LAS VEGAS — John Facenda may have said it best when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The legendary NFL Films voice-over artist, also known as the “Voice of God” was describing the raucous scene for a visiting team entering Three Rivers Stadium to begin the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 1979 championship season highlight video when, to me, he did the best job of summing up the Steelers franchise that anyone ever has.
“There are 27 teams in professional football,” Facenda said. “And then there are the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
There are now 32 teams in the National Football League. His sentiment remains true.
On Sunday night, it was the atmosphere at a road game, not a home one, that proved his point. The Steelers faithful invaded Allegiant Stadium on Sunday, covering the blacked-out venue with a shocking amount of gold, much of it flashing as part of a whirling sea of Terrible Towels.
Home game pic.twitter.com/dMf4xaZVXc
— Bill Crawford (@dveBillCrawford) September 25, 2023
— SteelersNationUnite (@SteelersUnite) September 25, 2023
As impressive as that scene was, it requires some more context to really capture the enormity of it all. But first, a detour to a lesser-known line from that 1979 video, this one from Joe Greene.
“Pittsburgh fans are very warm people,” Greene said. “They adopt you. They make you one of their own. Pittsburgh is a close community. It’s tight. They do get involved with this football team. And I say, they adopted this football team. We belong to them.”
The community has changed. The late 1970s, though a period of unprecedented success for the football team, were not one for the city. As the steel industry and manufacturing declined, those who adopted Greene and his cohorts spread around the country like missionaries, propping up Steelers bars and fan clubs in nearly every corner of America.
Every team calls its fanbase a nation these days, but it’s true for the Steelers fans, who don’t necessarily travel well to road games. A lot of times, especially in a transient city like Las Vegas, they’re already there.
When you factor in the Steelers’ popularity in Mexico and the club’s recent efforts to increase its following in Ireland, Steelers Nation as a name for the fanbase might be too limiting. Steelers World? NASA astronaut Woody Hoburg recently represented the team on the International Space Station, so … Steelers Universe?
But it’s not just the location that matters. They may be lots of fans of other teams in other cities, but the full-throated exuberance of the Steelers fans in Las Vegas on Sunday needs to be taken into context.
To put it mildly, these are not the 1979 Steelers that Facenda was warning about. This club entered Allegiant Stadium with a 1-1 record, wearing one of the worst home losses of Mike Tomlin’s tenure as head coach from Week 1 and a Week 2 win over the rival Cleveland Browns that was so uninspiring that the most notable storyline this week was the fans loudly chanting for the firing of offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
Yes, the Steelers have been adopted by the fans as family, as Greene said. That means the adulation is not always unconditional. Families bicker.
“I appreciate their passion,” Tomlin said on Tuesday. “I share their passion, we all do. Man, we love our fans. They inspire us. They challenge us. It’s an awesome relationship.
“Man, we don’t run from challenges we run to challenges. This is a sports entertainment business. It is our job to win and thus entertain them. And so, you know we don’t begrudge them for that. We want them to be fat and sassy and spoiled. It is our job.”
The vibes, as the kids say, were not great.
The task — invading the legendary Black Hole — was not an easy one. This was the home opener for the Raiders, who are among the handful of teams like the Steelers that also have a large, nationwide fanbase.
Las Vegas is among the easiest cities in the country to travel to, but the commitment to get a ticket to the game was significant. With a get-in price hovering around $600 for most of the week, it could end up as the most expensive ticket in the NFL this season.
And yet, Steelers Nation invaded anyway, to the point that the home-standing Raiders were forced to go to a silent count on offense.
“Steeler Nation has been incredible,” defensive captain T.J. Watt said after the win. “To be able to have a team on a silent count in their own stadium is pretty demoralizing and it helps the pass rush so much more. I’m very appreciative of everyone that came out tonight.”
The love can be conditional. The support is not. That’s what separates the Pittsburgh Steelers from the other teams in professional football, as Facenda once said, and his point might be even more valid today than it was 45 years ago.
Enjoy the win, Steelers fans, and what should feel like a resuscitation of hopes for the 2023 season. You’ve literally earned it.