Mr. Smith was hoping to pile up a stake large enough to re-start his business as a general contractor.

Times were tough on the Smiths in South Dakota. “We were collecting aluminum cans for gas and we would road-hunt at night for rabbits,” said Dave, the oldest of the Smith boys. “I will not eat rabbit to this day.”

“But some of my best childhood memories were in South Dakota,” said Steve.

“Absolutely,” agreed Dave. “That was the best time. We lived on a 40-acre alfalfa farm and around the farm went a creek in a horseshoe shape, so we had our own little island of alfalfa farm, fishing, pigs, cows, playhouses. We had running water in it. It was absolutely wonderful at times, but it was also the hardest times we lived through as a family.”

Mr. Smith soon developed diabetes and was told he only had a year or two to live, so the family moved back to Colorado to be closer to the rest of the family. Aaron was three at the time, and the diabetes turned his father into a tyrant. ...

The tales weave a number of landscapes into the fabric of the Pittsburgh Steelers, challenging the notion that the Dallas Cowboys are "America's Team." I'd wager that interesting backgrounds lurk under the helmets of any NFL franchise, but Jim appreciates the Steelers mystique: An identity that resonates with people who have never been to Pittsburgh. Current players seem to be decendants of the great players playing for the Steelers during the 1970s. The continuity over multiple decades is astounding.

However, the foundation for the Steelers tradition is carried in the hearts of fans. The exodus of the 70s and 80s is the primary reason that wherever you go, you can find a Steelers bar. For better or for worse, these fans are the keepers of Pittsburgh's blue collar mythology. The city has undergone 3, maybe more, transformations since the heyday of steel production. In Steelers Nation, we see the personification of the plight of the Rust Belt. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the face of the economy that used to be and the economy that is emerging.

No comments: