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Fans, city enjoyed connection with Noll

| Saturday, June 14, 2014, 5:57 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
A couple items are left at Gate B at Heinz Field on Saturday, June 14, 2014, presumably for Steelers coach Chuck Noll, who passed away Friday night.

Everyone has a Chuck Noll story.

There's the time he dropped off Christmas goodies to a Catholic high school. And when he visited ailing fans in a hospital. Or when he stopped to talk in a restaurant foyer. And pose for pictures before a commercial flight.

“He was a real person,” said Patricia Jeffries, 74, of the Hill District. “Steelers were Steelers back then. None of this showboating nonsense. What they did on Sunday was personal. He was everyone's coach, even mine.”

Mexico natives Laura and Alonzo Fernandez of Texas parked by a sparse memorial outside Gate B at an empty Heinz Field. Two white votive candles pinned down a Terrible Towel beside a posterboard reading, “Gone but not forgotten,” with messages scribbled below.

Fernandez, 43, insisted they stop. Her husband, a 42-year-old Dallas fan, begrudgingly agreed.

“I fell in love with the Steelers in the 70s, when (Noll) was here,” she said. “The kind of love you have for your team — the coaches, the players — it's something that you feel, and there's nothing you can do about it.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and U.S. Senator Bob Casey sent more public condolences.

“(Noll) leaves behind a great legacy,” Casey wrote. “My thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.”

The team banked its first four Super Bowl wins between Peduto's fourth- and ninth-grade years. Those wins were hugely transformative, he said.

“Chuck Noll epitomized the glue that held that team together,” Peduto said. “You had a lot of different personalities, a lot of great athletes, but it was about more than what they did on the field. You had a leader who was quiet, well-respected and had a certain reverence. There will never be another coach like him.”

When he was a young priest, Bishop David Zubik said he met Noll a few days after the Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl.

“Far beyond his coaching abilities and phenomenal success, what struck me most then, and continues to now, about Chuck Noll is his rock foundation of humility,” Zubik said. “To my mind, he was never about Chuck Noll. He was always about others. That humility makes him a role model for all — both young and old.”

Wearing a black Jack Lambert jersey, Darrell Bey, 37, recalled Sundays at his grandmother's house in Wilkinsburg, learning plays and colorful curse words in equal measure.

“I was really little in the Super Bowl years, so I remember a lot of his bad years, too. He never took it out on the fans, though. You could walk up to him and say, ‘Hey coach. What's going on?' That means something, you know?”

Jeffries remembers vibrations coming off the seats at home games, first at Forbes Field and later at Three Rivers Stadium. Noll's first year was rocky, she said, but by his second, Pittsburgh streets were barren.

“For three hours every Sunday, there wouldn't be a car on the road,” she said. “No one missed those games.”

John Roberts and Mike Longhway, both 40, spent their formative years in Pittsburgh before fleeing to Cleveland and San Antonio, respectively. Roberts still wears the black and gold every Sunday, he said.

“The Steelers have been so good at defense for so many years,” he said. “The attitude established by the Steel Curtain under Noll is still what we're using today.”

Susan Jones, 67, of Carnegie calls herself a die-hard sports fan. She loves the Pens and Pirates, but football never appealed to her, she said.

“But everyone knew Chuck Noll,” she said. “Now there was a wonderful man.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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