You’ve got to hand it to Pittsburgh’s fans in Kansas City. They’ve got confidence. They’ve got swagger. More than steel in their veins, they’ve got brass.
Consider Ed Kovac, 39, who — despite being born and bred in Overland Park and still a resident — swears he has been a Steelers fan since he was a small boy. He watched the dominating team, led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw, on TV with his football fan father.
“I tell people I was born blessed,” said Kovac, president of the 200-member Kansas City Steelers Fan Club. “By the age of 3 and 4, every Christmas, all I wanted was Steelers stuff.”
He estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 Pittsburgh fans will show up for Sunday’s playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium.
Chiefs fans can make all manner of arguments how, even after Kansas City’s humiliating 43-14 loss to Pittsburgh in week four, this is the Chiefs’ year. They’ve got lightning-fast wide receiver Tyreek Hill, playmaking tight end Travis Kelce, imposing nose tackle (and occasional offensive option) Dontari Poe and deafening Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs, their fans say, are just a better team than they were in week four.
To which Steelers fans in Kansas City have a reply:
Six Super Bowl rings. Eight Super Bowl appearances. And, oh, in case they didn’t mention it, their guy, Ben Roethlisberger, was quarterback in two of those Super Bowl victories.
The way lifelong fan Jerry D. Lewis of Shawnee put it, standing inside his Steelers man cave amid memorabilia it took him a five years to amass:
“We have the three Bs. We’ve got Ben. We’ve got Bell. And we’ve got Brown,” he said, of Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown. “And I don’t think the Chiefs can stop our offense. They’re the hottest offense out there right now.”
Kovac stood next to him, citing quarterback play. “I mean, compare Roethlisberger to (Chiefs quarterback) Alex Smith — not just statistics, but leadership.”
He thought franchise experience would be a factor. “We’ve been here before, several times,” Kovac said.
He even thinks franchise ownership counts. He lauded the family of the late Art Rooney for its ownership of the Steelers, versus the ownership of the Chiefs by the family of the late Lamar Hunt.
“Point blank: The Hunt family, they live in Texas,” Kovac said. “They fly into town to see their home team. Our owners, they drive up the street to see the team they own. In a nutshell, that speaks volumes. Period.”
What may sound like bluster and cockiness, he and Lewis and other Steelers fans said, is blunt confidence.
Oddsmakers as of Wednesday were predicting a close game, casting the Chiefs as 1.5-point favorites.
Lewis and Kovac have no doubt the Steelers will prevail. Lewis predicts a 35-17 win. Kovac: 27-13.
“We’re already looking for New England,” Lewis said, predicting that the Patriots would win in their playoff game against the Houston Texans.
Kovac and Lewis stood in what amounts to Lewis’ Steelers mini-museum. His collection includes hundreds of pieces of memorabilia covering the black and gold walls and jamming every shelf: playing cards of Hall of Famers, helmets, dozens of figurines, photos of teams going back to the original 1933 Pittsburgh Pirates, a book filled with starting quarterbacks.
Lewis put up an electronic score board, Steelers Terrible Towels dating back decades, more than 30 Steelers hats. He wears a different one every day. He has some two dozen toy tractor trailer trucks emblazoned with the Steelers logo, and six replica Super Bowl championship trophies.
“I even have a tattoo,” Lewis said. He pulled up his left sleeve, revealing the insignia on his 60-year-old shoulder.
“I’m a trooper,” he said.
“You’re a lifer,” Kovac said.
Steelers fans in Kansas City are also quick to point out that their love of the team shouldn’t be perceived as hatred of the Chiefs. Many, in fact, root for the Chiefs when they’re not playing the Steelers.
Their Steelers loyalty, as it is for many fans, comes from history.
Lewis, who works for an auto parts company, said he grew up in Wichita with a stepfather who was part Cherokee. When Lewis was in high school and casting about for a pro team to follow, he avoided rooting for Washington or Kansas City, whose identities played off Native American culture, or even the Dallas Cowboys.
He picked the Steelers, who were already dominating in the 1970s, based on their name, which evoked strength. He stuck with them like a magnet.
Steelers fan Julie Tarasi, 27, now living in Kansas City, grew up a Pittsburgh fan in Iowa because her father was originally from western Pennsylvania. Tarasi said that any Sunday a Pittsburgh game was on TV, her dad would lug their television up from the basement and set it on the living room floor. Her family would spread out a blanket, have a picnic and watch the Steelers.
Although the sixth-grade special education teacher said she was more confident last week that the Steelers would triumph over the Miami Dolphins, as they did 30-12, she is still pretty confident they’ll defeat the Chiefs.
“Eight-five percent,” she said.
Maria D’Andrea, 47, who does radio sales in Manhattan, Kan., feels the same.
“Nervous? No,” said D’Andrea, who was born in Pittsburgh and into a Steelers fan family, bringing her love of black and gold with her to Kansas.
Rachel Sweet, 25, works as a special assistant for public policy in Kansas City Mayor Sly James’ administration.
Originally from Cincinnati, she moved to Kansas City in middle school and, from high school on, linked her affection for the Steelers to her affection for her mother, Kathy Sweet, who continues to root for the Steelers.
“She grew up watching Franco Harris, Jack Lambert,” Sweet said of the legendary Steelers fullback and linebacker, both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “She really passed that on to me. It is something we have always bonded over.”
About 1,000 Steelers fans are expected to bond at 7 p.m. Saturday at Calahan’s on 87th, a bar and restaurant at 12843 W. 87th Street Parkway in Lenexa where the Kansas City Steelers Fan Club meets. Former Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton Jr. is expected to be attendance.
The group also will gather at the restaurant Sunday for the game, with a 7:20 p.m. kickoff. Lewis, for one, won’t be there. He’ll be at Arrowhead, in full expectation of a Steelers triumph.
“I don’t want to talk about the Chiefs winning,” he said.