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Two title games, one state — Pennsylvania's frenzy

Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2005

PITTSBURGH — In Pennsylvania, either you're an Eagles fan or a Steelers fan — not both. This year, however, the road to the Super Bowl in Jacksonville runs along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Twirl a Steelers Terrible Towel east of state capitol Harrisburg, and you're liable to get it wrapped around your neck. Wear a green No. 5 Donovan McNabb jersey west of State College, and you risk being doused with a Rolling Rock.

This clash of styles and loyalties comes to a head Sunday when two NFL conference championship games will be played in the same state on the same day, with kickoffs 3 1/2 hours apart.

This is the first time a state has hosted both conference title games in the same season, and it's fitting that it's happening in Pennsylvania, the site of the acknowledged first pro football game (in Pittsburgh) 113 years ago and a hotbed for the sport almost ever since.

Ordinarily, this would be a tricky political football for most constituent-conscious governors, but not Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell.

The former Philadelphia mayor will do what he always does on a football Sunday — watch the Eagles, cheer wildly, then appear on Comcast SportsNet's postgame show and offer analysis, this time for the Falcons-Eagles NFC championship game.

On the opposite side of the state, the Steelers will face the New England Patriots for the AFC championship, but Pittsburghers must be content with the governor's well wishes — though he attended last weekend's Jets-Steelers game. Rendell is firmly sided with the Eagles, and will stay that way even if the two Keystone State teams face off in the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., on Feb. 6.

Politics is important to Rendell, but this is football, and there is nothing politically correct about football.

''If I really felt it was important to the outcome of the game or important to the emotional psyche of the people of the Pittsburgh area ... I would go,'' he said. ''But I don't have that inflated opinion of myself.''

Plus he's an Eagles fan, and that's that. There is no middle ground in this state of frenzy.

Bridget Healy, 33, of suburban McCandless Township is superstitious beyond reason. She dons a Terrible Towel atop her head for every game — wearing it forward when the Steelers have the ball, backward when they're on defense, crocheting wildly all the while to calm her nerves.

''I can take it off (only) on commercials and at halftime,'' she said.

Of course, the fan bases for both teams extend far beyond the commonwealth's border — especially that of the Steelers, whose national identity has rivaled that of the Packers and Cowboys since they won four Super Bowls in six years during the 1974-79 seasons.

Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's No. 7 jersey is the NFL's top seller worldwide, and there are far more Steelers-related items for sale on eBay than for any other team.

''That's what's great about playing with the Steelers — wherever you go, you kind of feel like you're playing at home,'' Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said.

Visiting teams certainly don't feel that way in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper complained some rambunctious Philly fans harassed family members and spit on them during the Eagles' 27-14 divisional playoff victory last Sunday.

''The hysteria among the two cities is pretty equal,'' said Steelers wide receiver Sean Morey, who played for Philadelphia from 2001-03. ''They live and die with their teams. In Pittsburgh they bleed gold and black and in Philadelphia they bleed green. It's actually kind of a treat to be in situations in my career where I've played on teams where the fans care so much.''

Steelers and Eagles fans are considered among the most loyal and knowledgeable, as the players soon realize. Roethlisberger, whose 14-0 record is unprecedented for a rookie quarterback, was taken aback during one of his initial Pittsburgh shopping trips when fans came up offering unsolicited advice.

''There are Steelers fans everywhere,'' Roethlisberger said. ''Hopefully, we can continue to impress them and keep them on our side.''

Good idea in Pennsylvania, where all this fervency has created perceptible angst. The Eagles have lost three consecutive NFC title games, the last two at home, and their fans — confident as they are — dread the thought of another loss for a franchise that last won an NFL championship in 1960.

''I would say it's one of the most hostile environments I think a player can play in because the fans are rude as hell, the crowd is definitely behind their Eagles and it's just a situation where it's you against them,'' Falcons running back Warrick Dunn said. ''No disrespect to our fans, but the fans in Philly are a little bit different.''

There's a similar feeling in Pittsburgh, which last celebrated a Super Bowl victory 25 years ago. This is the fifth time since 1995 the Steelers have hosted the AFC title game, but they won only one of the previous four.

No wonder Bill Cowher, the most tenured of current NFL coaches in his 13th season, doesn't talk about winning One for the Thumb — the Steelers' rallying cry since they first began looking for a fifth Super Bowl title after the 1979 season.

''I'm looking for any finger, personally,'' he said, displaying a right hand barren of jewelry. ''They're all open.''

Until one of its teams wins the Super Bowl, Pennsylvania can be called the state of anxiety. And, even if it happens, only part of the state will be pleased.

''There's a similar sense of urgency in both cities,'' Morey said.



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