Sports Illustrated has recently released a new book, ‘Pittsburgh Steelers: Pride in Black and Gold’, covering the entire history of the franchise, with stories by noted SI writers Dan Jenkins, Paul Zimmerman and Damon Hack.
Mark Mravic, Pittsburgh native and Steelers fan, was the co-editor for this book. I had the pleasure and privilege of having a small Q&A with Mark about his fandom and what it was like putting together a book like this. I have a copy of this gem and will be doing a book review of it over the next few days.
NPC: You’re a native Pittsburgh’er and grew up with the Steelers. Was there ever a time you started to write about/for the organization, and what was that like for you?
I didn’t really begin covering the Steelers professionally until I assumed the role of pro football editor at SI before the 2005 season. They made the Super Bowl that year, so I’ll take some credit for that. I think—hope, anyway—that I compartmentalize my rooting interest (it’s never waned, unlike with the Pirates) and treat the Steelers objectively, like any other team. You’re probably not in this business if you didn’t grow up a passionate fan of some team.
In the final minutes of the Cardinals-Steelers Super Bowl, I certainly was pulling for Pittsburgh, but the professional side was at the same time planning out what our coverage would be should Arizona win (and admiring the performances of Larry Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner). I’ll admit to cheering when Santonio Holmes caught that winning touchdown pass. That lasted about two seconds, and then it was down to work. By the way, because of our schedule, I fly back to New York the morning of Super Bowl Sunday—I need to be in the office on Monday and can’t risk bad weather fouling up travel plans—so I’ve never attended the Super Bowl. Maybe the Steelers will make it in two years, when the game is at the Meadowlands.
It is fun to be in the Super Bowl city when the Steelers are playing, because those towns transform into transplanted versions of Pittsburgh—you see black and gold all over the place and hear that very distinctive ‘Burgh accent. I don’t get back to Pittsburgh enough, so it’s a little taste of home.
But when it is time to do a critical story of the Steelers, there’s no hesitation. When the Ben Roethlisberger scandal broke a few years ago, we went after the story with all of our resources and did a very harsh but definitive cover piece. It’s one of my proudest professional moments.
NPC: What do you feel makes the Steelers such a special franchise – not just in the NFL but in all of sports?
They have been family owned since their founding in 1933, and have never lost that local touch—the Rooneys have always been an integral and respected part of that community. The Steelers mean as much to their town as any team in any sport, maybe more so. They started winning Super Bowls in the ’70s just as the steel industry was dying out, and the football team in a sense replaced the steel mills as the heart and soul of the city, how it defines itself and presents itself to the rest of the country. Those Super Bowls gave the city and the region something to rally around as the industry declined. Now Pittsburgh has bounced back and refashioned itself as a city of research, healthcare and education, but those strong blue-collar roots remain, as does the love of the Steelers. And no small point—the stadium sits right there across from downtown, at the confluence of those three rivers. It draws the fans into the city and connects them with it in the way a suburban stadium never can.
NPC: What’s your greatest or fondest memory involving the Steelers?
Wow. Here’s one I’m almost embarassed to admit: I missed the Immaculate Reception. I was 10 at the time of that game, and so caught up in the Steelers that I couldn’t bear even the possibility that they would lose that playoff game to the Raiders. So instead of watching, I went to the movies with a friend of mine. When I got back home that afternoon my family said, “You’ll never believe what happened.” That was a lesson learned.
All of those Super Bowl wins were great to watch, and we’ve done some terrific stories on the Steelers through the years, but I guess my fondest memory would be watching the Packers-Steelers Super Bowl with my family. My daughter, who was about 10 at the time, had her Polamalu shirt on, and I think my older son had his Lambert jersey. Yes, the Steelers lost, but at least I wasn’t at the movies—I could share the experience with my family.
NPC: Who is your favorite player all time?
My favorite player is actually Walter Payton—I went to college in Chicago and lived there for many years afterward, during his playing days. I just developed an immense respect for the way he played the game. (Again, it took some objectivity to run our cover piece last fall excerpting Jeff Pearlman’s Payton biography, depicting his very troubled life post-football).
As for the Steelers, I love all those old guys from the ’70s teams, but I guess Jack Lambert would be my favorite.
NPC: The book is great. The pictures are powerful and the content captures the spirit of the Steelers. What was it like to work on this project?
Amazing—imagine you’re a lifelong fan of a team and being let loose in the archives of Sports Illustrated. Reading those old stories was great, but what’s really fun is going back through the photo archives. SI photographers shoot hundreds (and these days, with digital cameras, sometimes thousands) of pictures at game. Just a handful make it into the weekly magazine (and a few more now go on SI.com and the ipad). That means a vast trove of pictures that, for those Super Bowls for instance, may not have been seen in 40 years or more. Going through that stuff is a dream come true.
NPC: What are your thoughts about the current state of the organization?
The Steelers remain strong—they’ve been profoundly smart about coaching hires—first Chuck Noll, then Bill Cowher and now Mike Tomlin—and having such stability and leadership from the head coach keeps the whole organization grounded and on the right path. The Steelers almost always contenders, and they’re well respected throughout the league for the way the team is run.
NPC: Do you ever make it back to games at Heinz Field?
I catch the Steelers when they’re here in New York, but I’m sorry to say I have not been to Heinz Field yet—again a product of our work schedule. Now I’m doubly inspired to get there.