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PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 18: Pittsburgh Steelers fans wave the Terrible Towel near the end of the AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field on January 18, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Proud, tough and resilient. The same adjectives that could describe the Pittsburgh Steelers could also apply to their large and fiercely loyal fan base.
Now the team has rewarded its black-and-gold faithful with a shot at another Super Bowl. Only the Green Bay Packers stand between the Steelers from a seventh title when the tradition-rich teams play in Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6 in Dallas.
"It's in your blood. I have the Terrible Towel that I was wrapped in as a baby," said Rob Mowry, 35. The Pittsburgh-area native manages a trading company and owns a restaurant in Chicago, but still flies back to western Pennsylvania at least four times a year to watch Steelers games.
"I haven't missed a playoff game in as long as I can remember," said Mowry, wearing a black-and-gold knit hat. "I already booked a flight to Dallas last week, before I even knew what was going on."
A yellow placard taped to a car window in a hotel parking garage offered a reminder through a new signature phrase: "Knocking On 7's Door."
After another AFC title trophy presentation at Heinz Field, team president Art Rooney II spoke Sunday night of "finishing the job."
That would be a Super Bowl title, of course.
"Steeler Nation, we're going to Dallas," he proclaimed. The Steelers, known as a model NFL franchise, have been run by three generations of the Rooney family.
It's the organization's mom and pop-type feel that resonates with its fan base, even if the Steelers are a big business and one of the top-selling teams in the NFL. The franchise's sense of loyalty appeals to the blue-collar sensibilities of western Pennsylvanians.
"It's been part of the Rooney family forever. The Steeler Nation is the Rooney family. Just because I left Pittsburgh 30 years ago doesn't mean it's not still in my blood," said Tim Tirlia, 52, now of Houston, who flew up this weekend to watch the Steelers win.
The NFL's fifth-oldest franchise, the Steelers were founded in 1933 as the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Rooney family changed the name to "Steelers" in 1940 to honor the area's industrial heritage.
But Super Bowl success didn't come until the 1970s, when they won four titles over six seasons during a period of tough economic times. Steel mills closed, and many families left seeking better opportunities.
Many of those who departed took their Steelers allegiance with them and passed it on to children and grandchildren. Those who stayed viewed the team as the common bond that offered a brief distraction from the economy's harsh realities.
"That's all we had," said Jim Coen, 51, the owner of Yinzers in the Burgh, a Strip District store that sells just about anything with a Steelers logo. "With that winning, it gave the city some pride."
After a 26-year drought, Pittsburgh won its fifth Lombardi Trophy after beating the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl in 2006. Three years later, the Steelers won the Super Bowl again, over the Arizona Cardinals.
Most Steelers fans vow to back the team win or lose. The Steelers did well by them during down times, and fans reciprocate when the team might be down, though indiscretions by star athletes may not always be looked upon kindly.
This season began with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the sideline for the first four games after the NFL said he had violated the league's personal conduct policy. He was accused in March of the sexual assault of a 20-year-old college student, but a prosecutor in Georgia declined to bring charges.
Big Ben's off-field activities still draw a few questions in the postseason. Some fans remain wary.
"When it comes to play, the more you play in this league the more you mature, the better you get and the more things slow down for you," the star quarterback said last week when asked about his growth on and off the field this year. "When it comes to being a person, I just try to be the person my parents raised me to be."
Mostly though, few are feeling blue these days in Pittsburgh. Statues are adorned with black and gold scarves or hats. A taxi driver shuttling passengers to Heinz Field on Sunday spoke of the karma of going for "Lucky Number 7." And Terrible Towels are moving fast in the Strip District.
"It's our way of life," Coen said. "If you're in this town, and you're not a Steelers fan, you're almost not accepted."