MENTOR, Ohio — Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky returned to his childhood home this summer for a three-day youth football camp and to re-connect with the special place that is Mentor, Ohio.
Trubisky has been doing that every summer for years, since he first joined the NFL as a member of the Chicago Bears, and Mentor has reciprocated that love and affection, even when it has come at the expense of the hometown Cleveland Browns.
Mentor is along Lake Erie, 30 minutes northeast of Cleveland and about halfway to the Pennsylvania border. And make no mistake about it, it is right in the heart Browns territory. But in 2017, when Trubisky started for the Bears against the then-winless Browns, Mentor’s hometown pride pulled ahead of any affinity for the nearby NFL team.
Since then, things have changed. The Browns have gone from a perennial doormat to an actual, competitive NFL team. And now, Trubisky doesn’t play for a squad that comes to town once every eight years, but the hated AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
It didn’t take long at Trubisky’s camp to notice the potential conflict.
“Why do you have to play for the stupid Steelers?” one youngster asked Trubisky. Others had to be stopped from starting a “Steelers suck” chant.
“It’s Pittsburgh and Cleveland,” Mentor head coach Matt Gray said after breaking it up. “What are you going to do?”
Trubisky said he doesn’t have those conflicting emotions. Despite growing up short drive from Cleveland, he wasn’t a big Browns fan growing up. It’s easy to understand why. The team left town when he was two years old, didn’t return until he was five and had a total of two winning seasons before Trubisky graduated from Mentor.
“The team I rooted for growing up was the Mentor Cardinals,” Trubisky said. “I was fortunate enough that [former Mentor head coach Steve Trivisonno] let me be a ball boy when I was in elementary school, so I felt like I was part of the high school team very early on, and those were the guys I looked up to … In fifth and sixth grade, they went to back to back state titles. So that was a huge part of my football development and being a part of those teams and really seeing football at a higher level for the first time at a young age.”
That’s certainly more impressive than the Browns’ resumé over that time, so it’s easy to understand why a young Trubisky would have shrugged off the fandom of the local NFL team. But most of the rest of Mentor did not, and now for at least two Sundays a year, Trubisky will be the enemy. More than one Mentor native told Trubisky this week that they’ll be rooting for him — except for when the plays the Browns.
“Yeah, that’s pretty much par so far,” Trubisky said. “Every team I’ve been at — North Carolina, Chicago and Buffalo — always coming back home, people have supported me. I’m very fortunate that Mentor has my back and is rooting for me every step of the way.”
One of the things that makes the Pittsburgh and Cleveland rivalry so special is that the cities are, in many ways, very similar. Both are Colonial-era cities that were built up on heavy industry powered by European immigrants in the last century, and have had to reinvent themselves to survive in the 21st century.
A Polish Boy is just a funny looking Primanti’s Sandwich. UPMC or the Cleveland Clinic? Carnegie Mellon or Case Western? Substitute three rivers for a lakefront and the similarities really start to pile up. Even FirstEnergy Stadium and Heinz Field have a similar feel about them.
If you closed your eyes at Trubisky’s football camp in Mentor, in the shadow of a huge and hallowed high school football stadium with dozens of football-crazed elementary school kids, you could just as easily imagine yourself at a place like North Allegheny. While that similarly has bred contempt on the gridiron, it’s also made the transition to Pittsburgh an easy one for Trubisky and his family.
“It’s been a very welcoming community,” he said. “A very neighborly place. Everyone has been very nice and welcoming to me and my wife and now my son, so it definitely feels like home. And it’s only an hour and a half or two hours away. It’s awesome that they are rivals, but I think there’s also a lot of similarities with the people and the rich history in sports. They’re great sports fans.”
Trubisky is also far from the first Northeastern Ohioan to settle in Pittsburgh or vice versa. Gray’s father is from his Pittsburgh, and his grandfather worked for the Steelers in the 1960s and 70s. The Steelers are the second-most popular team in Cleveland. There were at least two new Steelers Trubisky jerseys in the crowd this week along with one well-worn Terrible Towel.
“There’s a still a lot of Pittsburgh fans up in this area,” Trubisky said.
Could the presence of the Steelers starting quarterback turn this corner of Browns country a little bit Black and Gold?
Probably not, said the denizens of the Hooley House, a local watering hole one exit down Interstate 90 from Mentor High School. The big sports bar has the NFL Sunday Ticket package and the bartender said she’ll put on any game the someone asks for.
The Bears were a frequent request during Trubisky’s time in Chicago. The Steelers might be stretching things, and there’s no question who the crowd will be cheering for when the Steelers visit Cleveland on Sept. 22.
“I’m sure there will be some loyal Browns fans,” Trubisky admitted. “But I know Mentor will be rooting for me as well. I appreciate that.”
Trubisky was almost a hometown hero. He was taken one pick after the Browns took Myles Garrett in 2017. With him a free agent this offseason, they chose to trade for Deshaun Watson instead. He doesn’t have any regrets right now about the way things turned out.
“I love the side I’m on,” he said. “I love wearing the Black and Gold. I’m very fortunate for the situation I’m in and I’m excited to be a part of the Pittsburgh community.”
Mentor is still likely to be mostly in Cleveland Browns country, but if Trubisky has success in Pittsburgh, it could certainly become an enclave of Steelers Nation.