Terrible Towel: Steelers fans' unofficial flag

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Viewed objectively, it's just a 16-by-23-inch piece of yellow terrycloth emblazoned with black writing.

No Pittsburgh Steelers fan would tolerate such a pedestrian description of the Terrible Towel.

Developed decades ago as a gimmick to get fans involved in games by the late and beloved Steelers' broadcaster Myron Cope, the Terrible Towel is waved by frenzied fans at games both home and away, turning stadiums into pulsating seas of yellow.

Over the years, the prized towel has become a symbolic flag of sorts, embracing Pittsburgh and Steelers fans, no matter how far from Heinz Field they may be.

And like a flag, Steelers fans don't like to see it disrespected.

It's the heart and soul of Pittsburgh. Everyone around the world knows the Terrible Towel,'' said Debbie Blanchard, 49, of suburban Pittsburgh, who brought one of her four Terrible Towels to a Steelers pep rally in downtown Pittsburgh on Thursday.I take it with me everywhere I go.''

But lately, those not smitten with the Steelers have mistreated the Terrible Towel. They stomp on it, wipe their shoes or use it as a handkerchief.

Steelers fans say such antics can backfire.

Cincinnati Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh wiped his feet with it after scoring a touchdown in a 2005 game. The Bengals won that game, but the Steelers beat them in the playoffs and went on to win Super Bowl XL.

Baltimore Ravens receiver Derrick Mason stomped on a Terrible Towel in September. The Steelers beat the Ravens all three games this season, including in the AFC Championship to earn a berth in Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday.

And Tennessee Titans running back LenDale White and linebacker Keith Bulluck stepped on a towel after the Titans's beat the Steelers in December, but the Titans fell to Baltimore in the playoffs.

Are you not superstitious, Arizona?

On Monday, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon blew his nose into it, stomped on it and then the Cardinals' mascot wiped his armpits. Gordon later apologized.

Such behavior inspired Randy Baumann, co-host of the morning show at Pittsburgh's WDVE-FM, to write ``Don't Disrespect the Terrible Towel,'' in the vein of Charlie Daniels and Hank Williams Jr.

The song has an almost patriotic, don't-tread-on-me feel.

``Well don't disrespect the Terrible Towel, The curse of Cope will haunt you somehow; Well, think before you treat it like a dirty dishrag, because here in Steeler Nation, that towel's our flag,'' the lyrics go.

The towel has helped keep Steelers fans connected, especially since so many Pittsburghers moved elsewhere after the steel industry collapsed, Baumann said.

At a recent Steelers rally, Baumann recounted, a man in the audience grabbed his attention.

He said, 'Hey Randy, come 'ere: I want to show you something.' He showed me a Terrible Towel and said he carried it with him through two tours of Iraq,'' Baumann said.I totally believe that guy thought of that as a security blanket of sorts, and a connection to Pittsburgh.''

Indeed, on WDVE's Steelers Web site, a section is devoted to photos of the Terrible Towel proudly displayed throughout the country and beyond: soldiers posing with towels in Iraq and Afghanistan, at Great Wall of China, atop Mount Kilimanjaro, in Antarctica and throughout Europe.

Blanchard, like many others, also knows the origin of the Terrible Towel and the charity it benefits.

Asked by broadcasting executives in 1975 to come up with a gimmick, Cope, who died last February, settled on asking fans to bring gold, yellow or black towels to wave at a game.

The towel took off and is imitated in some form by other teams.

Waving it, Cope said in a 2006 interview, could inspire strange things'' to happen to the Steelers' opponents.The Terrible Towel has mysterious connotations. ... You have to use your imagination.''

For Cope, the towel was something more. In 1996, he gave the Terrible Towel trademark to the Allegheny Valley School, a facility for the mentally retarded. Cope's son Danny, who has autism, has lived at Allegheny Valley for more than 20 years.

Sales of the towels and related items have generated more than $2.5 million for the school, said Dorothy Hunter Gordon, chief development officer.

``There's a whole lot more to that Terrible Towel aura than even I was willing to give credence to at the beginning,'' Baumann said.

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