It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m at the Pour House bar in Washington, DC. It’s not just a bar, though. It’s a Steelers bar. A Pittsburgh Steelers bar. Hanging above the awning at the entrance are four huge flags emblazoned with the Steelers logo. Above the door is a banner that reads, “You’re in Steelers Country,” even though we are deep in the heart of Washington Redskins territory. This is where DC’s Pittsburgh faithful come to watch their team.
The Pour House is one of more than 700 Steelers bars from Anchorage, Alaska, to Key West, Florida. That’s according to the website steelerbars.com, a comprehensive listing of Steelers bars all over the world. Over the years, I’ve been to Steelers bars in Syracuse, San Francisco, New York City, Vermont, and here in Washington, D.C.
“You can take the person out of Pittsburgh, but you can’t take the Pittsburgh out of person,” said Neena Rawls. She’s president of the DC Steeler Nation. She grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to the DC area 10 years ago.
“It’s pretty awesome. You walk into a bar, there’s Terrible Towels everywhere. People who don’t usually let their Yinzer accents fly let ‘em out for the games. There’s just this sense of camaraderie that it makes you feel like you’re at home watching the Steelers.”
A “Yinzer” is a person from Pittsburgh who speaks with the region’s distinctive accent — we call it Pittsburghese, and it sounds a little something like this — yinz goin dahntahn n catch uh stiller game n’nat — which in English means are you going downtown to watch the football game.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Pittsburgh’s population experienced a steep decline. The steel mills were shuttered and jobs were shipped overseas. Many a Pittsburgher had to uproot to find work. They settled in places like the DC metro area, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and Florida. As a result, Steeler Nation proliferated and spread.
Chuck Finder is a former sportswriter who covered the Steelers for 25 years.
“You go back to the fall of steel,” he said, “and it’s a sociological fallback for a lot of people. There was a flight from Pittsburgh and I think that’s part of that. But it goes back to the franchise, the iconic nature of the franchise. This is a team that had 40 awful years. They were a sad sack franchise until the Immaculate Reception. So it’s been 40 bad years to 40 good years. You have people who have hopped on the wagon since. You’ve had other generations and people who have come to the pulpit, come into the tent. It’s amazing. It’s a passion you don’t find anywhere else. A lot of people equate it to a religion, but it goes much deeper than that. “
If Pittsburgh football is tantamount to a religion, then these Steeler bars are its holy sites. The walls of Washington’s Pour House are lined with relics — a neon Steelers sign, a photo of legendary Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente, pictures of the city’s iconic three rivers.
On game days, the menu has a decidedly Pittsburgh flare — Polish pierogi and Primanti-style kielbasa subs, or heart attacks on a plate, and some sort of alcoholic beverage called Black and Gold shooters. And everyone is wearing their Sunday best.
“I’m wearing my white Mendenhall road jersey with my Steeler hat on. My name is Marvin Ransom. I’m originally from Pittsburgh, PA, the east inside of the city. There are Steeler fans in every city. We breed them at birth, we’re everywhere, and we’re loyal. There’s a tradition in Pittsburgh when babies are born and wrapped around Terrible Towels. You don’t know no other team. “
It’s tough to put your finger on the roots of this Steelers passion, especially outside the city. For me, it’s about connection: connection to the place I was born, to the people I love. There’s something special about the city. Maybe it has to do with a common history forged in hot, dirty, dangerous mills. Maybe it has to do with that crazy accent that is so easy to slip into when a Pittsburgher, even a displaced one like me, gets tired or lazy. Maybe it’s just because it’s home.