History and tradition run deep in Super Bowl XLV foes

DALLAS -- You just know that, somewhere on Super Bowl Sunday, the two of them will be together.

They'll be watching and smiling, satisfied that what they were a part of creating so many years ago -- the pride and tradition that bonds their teams and the communities they represent -- is still very much in place.

There is no doubt that, at least in spirit, Vince Lombardi and Art "The Chief" Rooney are celebrating their version of absolute perfection in that the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers will decide the championship of the NFL. Not only do Lombardi's Packers and Rooney's Steelers comprise the first Super Bowl matchup of teams more than 75 years old, they also have the most combined Super Bowl victories (nine) and Pro Football Hall of Fame members (39) who spent the majority of their careers with either team.

"Yeah," Rocky Bleier said, "I can picture them sitting there -- one (Rooney) having a cigar, the other one maybe having a beer -- saying, 'Hey, we didn't do too badly with these franchises and where they are today.' I could see that."

Bleier offers a unique perspective on the parallels between the two teams that will make for a showdown of mirror images in Super Bowl XLV. He grew up in Appleton, Wis., where as a middle-schooler he witnessed Lombardi's transformation of the Packers into a powerhouse in the early 1960s, and later played running back for the Steelers as they built their dynasty in the 1970s.

Bleier understands better than most what it means to have a tightly knit, working-class community embrace its football franchise and for the team and the town to share an identity rooted in hard work, toughness, and a high level of achievement that can be measured in decades.

The Packers, who have been in business since 1919 and a part of the NFL since 1921, and the Steelers, whom Rooney founded in 1933, are also unlike the league's 30 other teams in ways not defined by longevity, championships, or individual honors. The Packers are the only NFL franchise that is publicly owned. The Steelers, though belonging to the Rooney family, have long conveyed a clear feeling that they, too, are a public property.

In both cases, most players, even after retirement, feel as strongly connected to the team and the town as the fans that live there.

"People will come up to me, and the feeling that they have for us today is similar to what it was when we played; it just has not changed," said Jerry Kramer, an offensive guard for the Packers from 1958 to 1968. "And a lot of that is due to the fact that it's a team that's owned by the people and the team can never desert them. So there's no danger to loving and getting emotionally involved with a team like that because they'll always be there."

Said SteelersHall of Fame running back Franco Harris, who along with former teammate Bleier served as an honorary captain for the coin toss before the AFC Championship Game victory against the New York Jets: "There is that long, huge connection from the '70s to today, and, really, that's by design. You have owners like the Rooneys that like to continually make that connection and Mike Tomlin, the coach, very much so likes to maintain that connection when he talks about 'the standard that was set and then the standard that we will shoot for.' So I feel like I'm part of this new generation and I want them to feel like they are a part of us, that we are one."

No other clubs have a following that generates a stronger presence at road games, due largely to people in the respective regions moving to other parts of the country (which was especially the case when thousands of steel industry jobs were lost in Western Pennsylvania in the early 1980s) yet maintaining their team loyalty. Another factor in the well-deserved reputation that Packers and Steelers fans have for "traveling well" is that getting a seat for a home game is next to impossible if you don't already own a season ticket or aren't a relative or close friend of someone who does.

Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr was "delighted and honored" to have been a part of the contagious fan interest in the Packers that swept through Green Bay and steadily expanded into the upper-Midwest some 50 years ago.

"Sensed it, felt it, saw it, believed it, and enjoyed it," Starr said.

The league couldn't have two better fan bases to help ensure that a record crowd of 105,000 will pack Cowboys Stadium, including about 5,000 outside the actual seating area watching on big-screen televisions in the Plaza Party section. It will be a pilgrimage of green-and-gold-wearing Cheeseheads and black-and-gold-wearing citizens of Steelers Nation.

"And I expect that these fans will have respect of one another and there will be a feeling there of sportsmanship that maybe you don't see every day," Kramer said.

The consistent success of the Packers, who have won three Super Bowls, and Steelers, who have a record six Lombardi trophies, does make it easier for their followers (including many with no ties to Wisconsin or Pennsylvania) to pledge their unwavering support. So, too, does the fact that they can accurately be described as the antithesis of the big-spending, high-glitz approach that widens the ever-growing gap between professional sports and fans that, in many cases, struggle to make ends meet.

This isn't to suggest that these teams operate on a shoestring budget. Both have recently renovated stadiums that are the centerpieces of redevelopment, something that larger-market teams have not been able to do or have done with less success. Heinz Field is a main component of Pittsburgh's revitalization and the Lambeau Field Atrium -- which is home to the PackersHall of Fame, Packers Pro Shop, restaurants, and a variety of events and entertainment -- is a year-round tourist attraction that continues to grow.

However, history shows that the Packers and Steelers have been among the NFL's most fiscally conservative franchises. The success they've enjoyed in two of the league's smaller markets makes them shining examples of the importance of shared revenues and the ability to replenish talent each year through the draft. Thanks to smart drafting and astute personnel acquisitions, both organizations have taken full advantage of a system that allows small-market teams to be every bit as competitive as those in major cities.

Strong work in the front office also has allowed them to overcome down cycles. After their '60s domination, which included victories in the first two Super Bowls, the Packers didn't become consistent winners again until the 1990s, capturing their third Super Bowl following the 1996 season and making an unsuccessful trip to the big game a year later. That was at the height of the Mike Holmgren/Brett Favre era.

After owning the '70s, the Steelers didn't re-emerge as a true power until after Bill Cowher took over in 1992. Through the rest of that decade, he lead the Steelers to three AFC championship games and one Super Bowl, which they lost, before guiding them to a Super Bowl victory following the 2005 season. Three years later, Tomlin led the Steelers to their sixth Super Bowl win.

"One of the toughest things to do, as other teams have found out -- if you look at teams like the Raiders, the Dolphins, the Cowboys and San Francisco that have been strong in different decades -- is to keep it going over a long period of time," Harris said. "What the Steelers have accomplished in the last 40 years is quite remarkable. We just had our 15th championship game, and I saw where we've won a playoff game at least every four years (during that 40-year span)."

Like their communities, the Packers and Steelers have long been known for having workmanlike players and serious, businesslike coaches (such as Lombardi, Holmgren and Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, and the three coaches the Steelers have had since 1969 -- Chuck Noll, Cowher and Tomlin).

To a certain degree, it's as if time has stood still in both cities. Players and coaches have come and gone (although less frequently with coaches in Pittsburgh), but certain things never seem to change. When you arrive at Green Bay's Austin Straubel International Airport, you are greeted by a sign that welcomes you to "Titletown USA," a moniker that took hold while the Packers won a dozen title games (before winning the first Super Bowl in 1966). When you arrive at Pittsburgh International Airport, you are greeted by a life-sized statue of Harris leaning forward to grab a ball only inches above the ground for the "Immaculate Reception" that gave the Steelers their unforgettable playoff victory against the Oakland Raiders.

Fans of both teams have time-honored traditions, such as kids at the Packers' training camp lending their bikes to players to ride to and from the practice field, or the tailgating in the Lambeau Field parking lot at the crack of dawn before a July shareholder meeting, or non-stop twirling of the "Terrible Towel" everywhere inside Heinz Field, or the honking horns of the "Here We Go Steelers" chant.

"For people to come to Lambeau, it's almost like a religious experience," Kramer said.

Kramer has lost count of the number of times he has been approached by someone recalling for him a typical fall Sunday afternoon in Wisconsin consisting of dinner "at grandpa's house and then we'd lie down on the floor to watch the Packers game. And nobody could talk!" During and after his playing days, Kramer always had "a vision of game day in Wisconsin, where they get up and milk the cows at about 3:30, 4 o'clock in the morning, and some of them finish at 6, 7 o'clock and drive from all across the state to Green Bay, and just stream into that city by the thousands."

Bleier accompanied his father, who owned a bar, to Lambeau for one of the most famous games ever played: the "Ice Bowl." He remembers freezing his "little tushy off in 15-below-zero weather" as the Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys for the 1967 NFL championship.

Bleier's father was a Packers shareholder, and proudly displayed the certificate that stated as much. Although, like the rest of the Packers shareholders, he received no dividend checks and had no voting power, there was a clear sense that a piece of that team was his. That is the same attitude that permeates throughout Green Bay and Wisconsin.

"They are owners, and that's just unbelievable, it's unheard of in any other franchise," Starr said.

Bleier can recall how fans in Green Bay would mingle with players at local bars and restaurants, or would see them in church.

"All of a sudden, they became part of that community and then, as they won, that identity became that much stronger," he said.

Even in the days before texting and Twitter, information -- in the form of fact and rumor -- about everything concerning the Packers had a way of rapidly spreading throughout Green Bay. As Kramer pointed out, "You could start a rumor on one side of Green Bay at the barber shop and it would be across town in a couple of hours."

Wanting only the best results for their team, Packers fans in the 1960s felt duty bound to serve as an extra set of eyes and ears for Lombardi. Back then, one of the favorite topics of gossip was Hall of Fame halfback and kicker Paul Hornung, who was known for enjoying the night life and for often being less than conspicuous about it.

"If that white Cadillac convertible, with the No. 5 license plate, was out past 11 o'clock on a week night in camp, coach Lombardi knew about it the next day," Kramer said. "The residents of the city would take it upon themselves to police Hornung's escapades and let the coach know that he was breaking curfew."

When Bleier first arrived in Pittsburgh in 1968, he immediately saw how similar it was to the area in which he was born and raised. Back home, Appleton and other cities along the Fox River were headquarters to thriving paper mills. In Pittsburgh -- where the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers flow -- the steel industry was still going strong.

"Pittsburgh, basically, is a Midwestern city," Bleier said. "It has that (Midwestern) work ethic. And our success in the mid-70s paralleled what I saw as a kid from the Packers. Having lived in Packerland during that period of time really helped tie in my ability to relate to the fans and understanding how important it is just to be able to say, 'Hi,' and what you did on the field was a part of their lives."

What might seem corny or uncool to some people in different parts of the country plays well in Green Bay and Pittsburgh.

"It plays very well," Harris said. "All those things make the connections, those little things here and there that might not seem big within themselves, but a lot of little connections lead to bigger ones."

None is going to be larger than what Lombardi and Rooney, wherever they might be gathering on Super Bowl Sunday, will enjoy seeing.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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