I've covered the NFL for a quarter century now. One tends to get jaded after a while, doing the same thing, seeing the same people (or at least the same kinds of athletic, fabulously wealthy people) playing the same game. Then I got a chance to be around the Pittsburgh Steelers for five days as the Pro Football Writers of America pool reporter during the run-up to the team's sixth Super Bowl victory.
The players make fun of the owner. The players make fun of the coach. The coach makes fun of everyone. There is no grass-is-greener-elsewhere syndrome; they all know this is where the grass is greenest: At the confluence of the Three Rivers.
These people are focused on enjoying their lives. They are not looking for the next gig. In those five days I never once heard players talking about making more money somewhere else. No coaches were sidling up to writers hoping to get their names thrown into some higher-paying college or NFL ring.
These people are grateful for what they have. They are happy.
I'll tell you a story. At practice on the Thursday before the game it began pouring, and most of us on hand had no rain gear. There was a sliver of protection -- a narrow area underneath a broad light pole -- and I found myself getting as thin as I could when the rain was at its heaviest. It was the same idea that wide receivers Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington and running backs Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore had. We were snuggled up tight to the pole, and Holmes and Parker started talking about the jumping ability of tigers. Holmes thought a tiger could jump the eight-foot fence ringing the adjacent field where the Steelers were practicing. Parker thought a tiger couldn't jump that high. They argued and laughed about how silly an argument it was, and the other players joined in with their opinions. "A tiger is all-powerful!" Holmes yelled. "Got springs in its legs! Of course it can jump that little fence!"
Meanwhile, out on the field, Hines Ward was walking to the sideline and saw the 76-year-old owner and patriarch of the team, Dan Rooney, his head protected from the rain by only a white towel that draped back over his neck. Keep in mind that Dan Rooney is one of the few remaining owners from the old guard of the NFL. A man such as this is to be respected.
"Hey, Mr. Rooney," Ward called out, looking mischievous. "You with the Taliban?"
Rooney smiled. I half expected him to give Ward a hotfoot when he wasn't looking, or an exploding cigar. Later in the week Rooney talked about the Steeler Way. Sometimes it's the Comedy Central Way. Everyone's an equal-opportunity target, all in the name of good fun and chemistry. "It's so marvelous," Rooney said. "It's the way we do things here."
At 6:30 on the morning after the Steelers' 27-23 Super Bowl victory over Arizona, Jerome Bettis walked into the lobby of his hotel in Tampa. He was just back from a night of celebrating with the guys. Who would know better about the Steeler Way than the Bus? So I asked him what he thought.
"It all goes back to Mr. Rooney," he said. "He sets the table so that everyone wants to come to work and do their best. He's the boss, but it's not like he's a boss. You want to play for him. I saw [Cardinals defensive tackle] Darnell Dockett tonight, and he was like, 'What is it about the Steelers? What do you have that's different from everywhere else?' And it's Mr. Rooney and the atmosphere he creates."
That atmosphere, dating back 40 years -- to when Rooney hired Chuck Noll and everyone in the organization finally got on the same page, where they remain today -- is at the center of Pittsburgh's winning six Super Bowls in the last 35 seasons. (No other team has won more than five.) Imagine players dying to stay in a slumping Rust Belt city with a smaller population than Aurora, Colo. Good players, like Hines Ward. "I never want to play anywhere else," said Ward, knocking on the door of Hall of Fame contention. "I will play in Pittsburgh my whole career, God willing."
You know what wins in football? Team first. Against the Cardinals, Ward showed how. Ward went to Holmes the day of the game and told him, in essence: It might not be my day because of how my knee's feeling today, and players become stars by excelling on days like Super Sunday. Ward knew the guy he'd taken under his wing was ready to fly. Holmes, when the game got very big in the final three minutes, went to Ben Roethlisberger and told him, in essence: I'm your guy, and I want to make the big plays today, and you can trust me. And Roethlisberger, being chased all over the place, believed Holmes and got him the ball four times on the biggest drive of their lives. Ward gave it up to Holmes. Holmes let Roethlisberger know he was ready for the hot lights. Holmes proved it, catching the most acrobatic winning touchdown in crunch time in Super Bowl history. Afterward I caught Ward unashamedly, unabashedly crying.
"I can't help it," he told me, walking through the tunnel from the field after the game. Tears streaked his eye black, and his mouth was curled in a tortured frown. "I am just so happy right now." "You look like you're just leaving a funeral," I said.
"No," he said. "All the work I put in -- we put in -- paid off. I am so proud of Santonio. So proud. It's a great thing about this team. It's such a team."
After games, win or lose, Rooney walks from locker to locker, thanking players for their contributions. One former Steeler, Sean Morey, a special-teamer, now plays for Arizona and told me the week before the game: "I remember playing for that. That gesture by Mr. Rooney meant more than anything." After the win over Arizona in the Super Bowl, Rooney got to defensive end Aaron Smith's locker. Rooney stuck out his hand. Smith didn't shake it. He hugged Rooney instead. "I'm happy you got your sixth, sir," Smith said. "I'm just happy I could be a part of giving you something you deserve so much. We're lucky to have you for an owner."
Steeler Nation is lucky too.