A Steeler Nation: Road Blog
Wex pilots the SCI fantasy cruiser.
Wex pilots the SCI fantasy cruiser.
SteelCityInsider.com
Posted Oct 25, 2007


Jim Wexell is out on the road researching football stories – Steelers football stories – for a book he’s writing on Steelers Nation. Wexell checks in from time to time, or whenever he can find that rare combination of time and internet access. Here’s his latest report:

Road-trippin':
For 45 days SCI's Jim Wexell will attend games, tailgates, Steelers bars, anti-Steelers bars, hometowns of players, hometowns of legends, of ghosts, while living out of an RV. The results of his research will be documented in his next book "A Steeler Nation."

THURSDAY, OCT. 25

I wasn't going to post again to kind of preserve -- or initiate -- some type of mystery about the upcoming book. I worry that reading this blog will satisfy curiosities, but there will be so much more. I am posting for the final time since I have some thank yous to dole out after my week in Colorado.

First, thanks to Jim Russell for organizing the tailgate and bringing over so many interesting fans during my visit. He seemed to sense that I needed a push and his perseverence was definitely for the best. I also had the pleasure of talking with readers such as Rand, Dave, Jim, Doug, Cali, Joel and Amy. I know I'm missing a few here and I apologize. Also, if you came over to introduce yourself and found me distracted, that's because I was. I had a million little things on my mind at the time and apologize if I blew anyone off. It wasn't intentional.

I also want to thank the families who've given me their time and attention this week. I don't want to give them away now because I do want to create some type of mystery, but a hint is that I stopped in Tulsa and St. Louis on my way here to Terre Haute. (And Tunch, you are remembered here. Not like Larry Bird, but you are remembered.) As for Cincy, I just got a call from the son of a should-be Hall of Famer and am looking forward to that interview.

Along those lines, I also want to thank the players and coaches for their enthusiasm over this project. Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel asked about my work right after the last game, and Aaron was hurt at the time. Casey Hampton talked to me after the game about "Sweets," who is "my dog," according to Hamp. Troy Polamalu told me he's looking forward to sitting down and hearing all about my trip. Most of the players thanked me for including them, and I feel bad that some haven't been included ... yet ... because it really is going to be an interesting book.

I also want to thank the Steelers' front office and public relations staff. You wouldn't believe their help and generosity. Or maybe you would. Maybe that's why so many Steelers fans lined up outside the locker room in Denver and cheered for both Rooneys after a loss. There's definitely a special dynamic that exists between team and fans.

Of course, I want to thank my family. I get a little worried when my phone stops ringing. It makes me feel like the world is getting along just fine without me, but then I get a heartfelt email or text message and all becomes right again.

Anyway, thanks for reading. See you back at the office.

FRIDAY, OCT. 19

"Why are you asking me? I'd only been here a month."

That was Heather, the young Sports Information Director at the University of Northern Colorado upon being confronted on the matter of Aaron Smith's exclusion from the school's athletic Hall of Fame. Heather explained that some old men had to be inducted last year because of failing health. At the time, she'd only been the gatekeeper for a month. But faced with the pressure of a working camera in her face, Heather said that Aaron is already on next year's ballot and that his chances are "extremely strong" since "guys he played with are now taking a more active role here."

That solved, I moved on to nearby Fort Collins where the beautiful campus of Colorado State had no commemoration of Clark Haggans.

"But we do have this," said young SID Zak. "It's the beautiful, new Joey Porter Locker Room."

Why Joey and not Clark?

"Well," said Zak, "Joey paid for it."

Oh. Well, what about Gary Glick? He's the former No. 1 pick of the 1956 draft who busted out for the Steelers. According to a recent story in the Post-Gazette, a young Dan Rooney had tried to talk Walk Kiesling out of the pick but Kiesling -- as he did when confronted with young Dan about ignoring John Unitas -- went to The Chief and got his way.

"Here," said Zak, "here's our media guide. It might answer your questions better than I can."

Indeed. Glick and Dale Dodrill and the immensely successful Brady Keys all came out of Colorado State, which was then called Colorado A&M. And they are today's assignment.

I also had a great interview with "Burgh Diaspora" expert Jim Russell, but you'll have to wait for the book to read what he had to say. See yinz at the tailgate.

WEDNESDAY, OCT. 17

Talk about the Broncos is at a minimum, if at all, this week in the Denver area. One reason, obviously, is the success of the baseball Rockies. Another is that the Broncos aren't very good. They have a young quarterback, their O-line is getting old, Rod Smith is (finally) getting old, and those Browns castoffs they picked up for the D-line haven't come through. But perhaps the biggest loss is that of captain and MLB Al Wilson, one of the league's best players over the years. The Steelers should fill much of the stadium and win going away by exploiting those ex-Browns up front and the void left by Wilson in the middle.

This area is nothing like Phoenix, or even Seattle, in that Steelers fans pretty much run the place. The entire section of this country has been a Broncos stronghold for too long. But there are of course voices in the wilderness. Last night, that voice was a petite woman who had the foulest mouth at the bar. She let it be known that she's a Steelers fan. But there are others not so vulgar and tattooed, like the woman from Rosslyn Farms who greeted me at check-in. Her friend tried to change the conversation to the Rockies, but I told the friend that while it's quaint, baseball doesn't really matter. She agreed and put her head down quietly.

Steve Smith grew up in Colorado Springs and has been a Steelers fan all his life, and he said that had to do the great 70s defenses. You probably don't know this Steve Smith. He's one of Aaron Smith's three older brothers. He played free safety on the same Sierra HS team in which Alex Molden played cornerback.

Aaron is the youngest of the Smith brothers and the biggest. He, according to Steve and Dave, also had it the easiest from a demanding and physical father. Steve and Dave were both kicked out of the house at the age of 16, but Aaron's mom finally left dad when Aaron was 12. They moved nearby so Aaron and the other brother, Kevin, could continued attending school in the Sierra district. But it may have been too close for Aaron's comfort because he slept with a sword by his bed just in case his father came around. Steve also added that their father's demanding ways helped toughen them up as Steve tried to put a spin on a tough story. Still, it sounds like a difficult way to grow up. Details, of course, are forthcoming.

MONDAY, OCT. 15

They're saying that winter has arrived in Colorado and I can attest to it. My wife Lydia and daughter Samantha joined me this weekend just in time for a snow storm up here in the Rocky Mountains overlooking Denver. Actually, the snow only seems to be sticking in our town of Winter Park. We drove off to Rocky Mountain National Park on Sunday and didn't see any snow at all, although there were roads closed because of the predictions. Meanwhile, back in Winter Park, we got enough snow to build a life-sized snowman, and he told us he was a Steelers fan.

On the docket tonight are interviews with Aaron Smith's brothers Dave and Steve in Fountain, just south of Colorado Springs. I hope they remembered that their Rockies were playing (winning) Game Four tonight when they agreed to the scheduled time. Hopefully I'll be able to steal some Steelers memories while they're getting new ones from their Rockies.

FRIDAY, OCT. 12

The first thing you notice about Greybull, Wyoming, – I mean, after you pass the deer and the antelope and the wild mustangs out on the range – is the 30 mile-per-hour speed limit on the main thoroughfare.

Running a bit late, the pace was maddening – at first -- but then you learn to like it, even love it. It seemed like time was standing still. This is certainly a quaint, quiet, peaceful town. And it’s about what you’d expect in that this town of 1,900 has one stoplight, a bar that beckons to hunters, and several Western-style clothiers. The people are what you’d expect, too, particularly if you know Brett Keisel.

Keisel of course is Greybull’s most famous son. He’s a budding NFL superstar for the Pittsburgh Steelers and he’s even a better person. When you talk to Brett you forget you’re talking to an NFL player because he’s so down-to-earth. That also describes his family and friends in Greybull.

I met with Brett’s teachers, coaches, friends and in-laws. Brett met his future bride Sarah when he was in fourth grade and everyone in town except them knew they’d end up getting married. Sarah’s mom, Patty Johnson, set my itinerary at the start of the day, and it ended at dinner with her and her husband Steve. I was so comfortable around the pony-tailed Steve that I actually asked if he were an old hippie.

“Right on,” he said with a laugh.

The dinner with those two, along with Brett’s buddy -- high-school quarterback Michael McGuire -- was so comfortable that I probably crossed “inner circle” lines at various points. Like talking to Brett, I felt I had known all of them for years.

McGuire, who now coaches the rival school district’s football team, complimented me and our staff for the job being done at SteelCityInsider.com. I complimented him on his taste in NFL ballcaps. He, of course, is a Steelers fan, but it wasn’t so easy for this former Broncos fanatic. But now, he said, after getting a taste of Steelers Nation, he would have a hard time going back, even if Brett somehow ended up a Bronco.

The food was good and the company even better. The stories lasted for three hours and the night ended with pictures, handshakes, and of course a peace sign from an “old hippie.”

TUESDAY, OCT. 9

What a scare. And to all the people I called in a panic over the lost tapes, I found them.

My cassette tapes, full of interviews from 22 days of travel, have been recovered. I found them in a secret compartment in my computer bag. I knew I put them in a place where I wouldn't lose them, I just had to remember the place. So the project moves into the middle of the fourth week, with Brett Keisel's Wyoming on deck.

This was supposed to be a bit of a week off, but I keep finding gems. In search of Kimo von Oelhoffen in Richland, Washington, I instead found Ray Mansfield's family in Kennewick. It turned out for the better. In fact, the gigantic painting of the ol' Ranger on the side of a big sports bar makes Kennewick an official Steelers town. So is Wallace, Idaho. I walked into the 1313 Grill off the interstate and heard the buxom barmaid bragging about the Steelers to a couple of guys sitting at the bar. All I can say is that she'll make for some pleasant viewing on the DVD.

After dinner, I made it to my aunt's and uncle's ranch in Polson, Montana. Today they had me out wrestling with a bull and then took me for a ride on Lake Flathead. It's a place you have to see. Afterward, we went to the only sports bar in town and, you guessed, it's run by a lifelong Steelers fan who had the bar decorated to fit her taste. I'm telling you, Steelers mania is everywhere. Nothing surprises me anymore.

MONDAY, OCT. 8

I'm enjoying the win all the more after reading Pete Prisco's analysis this morning:

"Barf," Prisco wrote.

"My personal hell: Three hours of football without any vertical threats."

That's just hilarious. Welcome to football, Pete.

I enjoyed the game so much that I got 10 hours of sleep and am ready for a great week. I'm pushing on into Montana today, fully charged with all of my laundry done and all of my cameras and recorders fully charged. If you didn't read my notes column on the message board, I focused on the intensity of the Steelers and Seahawks fans at the packed Hooters in Tacoma yesterday. I want to thank the leaders of the Steelers fan club up here -- Shawn, Will and Walt -- for providing guidance and treating me like my visit was a really big deal. They made me feel important. They also took away the trepidation I'd felt upon entering a city I had called a bunch of, well, babies for their reaction to the officiating in Super Bowl XL. I leave feeling like I've been welcomed and also exonerated. The Seahawks fans can finally relax and accept that Super Bowl loss because there were no excuses Sunday.

SATURDAY, OCT. 6

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Fife, Washington, watching an awful Big 10 football game. You just can’t get away from this stuff, but it does start at 9 a.m. out here on the west coast, so that’s a good thing.

A bad thing, I think, is spending four nights in Fife. I mentioned it to Shawn Bell, and he laughed. I mentioned it to Will Kohn, and he laughed. They both wanted to know why I’m staying at this traffic pit of an intersection they call a town. I don’t really have a good answer. Fife is near the exits to Tacoma, up the highway toward Seattle, and within shouting distance of Mt. Rainier. But those aren’t the real reasons, because Fife is near the Hooters bar that will host at least 170 Steelers fans Sunday morning for the 10 a.m. kickoff against the Seahawks.

That’s where I’ll be, at Hooters. It’s an unfair thing to do to a married man who’s been on the road for three weeks, but I’ll try to keep my attention on the game. I’d originally planned to trek three hours east to Richland, where Kimo von Oelhoffen runs a sports bar, but Bell and Kohn, of the Northwest Steeler Nation, promise a more newsworthy event at Hooters, and I agree that reporting on the passion behind enemy lines should prove interesting.

Before the game kicks off, I’ll have spent two full days investigating the football fans of Seattle, and it’s been difficult. Not everyone -- or even close to it -- has any interest at all in football. I went to the Space Needle and the first two fans I asked – with video camera in hand – were Steelers fans. I didn’t need them, but their stories were interesting nonetheless. I did find some Seahawks fans, but they’re really not too passionate. I scanned the famed Pike Place Market and could find only one person – one, in a mass of humanity -- who was wearing Seahawks garb. It’s all on tape. So is the fan, Casey, who at first denied any lingering anger over Super Bowl XL, but it all poured out of him after a few probing questions. His main complaint is the call of incomplete when a Seattle receiver hit a pylon and the other is that two Pittsburgh residents were part of the officiating crew. I think he’s wrong on both counts, but I’m not too interested in looking it up. It always seems to be something with these so-called fans.

Bell and Kohn both dismiss this area as pseudo-passionate about football. They’ve been Steelers fans since childhood and say that most of the Steelers fans have moved here because of the military. Bell used to work with “Softy” the radio man, whom I’d unfairly berated last year. Bell says there was nothing unfair about it, that Softy deserved everything I gave him, so I guess an apology isn’t necessary.

As for the game, I’m a little nervous. I don’t like picking against Super Bowl avengers and the Steelers have some key people out with injuries, but Shaun Alexander isn’t the back he once was, so I’ll take the Steelers in a close one.

THURSDAY, OCT. 4

Most of the fathers I’ve encountered on this trip get teary-eyed when they talk about that first game in which their sons were introduced as starters for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Salu Polamalu is more proud of something else. His son was first his nephew, Troy Aumua, of Santa Ana, California. Troy visited his Uncle Salu and Aunt Shelly in Tenmile, Oregon, when he was seven years old. He begged them not to let him go back and they didn’t. Later, Troy asked Salu if he could go by Polamalu at school. Those are the reasons Troy has made his father most proud. And after spending the day with the Polamalu family and friends, I understand why Troy didn’t want to leave.

Just when you think no place can be more beautiful than the place you just left, you find one. Oregon is lush and hilly, like Pittsburgh, but unfortunately I lack the technology to pump that fresh, pine-scented Oregon air through the computer screen. It’s one beautiful place and Tenmile is exactly what I expected. Troy grew up in lush green next to his grandparents and in front of a creek with three brothers at the Polamalu house. He played all of the sports there and learned the Polynesian Fire and Knife dance in his backyard. The stories of young Troy will fill the fattest chapter in this book.

More important to Troy’s development, of course, are the people in his life. On Wednesday, Shelly arranged for me to be greeted by several storefront readerboards and also for me to meet several important people in Troy’s life at both Douglas High School and Treats Café, which is owned by the family of Troy’s childhood friend Erik Stookey. I met Troy’s basketball and baseball coaches, his woodshop teacher, his oldest brother Joe and several other family members, among many others. Shelly knocked me out with the time she gave me and the arrangements she provided. Joe thanked me “for doing this,” and Salu, a big man who raised Troy with his legendary “iron fist” but who is so quick to smile, picked up the check at the Mexican restaurant and scolded me for not spending the night in the new trailer parked in his driveway.

It’s not that I wanted to leave, but this book must get done, particularly since I now have another great chapter.

WEDNESDAY, OCT. 3

The last two days have been a blur. I woke up this morning in Weed, California, in the shadow of mighty Mt. Shasta. I’m 175 miles south of Tenmile, Oregon, where I have an interview with Salu and Shelly Polamalu today. I blew into California and am blowing out as fast as I can, but for no good reason.

Let me backtrack.

I left Phoenix on Monday morning for a 1 p.m. interview with Thomas Tull and Paul Sams in Hollywood. Tull produced “300” and “We Are Marshall”, among many other films; Sams has 11 No. 1 games in a row. They’re Hollywood wunderkinds, except I’m sure they despise the term. They’ve been brought together by Warner Brothers to work on a movie about Warlock’s rise to the top. That is the name of Sams’ games venture. The two weren’t as enthusiastic about the project until they realized each is a hard-core Steelers fan. Probably for that reason, neither of them is what I expected of Hollywood bigwigs. They had plenty of time for me and are down-to-earth people who live and die with each passing Sunday afternoon. Sams on Monday was enthusiastic and willing to help in any way. Tull is the same, but wasn’t over the Steelers’ loss to the Cardinals. He seemed pained by mine and Sams’ enthusiasm and lack of concern over the loss but said this is normal operating procedure for him and that he wouldn’t come out of the funk until the next game kicks off.

I’d arrived early for the interview and went right to the Warner Brothers complex and pulled right into my reserved parking spot and walked right into the interview. Then I left quickly to beat the traffic into L.A. and realized I’d never seen the Hollywood sign in the hills. I arrived early for my interview at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Ed Hoke. He’s similar to his son in that he’s robust in build and an engaging people person. Ed told me stories about his son and how he raised him in Orange County. I also filmed the five houses he had built to form the cul de sac at the end of the street in the suburb of Fountain Valley. The interview ended early and I hoped to rush back past Hollywood to catch the sights, but only sat in traffic. Then the sun went down and the best I could do was take a drive up Mulholland Drive to video the famous shot overlooking Los Angeles at night.

So, fine. Here I am, in L.A. with my work done and no place to sleep. Jan’s RV had gone through its two-week run, and my friend Bill had hosted me through three nights in Phoenix. Now I was on my own and hadn’t thought ahead. So I drove north. And I kept driving up to Rt. 46 when I decided to head west for the coast and prepare for a Tuesday morning drive along fabled Rt. 1 on the Pacific Coast. I slept in a state park, got a good five hours in, and then made the stunningly scenic drive up to the Monterey peninsula. I drove around the bay to make a noon call on one of Marvel Smith’s friends in Oakland and then had a choice to make: Do I drive up through Northern California through Redwood country and continue along the shore? Or do I cut back to the center of the state and take Route 5 up through the Mt. Shasta area? The book “1,000 Places To See Before You Die” says that Mt. Shasta has been an inspiration to writers over the years, so that made it an easy choice. But I don’t feel particularly inspired. I’m a bit disheveled and bloated from gorging on McDonald’s and Ben & Jerry’s the night before (my first worst night of eating), but I don’t feel inspired. I’ll take a walk around the lot after this entry is filed. I thank God that my car’s holding up and my health is fine, and that the Great Northwest awaits.

MONDAY, OCT. 1

The desert is kind this morning. It's cool and rainy as I head west to L.A. to interview a couple of Hollywood movers and shakers who also happen to be Steelers fans.

The Steelers fans who work morning radio in Phoenix are being abused by the colleagues that are jumping on the Cardinals' bandwagon. And one station went to "Our Ron Wolfley Moment" to replay Craig's brother's best comment from his performance as game analyst. The station played back the call of the Steve Breaston punt return for a TD. Ron Wolfley punctuated the call with a robust "There's no dirt like paydirt!" sending the morning zoo into laughter.

As someone pulling for the Steelers, I wasn't too upset by the loss. I figure that if they'd have won, they'd have been upset by avenging Seattle next Sunday; but since they lost they'll be focused and will beat Seattle. By my math, the Steelers are on track for a 4-1 start either way. That's why I was happy for Russ Grimm. I visited his post-game tailgate party outside the stadium. I congratulated Sean Morey, Kevin Spencer, Ken Whisenhunt and Grimm in that order. Whisenhunt was happy to see me, but reverted to head coach when I asked him if it was an emotional week. He has to be the man in charge of keeping an even keel and he did that. Grimm allowed me to turn on my recorder for an interview for the book. He told a friend he'd circled the game, but for the record told me that he really hadn't. His happy green eyes said otherwise.

Grimm looks fit and relaxed. He said he lost 20 pounds. "You have no choice out here in this heat!" he said, but my guess is that not getting the Steelers job made him take stock of his career. One of the question marks that I had had about Grimm as a head coach was whether he partied too much. I've never seen Russ drunk, but I've seen him holding court in bars. He's a lot of fun, but I wondered if he was serious enough for all of the detailed work that comes with a head coaching job. Well Russ -- temporarily forgetting that I'm an O'Doul's drinker -- offered me one of the three beers he had in his cooler. That's a big offer from a much smaller cooler than Russ is used to carrying. My guess is he's gotten serious about his career and will go on to become an outstanding head coach some day. "Make sure you write in your book," said agent Eric Metz, "that Russ has won a Super Bowl with every team he's been with." So I thanked Russ for his time and told him I'd see him next at the Super Bowl when the Steelers returned in February. Russ told me "Deal."

Spencer was pleased and rightfully so. He said it's nice to get more than a couple of minutes to work with the special teams, but joked that he doesn't need hula hoops or balls on a stick to get it done. "Lig must be going crazy with that stuff," he joked. Spencer also advised that James Harrison should get a reduced workload on special teams because he's such a playmaker at linebacker. Then Spencer asked why everyone forgot about him in their pre-game newspaper advances out of Pittsburgh. I said that while they may not have written about him before the game, they're certainly writing about him after it. "I guess that's a lot better," he said. Spencer added that he missed the fans and players in Pittsburgh, but of course has to move on.

SATURDAY, SEPT. 29

For an update on the scene here in Phoenix, I take you to the message board.

FRIDAY, SEPT. 28

How's that for a eye-catching lead-in? But it's a lie. I didn't see any West Texas "Bad Boys," as one of my late friends liked to call "the roughest rednecks in the land." In fact, we barely even saw cattle as we made the 580-mile trek from San Antonio to the New Mexico border, and now I'm in Phoenix.

West Texas is hard scrabble, boy, but the roads are well kept and the speed limit is 80, so we were able to knock off the toughest part of the journey in one day.

That didn't help me get any quality work done, though, so today's the day I get back to my interviews. I'm heading out to Arizona State to talk to Marvel Smith's college position coach and will also talk with a scout about the guy who's anchoring the Steelers' line. Then it's off to talk to a Phoenix resident who's had Steelers season tickets since 1970, and then a hard-core Cowboys fan, a hard-core Raiders fan, a bar owner who has the audacity to drape his place in a "You're in Steelers Country" banner, and then I'll place a few out-of-town calls, including one to the "gatekeeper" in Chapel Hill. As Dale Lolley wrote, Willie Parker has to be considered among the elite NFL running backs these days, so he should be honored in Chapel Hill. I'll find out if that's been changed since I've been there.

We'll get this work done by 5 p.m. P.S.T. because West Virginia is playing South Florida in what should be a great game on TV. My host in Phoenix -- Pittsburgh-born and Morgantown-educated Bill Martine -- is obviously a WVU fan, so "there's no option here," as he put it.

Just to catch you up, Jan Jones and I took the RV all the way to Tombstone, Az., where he dropped me and Ol' Black (my car) off for the rest of the trip. That had been the plan from the start and I want to thank Jan for a great two weeks all the way around. Now it's up to me and -- for a few days anyway -- West Virginia Bill.

Fans should dominate this segment of the journey, but I'm also hoping for a lively chat with Russ Grimm at his post-game tailgate party. I noticed Russ has admitted he was never offered the Steelers' head coaching job, so at least that topic will have been covered by the time we talk. Our conversation won't have that big ol' matzaball hanging out there so we can just have fun, win or lose.

To update from this afternoon, I've found that the best Steelers bar in town is Celtic Curtain at the intersection of East Cactus and 32nd St. Great food, great jukebox and it's filled with fans.

TUESDAY, SEPT. 25

Greetings from San Antonio. I woke up in a quiet campground this morning, which is a big change from waking up on the sides of interstates with clerks shouting over intercoms to move vehicles and cars blaring rap music as they pull up beside us. So far, San Antonio is cool and quiet and my first thought on this beautiful morning is to wonder what God has in store for me today.

Steelers news could quiet down through the rest of the week, but I expect we’ll run into our share of interesting tidbits. I have clippings of Texans that played in Pittsburgh, but most are either dead or out of reach. I’ll just throw on some Steelers garb (please, don’t tell my reporter friends) and hope to draw the fans out of the woodwork.

We’re passing on Dallas to take a break in this city. We’ll check out the Alamo and the River Walk and pull out tomorrow morning for El Paso. The expectation is to reach Phoenix on Friday and it’ll be a grind. But Phoenix is where the Steelers fans will be. I was at the 1997 overtime win in Phoenix as well as the 1995 Super Bowl and both were thick with black and gold. I’ll hook up with a buddy in Phoenix and we’ll head to Harold’s Cave Creek Corral on Saturday night for interviews.

Just to catch you up on the trip through the south: On Saturday morning I met with Uniontown native Jack Marucci. He’s the trainer at LSU and was on a tight schedule because the team hosted South Carolina that afternoon. Baton Rouge was hopping early but the insightful interview made the fight through traffic worthwhile. Marucci is a Steelers fan and he talked about how so many of the NFL scouts that pass through LSU have Western Pa. roots. He talked about Alan Faneca and Ryan Clark and also showed me the greatest collection of sports memorabilia I’ve seen. Jack has a Steelers helmet signed by the original Steel Curtain, among many of his other artifacts. He also makes bats for every Major League team, except the Pirates. Well, that used to be true until he recently sent a shipment to Freddy Sanchez. I’ll explain more in the book and talk about the “professional whiffle ball field” he has in his backyard. Jack also noted that LSU’s offensive coordinator and equipment manager are Steelers fans, mainly because of the way the team plays the game so remember that as you watch LSU’s offense. That makes the Tigers a team to root for in the national title hunt this season.

One other note about Baton Rouge: I’d left my wide-angle video camera lens in Uncle Herm’s truck the previous night. He and his wife “J Lo” made the hour-long trip, through the traffic, from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, just to make sure I got it back safely. I’m telling you, they are special, special people.

On Sunday, Jan and I visited Casey Hampton’s mother Ivory in Galveston. It was a hoot. Casey’s little brother Nass was following in Casey’s footsteps as a nose tackle at their tradition-rich high school, but he started his family a bit early and dropped out of the sport. He’s reserved, like Casey, so I was surprised when he told me after the win that he thinks the Steelers will go 16-0. There’s much more about my visit in this week’s Steelers Digest. In short, there was great food, much to root for in a great game, and some excellent stories from the family about Casey. Most of that will appear in the book, but right now it’s off to The Alamo.

SUNDAY, SEPT. 23

I didn’t visit the French Quarter in New Orleans. I visited the Ninth Ward. Or what’s left of it. Nor did I go to the bars. I instead went to the barbershop. It’s where Ike Taylor hangs out – Kings and Queens – in Marrero, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans. Ike’s uncle Herm, who, along with his wife Judy, raised Ike, showed me around town with more class than anyone could imagine. I was knocked out by the hospitality shown not only by Herm, but by everyone I ran into down here. Pittsburgh has a reputation for friendliness but it’s nothing like what I encountered down here, where it’s considered rude to pass someone on the street without a smile and a friendly word. So Herm took me to the barbershop to talk some Steelers football. The boys took one look at my hair and decided I needed “a low ride” or something along those lines. I wasn’t quite sure of the term they used, but it sounded like a harmless trim so I agreed to take a seat under the “A-Train.” And then the A-Train dug those clippers deep into my hair and it was on. They buzzed me real good and got quite a few laughs. They insist I look better now – and since no one at home will see me for six weeks it’s a moot point – but this 46-year-old product of those ugly 1970s hairstyles is feeling a little bare today. It was all in good fun as I passed into their fraternity. I think. There was a lot of back and forth going on between the Steelers and Saints fans, but make no mistake: Kings and Queens is a Steelers bar-bershop. Herm spent the next eight hours showing me around town, places of interest concerning Ike, as well as the Steelers in general. He took me to a Steelers bar, or at least a bar owned by a Steelers fan – Bruno’s – but the owner wasn’t in. The waitress called him, but he was at a party and said to “Just ask around for Steelers fans. You’ll find them.” At the first table, we found our man. Alden has been a Steelers fan since 1967 when the Steelers and Saints played a tight game. He said the uniform first caught his attention and then he became a fan in 1970 when the Steelers drafted Terry Bradshaw out of Louisiana Tech. He also saw the Steelers’ first Super Bowl down here in frigid Tulane Stadium and has been a fan ever since. When asked about this year’s club, he, like most Steelers fans, said it’s up to Ben Roethlisberger and that so far, so good. On our way home, I asked Herm if he ever read the ridiculous column in the Post-Gazette that dubbed Ike the team’s worst ever draft pick. He hadn’t heard about it, but laughed at anyone calling a fourth-rounder the worst anything. Then Herm got on a roll. He began talking about the media and how my trip around the Nation is special on more than one level. “You’ve been to the Ninth Ward. You’ve seen where Ike Taylor grew up. You’ve seen what those winds did to his high school. It don’t even have a football team anymore. You know how he bounces back. You know how Willie Parker bounces back. You’ve walked in their shoes. You know the people you’re writing about. You won’t be guessing when you get home, Mr. Jim. You won’t be writing about shadows. You know them. No, Mr. Jim, you’ve been called to do this work. It’s important work, and may God bless you.”

Thanks, Uncle Herm. I needed that.

FRIDAY, SEPT. 21

You’re Greg Lloyd and you never liked the media much in your playing days and now a reporter’s coming to your hometown nearly 10 years after you retired from the game. Presumably, this journalist will want to discuss your recent legal troubles and probably ask if you continue to resent the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 1.) painkilling shot that turned into a staph infection and effectively ended your career, and 2.) for the way they released you from a contract that would’ve paid you $2.8 million. How are you, Greg Lloyd, going to treat your inquisitor? Well, how about with a one hour and 20-minute interview replete with the heart and soul, the passion, that marked his playing days? Lloyd was fabulous to me Thursday in Fayetteville, Ga. The beginning of the interview was remarkable for his lack of anger, but that anger would flash from time to time, depending on the subject matter. Of course, when you hear his side of the story, you can’t help but believe him. His new wife does. In spite of what the papers have reported, she, Stephanie, brought her three small children into a marriage with Lloyd two years ago, and during our long talk I could understand why. Lloyd is intelligent, caring, nurturing -- a thoughtful teacher to his four classes of Tae Kwan Do students at the studio where we held the interview. He was helpful to a journalist he hardly remembered from his playing days in Pittsburgh. And yet, when you hear his story, you wonder how he can keep his sanity. “I’d be suicidal without this,” he said of his studies in the martial arts. You believe his story because it makes too much sense. You also understand that he – mean former football player -- is an easy target for all comers. He’s lost a lot, but he’s been born again and by the end of the interview you want him back with the organization in some capacity. You remember what drew you to him as a fan in the first place and you root for him. I think you will, too, once the interview is transcribed and published. … My trip to Georgia began with a lunch downtown with Corey Allen, the former college roommate of Hines Ward. Allen first came to know Ward in their childhood but attended a rival high school. There, Allen said, he came to hate Ward’s smile – “it was a smirk” – on the playing field while making big plays. Allen and Ward then went to the University of Georgia and became best friends again. Allen told me what he tells Ward, that he whines too much. As the line goes, “It takes a friend to tell you when you’re just pissing in the wind.” But of course Allen admires what Ward has accomplished and how he’s pushed himself to become the player that he is. Allen said Ward has a knack for making the rest of his teammates work as hard as he does, and recalled that Ward was the first kid in the neighborhood to own a car, but he only used it to pick everyone up for practice. Even though Allen scorched my budget by drinking something called a Grey Goose ($8.95 per), he provided enough insight to make the stop worth my while. … As I’m typing this morning, we’re idling the RV at a rest stop just south of Montgomery, Alabama. We’re shooting for lunch at a Steelers bar in Mobile called Hero’s and hopefully I can talk to some fans. In Alabama, the football fans know passion, and I’m interested in finding one who understands that passion in both college and pro football today before we head to New Orleans.

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 19

Man, this is the life. Traveling the country and talking football isn’t really work at all. Right now I’m at a Flying J RV rest center about 65 miles east of Atlanta. Tomorrow I have interviews scheduled with a high-school rival of Hines Ward and “Master” Lloyd. That’s what the karate kids call their teacher, Greg Lloyd. He’s agreed to grant a rare interview and also will allow me to film him teaching karate class at his studio in the Atlanta suburb of Fayetteville.

So far I’ve completed interviews with the parents of Heath Miller, Willie Parker and Lawrence Timmons. As you might imagine, all were enthusiastic, even the Millers, who are much like Heath in that they’re reserved, perhaps even wary, around reporters. Mrs. Miller has turned away reporters of late because of past experiences with those looking for the coal-country hillbilly stereotype. So, that killed my angle. Just kidding. There was plenty to talk about at their home in Swords Creek, Virginia. We went to an Applebees and were seated in the “Heath Miller corner” of the restaurant amid several pictures of the local star. The hostess and waitress were oblivious as to whom they were seating and the Millers like it that way. After I turned off the tape recorder, the conversation really picked up. Tears welled up in Mr. Miller’s eyes at one point as he talked about his son. Needless to say, they’re proud of him. “Not for what he is,” said Mrs. Miller, “but for who he is.”

Willie Parker Sr. also teared up as he talked about his son. Willie lives in Clinton, North Carolina. I’d first stopped in Chapel Hill to investigate what the school is doing to honor Parker, who left UNC to become a Pro Bowl running back and Super Bowl record-holder. But, there was only one mention of Willie Parker, and that was only on a wall listing all former Tar Heels who made it to the NFL. In the NFL honors section, you could find a picture of Jeff Reed, but not Parker, who, in spite of sitting the bench at UNC, still comes back to the school when called on to help with events. So, with my video camera in hand, I turned to the receptionist and demanded – well, asked – why the slight of the good-natured and talented Parker. She gave me the name and number of a local reporter who is in charge of the N.C. Hall of Fame. I’ll call him later and it should be an interesting conversation.

Lindsey Timmons, former Duquesne basketball player and father of Lawrence, hosted me in Florence, South Carolina. Lawrence – or “Juan” as they call him (great story behind it) – helped the family move into a beautiful home, but it’s next to a burned-out shell of a home that was once just as beautiful but burned down after being struck recently by lightning. The Timmons family is excited about Lawrence’s future. I told him of my initial skepticism of the Steelers’ drafting of his son, and he agreed that there doesn’t seem to be a fit for him … right now. But we both agreed that the situation will soon change, that Mike Tomlin will find a way to use him. Lindsey said Lawrence’s real skill is special teams anyway and he’s taking the family into Pittsburgh for Sunday’s game for the first time. They’re all excited.

I also interviewed several other friends of these players and fans of the Steelers. I talked to Heath Miller’s high school coach, who called 2005 one of the greatest years of his life. “My favorite team drafted my favorite player and they won the Super Bowl. What a year!” he said. I also caught a Steelers fan selling coal-mining gear on the side of the road in Elkhorn, West Virginia. My interviews in Bluefield had just ended and my host, reporter and Steelers fan Bill Archer, was about to send me on my way to Swords Creek when we spotted this young guy who was wearing a Heath Miller jersey. It was a great omen for a trip that’s going extraordinarily well.

Talk to yinz soon.


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