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Steelers fans hungry for another victory

| Sunday, Nov. 7, 2004

The wait for a "Roethlisburger" exceeded an hour during lunch Friday at Peppi's sandiwch shop on the North Side, bringing hope to a weary republic that the healing can now begin.

Breakout rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has led the Pittsburgh Steelers on a five-game tear, capped last week by the dismantling of the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.

Today brings the Philadelphia Eagles, the last undefeated team in football, for what Steelers fans, regardless of party registration, unanimously hope will be a similar dismal fate.

Forget the politics of personal destruction. Among those who follow football, it's the most wonderful time of the year.

Best-selling author Joe Queenan, a long-suffering Eagles fan, said it is no mystery how a winning professional sports team can change a city's mood overnight.

"Sports is all about making life bearable for miserable men," Queenan said.

In his new book, "True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans," Queenan tackles why so many get swept up rooting for the home team, despite year after year of punishing disappointments.

"When I go down to the game and there are 60,000 guys all dressed in green, there is something to be said for that feeling of unanimity," he said. "I mean, half those guys probably voted for Bush, but when you're in the stadium with 60,000 people, they're like family."

Murray State University psychology professor Daniel Wann, co-author of "Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators," said his research shows that fans have measurably better scores in tests of psychological well-being. Win or lose.

Cheering together, wearing the colors and relishing it all on Monday morning feed the fundamental human hunger to belong to something bigger, Wann said.

"You can't feel alienated in Pittsburgh if you're a Steelers fan. You've got a million pals running around," Wann said.

Some of those pals enjoy a namesake sandwich.

Peppi's new creation tests the structural integrity of a hoagie bun with a pile of ground beef, sausage, egg, cheese, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, mayo and, as counterman Max Terasauro hollered, "a whole heap of Steeler pride!"

Brett Cupps, 18, of Emsworth, was looking forward to cramming one down his gullet, whatever the wait.

"I want to see if the sandwich is up to it. I want to see what all the hype's about," he said.

Cupps will watch the game today from the gas station where he works. But that's OK, because the place is hallowed ground. Steelers coach Bill Cowher drove in the other day to ask for directions. That same day, swears Cupps, former coach Chuck Noll filled up at the station across the street.

The portent is clear, he said: The Steelers will win the Super Bowl.

Steelers fan Todd Fink, 38, of Upper St. Clair, attended Miami University in Ohio, Roethlisberger's alma mater. Fink came Downtown to Honus Wagner Co. on Friday to buy some Big Ben buttons, hats and a Steelers vest.

He bought his 9-year-old daughter a No. 7 jersey earlier. She used it as a Halloween costume.

"You could tell 'Ben mania' has taken hold here," he said. "People on the streets were yelling."

Perhaps they were quoting lines from WDVE-FM morning show host Randy Baumann's new song about the hometown team and its young star. A sample couplet: "He's always on time and he always delivers / Thank God we didn't draft Phil Rivers."

"It's part of the job," Baumann said. "You have to sort of echo the sentiment of the town, and everyone wants to sing the praises of Ben Roethlisberger, so we just kind of do it literally."

At first Baumann changed the lyrics each week. He stopped doing that on the advice of Myron Cope, the Quincy Jones of Steelers rally songs and crooner of the timeless chestnut, "Deck the halls with Modell's meatballs / Fa lrga lrga lrga lrgaa, lrga lrga lrga lrgaaa!"

Johns Hopkins University professor Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy and international relations expert, said he penned his ninth book, "The Meaning of Sports," last year as a change of pace.

"Sports are authentic," said Mandelbaum, a Kansas City Chiefs booster. "Ben Roethlisberger is really doing what we see him do, whereas John Wayne really was not. ... In a world of hype and pretense, these guys are really authentic."

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