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Homecoming for Lewis, Cowher

9-17-03, 12:30 a.m.

Steeler Week is now Homecoming Week.

They should now start playing this series on a Friday night with two bands, a Queen and her court, 50-50 raffle tickets instead of private suite passes, and a scarred-up game ball from the old Black Hills Conference nestled in Western Pennsylvania.

Bengals vs. Steelers Sunday at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.

But it might as well be Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' Fort Cherry High School vs. Bill Cowher's Carlynton High School. It might as well be the fall of '74, when Fort Cherry returned a kick for a touchdown and held on to beat Carlynton, 6-0, when Cowher was a senior. It was probably the next year, when Lewis was a senior and he remembers getting beat for a touchdown at safety and then returning the ensuing kickoff with tears in his eyes.

Hey, they don't take their football lightly in Pittsburgh.

"Carlynton and Fort Cherry is a pretty good rivalry," Cowher told the Pittsburgh press Tuesday. "I remember we had about six guys go up to the IUP football camp, and they had about six guys up there. There was some trash talk done at that camp about the game we were going to play next year."

This is a backyard brawl and a two-day block party. Ed Hamer, whose son married Lewis' youngest sister Andrea, coached Cowher in youth football on the "Little Cougars." Another son, Mickey Hamer, who they think played youth football against Lewis, has been living in the Cincinnati suburb of Loveland for 10 years. Every weekend the Steelers come to Cincinnati, Mickey hosts a party for a group of 30 to 40 descending from Pittsburgh to root for the Steelers.

Andrea probably won't make the party this year at her brother-in-law's. It's family, but there are just too many Steeler fans. She may be staying at Marvin's house, away from all the yellow and black.

"Now that Marvin is there," Ed Hamer said, "I hope the Bengals win every game they play but two. They can win the Super Bowl if we can't. As long as we beat them."

This is where blood is thicker than team colors. This is Marvin Lewis, a kid who never got called when he was on the waiting list for Steelers' season tickets, telling the Cincinnati media, "We have to quit having all the people giving all their tickets away to the people from up the river. That's a challenge

to our fans, to come out this week in their orange and black and keep the people in the yellow and black out of the stadium. That's the challenge, and we're going to be ready to play, and so will Pittsburgh. It's a big game for us."

Cowher noticed.

"They have a new coach they are playing at home, talking about getting their fans involved," Cowher said of the Bengals. "This is a big game for them, an early season big game and we recognize that."

Back in McDonald, Pa., Lewis' parents signed up for Steeler season tickets about the time Marvin was in junior high. When they got the call they were next, he had just started college at Idaho State and they didn't buy them.

But it worked out in the end. Cowher, the kid at camp from, Carlynton, became the Steelers head coach and hired him to coach the linebackers.

Lewis has told people about that camp at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He was a sophomore quarterback there when he first met Cowher, the junior middle linebacker. He'll tell you after that first week on the dorm's same floor how he thought Cowher was very intense, reserved, and quiet.

"You can always tell who the leaders are and Bill was the guy who convinced us to go to the camp," said Jim James, Carlynton's other middle backer. "I think you can tell Marvin was a leader for them. You see who's in the front of the line in the hall, who's first on the field on those really hot days."

Cowher, who grew up about a half-hour from Lewis in Crafton, Pa., probably has more in common with Lewis than the two may admit. James and his brother grew up eight houses from Cowher and his brother, and the four were inseparable growing up. If Bill was going to the camp, they all would.

Lewis was also tight with a kid down the road from him in McDonald, Bob Cook. Both were quarterbacks and they went to the camp together, too.

"We were all on the same floor in the same dorm," Jim James said. "Our teams were similar. They were true scholars of the game. They were like us. They were hard-nosed, physical, and had about 10 guys playing both ways. They trash-talked more than we did."

Bill Yoest, Cowher's high school defensive coordinator, recalls how Cowher played some center and a little tight end, but defense was his passion. Lewis quarterbacked McDonald to a victory over Carlynton in his senior year in a game that was cut short by lightning and finished on a Monday. But he always knew he would play defense if he went to the next level.

Yoest remembers how Cowher longed to be a member of Linebacker U. at Penn State, but it didn't work out and it was North Carolina State, instead, where he was once named the Wolfpack's MVP. Lewis also didn't get his dream, a scholarship at Pitt or West Virginia, but he became an all-conference linebacker for three straight years at Idaho State.

Yeah, they may be more alike than they think. Ed Hamer coached Cowher when he was 13 and just put him in the middle of his defense and let him work.

"Very polite," Hamer said. "On the sidelines he had this nice smile and would say, 'Yes sir, Mr. Hamer.' But when he put on his helmet and went on the field, it was like he changed. He 'd try to go right through you."

He and Cowher lost a little bit of touch down through the years, although he did go to training camp once in a while. When Hamer's wife died in January, Cowher's secretary called with sympathy and to say the coach would be calling in a few weeks. But there was Cowher, in a month of playoff games, on the phone in just a few hours.

Lewis is another Pittsburgh guy who has never forgot his first zip code. Hamer got to know Lewis when he was the Steelers linebackers coach and helped Hamer out with his youth league.

"Marvin got some players and coaches from the Steelers, and we met at a big restaurant with our parents and coaches," Hamer said. "They went over some coaching tips and what the expectations should be from the kids and the coaches. Marvin was fantastic. He really is a nice person. I wrote him a note (this year) and told him if his players listen to him, they'll win the Super Bowl this year."

Ed Hamer, of course, is rooting for the Steelers to go to the Super Bowl, as he invites a caller to his son's party Saturday. But he also knows this is a NFL version of the Civil War. He figures Andrea and her husband are rooting for Marvin, and that there must be some accommodations.

"Hopefully, we can all spend a little bit of time together Saturday , and then go our ways," Hamer said.

This is a tough business. Lewis' parents also grew up Steelers' fans, but the faithful made life so miserable for them at Three Rivers Stadium whenever they went to watch Lewis' Ravens and Mrs. Lewis wore the purple. Now they doubt they'll opt to take the abuse when the Bengals come to Heinz Field Nov. 30.

Hey, they don't take their football lightly in Pittsburgh.

Just watch how two kids from the Black Hills Conference go at it in the varsity game Sunday at 1 p.m.

They ought to play a J.V. game at 11 a.m.

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