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|Heinz Field was built a mere 80 feet from the former site of Three Rivers Stadium.|
Over the past 30 years, the Steelers are tied with Green Bay for the most home wins (129) among NFL teams. Over the past decade, their .728 home winning percentage is No. 3 overall.
Three Rivers Stadium came into being in 1970, at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers that form the Ohio River. Despite being constructed at a spectacular visual location, Three Rivers was just another one of those cookie-cutter, multipurpose stadiums like the ones built in Cincinnati, St. Louis and Philadelphia.
But something extraordinary happened in this blue-collar, big-shouldered steel city. The Steelers happened, winning four of six Super Bowls from 1974 to '79. The fans waved their Terrible Towels and cheered their magnificent Steel Curtain defense, the explosive offense, an entire team of future Hall of Famers -- and Three Rivers was their cathedral.
And then, in 2001, they blew it up. On a cold February day, 4,800 pounds of explosives took down one of sports' greatest home-field venues. In 19 seconds it was all gone.
But not the Steelers' advantage.
Heinz Field, which sprung up just 80 feet from the old stadium, has been every bit as rugged on opposing teams. Maybe it's because the Steelers have sold out 352 consecutive games, going back to 1972.
Last December, a Sports Illustrated poll -- based on the responses of 321 NFL players -- revealed that Steelers fans were the second-toughest to play in front of. The Philadelphia Eagles' fans (20 percent) narrowly edged the Steelers' (17 percent). What is it about Pennsylvania?
When you ask the Steelers' two longest-tenured original draft picks why Heinz is so nasty on visitors, they both use the same word in their first sentence.
"The fans," said defensive end Brett Keisel, a 2002 draft choice. "We have the greatest fans in the world. There are instances where you see teams struggle with the noise. Times like that stick out in my mind."
Nose tackle Casey Hampton, a first-round pick in 2001, is on the same page.
"Our fans really get into the game," he said. "We're a physical team. We're going to play to the end, and with those two things put together, it's hard to beat a team.
"When the crowd gets into it, you can see the momentum shift."
John Clayton, the Hall of Fame NFL reporter, was present for the evolution of this team/fan juggernaut. He was still a student at Churchill Area High School when he covered Steelers training camp for the St. Marys Daily Press. Clayton was later a beat writer for the Pittsburgh Press from 1980 to '86.
"The fans in Pittsburgh know how to cheer," Clayton said. "They're so knowledgeable. But one of the things people don't talk about is the wind. There's an open spot by the Ohio River, and that makes it tough for the kickers coming in."
|"The fans in Pittsburgh know how to cheer," says Hall of Fame football writer John Clayton.|
Matt Williamson, a Pittsburgh-based scout who has been working at ESPN for seven years, knows the Steelers' stadium well. He was a scout for the rival Cleveland Browns and on the staff at the University of Pittsburgh while Heinz was under construction and for its first three years.
"There are some strange winds," Williamson said. "I would try to take the specialists -- long-snappers, kickers and punters -- down there once a week during the season, preferably in different weather. It would be raining and I'd be like, 'Come on, let's get in the van and go.'
"[Ex-Steelers coach] Bill Cowher used to do that as well. Knowing those swirling winds and how it impacted the kicking game was a big advantage."
When games come down to a field goal, one way or another, that local knowledge can be the difference. In Pittsburgh, there is also the matter of the historically dicey grass field.
"The footing is very poor," Williamson said. "A lot of teams complain, but the Steelers and Pitt are happy about it. When the weather goes bad, it helps to know how to move around."
When, not if. In Pittsburgh, when the weather inevitably turns foul, the Steelers are smiling in their locker room.
"We call that 'Steelers weather,' when it gets cold and snowy," Keisel said. "We enjoy that. We play some teams that might live on the beach and don't really like that too much."
Added Hampton, "If you don't want to play, the fans are into it, and you're playing a team that's hitting you in the mouth and is real physical, it can get bad real fast."