SMELLS OKAY TO ME
For Terry Harper, the biggest Steelers fan in Mansfield, Ohio, every gameday begins the same way: in the buff. After a shower, the 39-year-old wraps himself in a Steelers towel, dries off, runs the towel over his buzz cut, then folds and hangs it—emblem showing—on the bathroom door handle. "My friends just kind of laugh at me," he says.
Not that Harper minds all that much. His Steelers worship started when he was a kid watching Terry Bradshaw's bunch in Super Bowl X. His rituals, though, began after Pittsburgh staged a comeback against Cleveland during a 2002 wild-card game. Harper suggests one possible reason for the stunning turnaround: He took a sip of Pepsi right before a Steelers TD. "Every year since, I've added more things," he says. "And if one doesn't work, I get rid of it."
For all those that haven't worked (say, a Steelers logo as his screen saver), plenty seem to have coincided with Pittsburgh wins. So at precisely 12:30 p.m. on the day of the AFC title game against the Ravens—despite blowing snow and icy streets—Harper strolls into a Logan's Roadhouse restaurant for his pregame lunch. He's in full black-and-gold: No. 10 Santonio Holmes jersey, jacket, gloves and hat. "My usual booth's taken," Harper says. "That's okay. We'll sit by the window today." As usual, Harper's parents, Cecil and Janet, join him. Terry's order is always the same: rare, eight-ounce sirloin, baked potato with extra sour cream, salad with peppercorn dressing, and peach tea.
"I didn't get any of this behavior from my dad," he says. "Besides, he's a Browns fan."
Plates cleared, Harper returns alone to Woodside Estates, a mobile home park. (His crib is the one with the "Steelers Fan" sign in the window and the DirecTV dish by the steps.) There's still time to ready himself and his home before the 6:30 p.m. kickoff. Some of the rules he'll observe until the game ends: 1) Turn off all electronics save for the TV; 2) stop eating; 3) all guests go. "The only talking," Harper says, "is what I say to the TV."
Around 5:30 p.m., Harper changes into his uniform: black socks, gold shorts and a Ben Roethlisberger T that hasn't been washed since the Steelers' last home loss, nine weeks ago. He takes a quick armpit sniff: "Smells okay to me." Next, he plays Styx's "Renegade" (the de facto team anthem) on the stereo before heading into the Shrine, an 8'x10' room dedicated to the Black and Gold. Inside hang jerseys, hats, banners, flags and shelves filled with mugs, shot glasses, pens, figurines and Steelers Heinz ketchup. Harper kneels on the Steelers rug, bows his head and touches the team emblem. Who's he praying to? Only he knows.
Back in his den, Harper plops a beanbag chair between couch and coffee table and lays another Steelers towel on top. There he'll sit for the entire game, six feet away from the 65-inch HDTV. But first, time to make the Drink: one can of Pepsi in a favorite plastic Steelers mug with four ice cubes (for the quarters of the game). Then he'll set the mug on the coffee table in front of him. "Always to the left of me," he explains. "I'll have a small sip with every change of possession."
Kickoff nears, and only a few tasks remain. Put the heat on high. Turn out the lights. Set the TV volume to 22, which, coincidentally, is cornerback William Gay's number. Finally, as Ravens kicker Steven Hauschka sets the ball on the tee, Harper rubs the Steelers tattoo on his right shoulder. "I have to do that before every quarter," he says.
The game begins. Harper takes a sip of Pepsi. He wrings his hands nervously. At times, he shrieks, "Yes!" or "Dear God!" A Troy Polamalu interception for a TD sends his arms into the air. But during most of his Steelers' 23-14 victory, Harper sits silent and motionless, already having done all he can to help the team win.
Will he change anything for the Super Bowl?
"What do you think?" he says, grinning from ear to ear. "I'll be right here."
I THINK IT'S THE MILK
Read Bruce Felman's Behind The Story about this piece.
It's been 61 years since the Cardinals last won a league championship, so you'll have to forgive supporters of the Big Red if their fanaticism seems a bit, well, off.
Take 27-year-old Dan Mitchell, a Phoenix magazine editor. He moved to Arizona in 1988, the same year the Cardinals did. And like most Cards fans, he's been itching for something to get excited about. The team has stunk so badly for so long that coming up with a lucky ritual has been as fruitful as your average Cardinals draft. "We just don't have those kinds of traditions here in Phoenix," Mitchell says. "Whatever you might have tried has failed. That's what happens when you have all those 4—12 and 5—11 seasons."
For Round 1 of the playoffs, Mitchell's buddy Tyson McKee asked everyone who was planning to watch the game at his house to wear a Cardinals jersey. That presented Mitchell with a problem: He owned only a Matt Leinart jersey (you know, the guy with the clipboard), and sporting that just seemed odd. So he showed up wearing all black.
Maybe it was his way of saying that to be a Cardinals fan, you need a dark sense of humor. Or maybe he was expecting his team to get slaughtered by the favored Falcons. Mitchell isn't really certain. And he wasn't quite sure why he stopped off for a carton of milk on the way to McKee's house, either, especially since he was going to a party where everyone else would be drinking beer. He just did.
Then the Cards beat the Falcons 30-24, and a ritual was born. The next week, when Arizona visited the Panthers, Mitchell again showed up at McKee's house in all black with more milk. The Cardinals romped 33-13.
No surprise, then, that the milk and the black are back for the NFC title game against the Eagles. "It doesn't really make any sense, but I'm running with it," Mitchell says a few minutes before leaving his house the morning of gameday. The results are promising: A little more than five minutes into the first quarter, the Cardinals take a 7-0 lead as two dozen red-and-white-clad Arizona fans high-five one another in the McKee house.
During the commercial break, another pal shows up toting three bags of chips—and wearing a purple Qadry Ismail Vikings jersey. (A longtime Vikes fan, the straggler has only recently become a Cards convert.) Mitchell winces as he glares at the jersey, and with good reason. Cards kicker Neil Rackers promptly sprays the kickoff out of bounds, giving the Eagles the ball at the 40. Mitchell shakes his head and tugs wistfully at his black coat.
The Ismail jersey kills the Cardinals' karma only briefly, as Arizona jumps out to a 21-6 lead in the second quarter. "I really think it's the milk," Mitchell says matter-of-factly to a woman standing nearby, who ignores him. When Philly stages a second-half rally and takes a 25-24 lead, McKee calls an audible. He summons half the room outside the house to do a "Boone's Circle," in which the partygoers gather in a ring and chug a bottle of the fruity, ersatz wine in hopes of sparking a Cardinals TD drive. Thanks to that (or maybe not), Kurt Warner leads Arizona downfield for the game-winning touchdown. The unthinkable is happening. While everyone in the house jumps up and down, Mitchell hugs McKee, then heads to the bathroom, muttering, "I think I'm going to throw up."
Ten minutes later, the thought of his Cards going to the Super Bowl hasn't quite sunk in. "I don't even know what I feel right now," he says. "The Cardinals didn't fold under pressure like they always do. This is just so weird.
The Super Bowl and the Cardinals—wow."