Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Feb. 5, 2006 editions of The Kansas City Star
His wife calls him the world's biggest Pittsburgh Steelers fan, but Ron Grall just calls himself a miner.
As he walked through the door of the Dairy King after a recent shift, it was clear he was a tired miner. He slumped over the table and waited for his coffee. A weak cough slipped out.
He'd been underground over in Sago all day, in the same mine where 12 of his co-workers had died last month, in an accident he himself narrowly escaped. He was now helping with the investigation.
It still smelled like gunpowder down there, the long walls grooved like the barrel of a gun. He could taste the burned rock.
"I was in there during the explosion, " he said after getting off work a week ago, "and I got all this dust in my lungs."
Grall and his team made it out. Well, his body did. Part of him was still down there. They all left part of themselves below the ground that day.
He coughed again.
"I got a little bit of black lung, " he said softly. "Been in the mine so long."
Like many miners all over the coal region, he loves the Steelers. With 19 miners already dead this year, including two more this past week, he and his brethren are thirsty for good news. It's no surprise where some of them look for it. If the coal industry were a college, the Steelers would be their team.
The last time Pittsburgh won a Super Bowl, it was 1980. Grall was underground that Sunday, begging a dispatcher over the mine's communication system to give him a score. This time, he's going to be in front of his television. Wouldn't miss it. After the roughest month any of them can remember, he wants to feel normal again, even if only for a little while.
"Enough time has passed that this helps, " Grall said. "It's a distraction."
Life is slowly returning to the mines. Though extensive investigations are under way, not every word is about the dead or the broken families. All around are signs that things can be as they once were. The mine yard out at Sago is filled with cars again. The snow is melting along Route 20. The Steelers are playing for a Super Bowl.
Down the road a piece, in an old mountain holler, Gene Goff burned apple wood. Behind his house ran a pristine stream, clearer than a preacher's conscience. He lost his daddy in the mine, and his son knew one of the men who got killed at Sago. This past month, he's seen what a football team can mean. It's not a miracle cure, but it is something good, and that's a beginning.
"From the time the Steelers started the playoffs, " Goff said, "that occupies two or three hours on Sunday that you lock into that and you forget about things. But shortly after, it's back."
The road from Pittsburgh to Sago takes you past big and small mines, past the lumber yards and the mills, some open, some closed. It's a drive into the heart of working America, where places like Mather, Pa., and Junior, W.Va., cling to existence.
It's living in a camper off to the side of Hemlock Road. It's the dog standing guard on top of a house. It's a bar called the Full Moon, tucked back in the West Virginia hills, where old men sporting long white beards threaten strangers with "a shallow grave and two bags of lime."
All over the mountains, there are tiny family cemeteries. Each year, in the springtime, relatives come back for picnics. They come home to remember, to stay connected, no matter how far they've moved away to find work. The Steelers are part of that, too. The team is a piece of the region's identity. A way for those who left to share experiences, and a way for those still in the mines to see a positive reflection of themselves.
"The name Steelers says it all, " said Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism. "A lot of the coal that was used to make that steel came out of West Virginia. There's a deeper connection going on there. All this has to do with physical labor. That's another tie with football. It requires strong guys."
The roots are as deep as the mines themselves. When one of the Steelers gave the family of a Sago victim Super Bowl tickets last week, it wasn't an isolated event. It was part of a long history.
The team officially became the Steelers in 1941, just three years before Robena Mine opened in Greene County, Pa., becoming the largest coal mine in the world. Right away, miners only had to look at the team's logo to see themselves. The yellow diamond on the helmet represents coal.
The love affair reached critical mass in the 1970s. Coal, after suffering a long slide, bounced back, riding an energy crisis to the top. So, too, did the Steelers, who won four Super Bowls.
Time eventually caught up with both the team and the miners. By 1983, the industry was collapsing. That year, Terry Bradshaw retired. Down the road, the Robena Mine closed, the owners flooding it while coal still sat in cars below.
An era had ended. The relationship remained.
The colors of the United Mine Workers of America are still black and gold. The union's career center in Washington, Pa. - renamed Steelers, Pa., for the week of the Super Bowl - is completely decked out in memorabilia. In Greene County, where nothing's left of Robena but a building or two and flooded mine shafts, they're writing songs about this run to Detroit.
Near Somerset, Pa., they fly a team flag above the Geronimo mine. Miners customize their hard-hats to look like the ones their heroes wear on Sunday. When the government enacted a law mandating a certain amount of reflective tape on helmets, some miners started carrying two. One regulation helmet for the day shift, when inspectors came by, and a Steelers version for nighttime.
Few miners have ever been to a Steelers game. Grall hasn't. Mostly, they watch on television, when they're not underground. Game day in the mine can be an event. Workers call up to get scores. Sometimes the dispatchers tease them, the radio broadcast briefly seeping into the phone line. Today, all over the region, there will be mines open for business. But be sure that men have been angling for weeks to secure the day off. Tough luck for those who get stuck in the mine.
"Most of the others, " said miner Clark Hayes, who used to lift weights at the same gym with many old-time Steelers, "will be at home with a beer in one hand and a Terrible Towel in the other."
In Sago, early on the morning of Jan. 2, games didn't matter anymore. Around 6 a.m., 13 men - husbands, fathers and sons - headed into the mine. About 10 minutes later, another group, which included 63-year-old Grall, followed. They got a late start because of a last-minute equipment change.
Grall had been going down into the earth for 40 years. He felt at home there, felt safe. That all changed when the ground shook. Something, still unknown, sparked an explosion. Moments later, a wall of coal, mud and rock began pelting them. Grall closed his eyes and braced himself, the fragments sticking in his face.
Then it was quiet.
"Somebody said, `The mine blew up, '" he remembered. "I said, `We've got to get out of here.' I've been in the mines a long time and never had anything happened like that."
They found their way through the darkness. Their 13 friends in the first car didn't. Ten minutes, that's it. Ten minutes was the difference between Jesse Jones dying and his brother, Owen, who was in the second group, living.
As rescue plans began, Grall's other favorite team, the West Virginia Mountaineers, was in the Sugar Bowl that night. The whole region had been looking forward to the game. Now he didn't feel like watching. It seemed so meaningless.
What followed played out for days on national television, like some reality show, except it was only real in Sago, and in the coal mining region surrounding it. After the 12 dead and one living had been carried out, after the three hours of false hope, the town couldn't escape those awful memories.
For many, the premature reports of survival were the worst part. Mining families are trained to accept death; about three miners die every month. But to be teased, to have a miracle dangled in their faces, that left many wondering why they spent so much time and energy praying to a cruel God.
Everywhere they turned, they saw marquees begging for prayers, or buckets in the local Wal-Mart taking up donations. They couldn't shake the aftershocks. They simply existed.
"I'm here, " is all Russell Bennett could say, weeks after his father died in the mine. Many shared his sentiment.
Some memories hurt more than others. The Rev. Frank Spears worked with the medical examiner. He took the family members into a room at the community center's morgue as they identified the lifeless bodies of their loved ones, cold on metal gurneys. He cried with them, prayed with them, stood silent with them.
"It was a very, very stressful day, " Spears said. "Twelve times I went through that. It was tough sleeping for a few days after that."
They still weren't completely ready for games. The day of the memorial service for the miners, the Steelers played the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs. Both were televised.
Around Sago, people tried to figure out what to do. Buckhannon-Upshur High School teacher Duane Stoeckle, one of the biggest Steelers fans in town, didn't know. He asked friends: "Should I even have anybody over to watch that game? Is that wrong?"
In the end, he flipped back and forth between the game and the service. The Steelers, who shocked odds-on Super Bowl favorite Indianapolis that day, were already helping him move on.
For the people closer to the tragedy, moving on was still a ways off. Grall didn't watch the game. He had other plans.
"I went to the memorial service, " he said.
A month passed. Up in the mountains above Helvetia, W.Va., at the end of a winding road, the shower house of Mine 1-A buzzed with activity. The mining community was getting off the canvas. Before Sago could be normal, all the cities, towns and hamlets around it, from Pittsburgh on down, would do so first.
Green metal lockers covered the walls, a shaved-down log serving as a bench. Shift change was approaching, and a dozen or so men quietly slipped into their mining clothes. Billy McCune, a Steelers fan, just shook his head when asked whether he'd ever been to a game.
"No, " he said. "Always working. Never got there."
A layer of dust covered everything. Slap a man on the back, and a plume arose. There were off-color stickers on the walls and on their helmets, and the workers loaded homemade sandwiches into their orange lunch boxes.
These men, and men like them in every coal mine in America, have been hurting right alongside the people in Sago.
"Our hearts were touched by that because it could have been us, " miner Teddy Alderman said.
The entire mining industry has wept this past month. They are brothers, these miners, whether they live in Pennsylvania or West Virginia or Alabama.
"The only thing I can compare it to is when I was in the service, " said David Neil, with the United Mine Workers of America.
Of course, it wasn't just the coal miners themselves who were affected. Their families were scared. People who'd lost loved ones in the mines relived the experience, and everyone down here has lost a loved one in the mines. People like Goff, back in that holler, burning wood near his beautiful stream. He wiped his eyes. The Sago explosion took him to a dark place, made him remember the explosion that killed his father.
"It brings it back, " he said. "I don't care who you are."
Everyone, though, eventually comes back into the light. Like the shift just getting off at Mine 1-A eight days ago. A muddy, dirty vehicle drove out of the earth, through a hole just 40 inches high. Men, their faces black, their lungs coated with another layer of coal dust, trudged out of the earth. Half of them were diehard Steelers fans, including Kelly Grey, who carried his lunch pail. He's at least a third-generation miner.
"Probably fourth, " he said.
Alderman, Luke Pugh and Steve Tinney Jr. came with him. Like Grey, they love the Steelers. The older ones have been around, long enough to have seen the price of coal drop. When that happened, they found new jobs or took unemployment. They hung around long enough for the Iraq war to drive the price of coal back up, revitalizing the industry, though the sudden reopening of many closed mines has been blamed for the rise in deaths.
"The Steelers fell off, " Pugh said. "Now the Steelers are back and coal is booming. It's something."
Yes, they've come back out into the light, setting an example for their friends in Sago just down the road. Grey grinned as he shook off the dust.
"Steelers are gonna win by 21, " he crowed. "They're gonna blow 'em out."
Even Sago is slowly moving on. Sure, the family members still talk to their preachers. They still walk into empty bedrooms, stare at empty places at the dinner table. Those holes will take a lifetime to fill. But the community has started to walk again. A week ago, the black ribbons tied to the chain-link fence outside Sago Mine were removed.
"I see all of the signs, " the Rev. Spears said. "The marquees are coming down off the business. Where they used to say, `Pray for our miners, ' now they're back to advertisements."
Many things have helped them. Time. The outpouring of love. The departure of the satellite trucks to the next lurid story. The Pittsburgh Steelers. A football team cannot end their sorrow, but it can remind them what happiness feels like. It can help Lyndon Jones. He lost his brother Jesse in the explosion and almost lost another, Owen, the same day. His grandfather died in the mines, too. This Super Bowl is a gift. Though he's recovering from an illness and his voice is too weak for him to speak, his wife, Carry, sees what the game means to him.
"It's something else to get their mind off everything, " she said.
Down in Sago, Ron Grall prepared to go to work. He parked his two-tone blue Chevy truck by the side of the road first, watching the sun rise behind the mine. Headlights barreling down the thin country road lit the dawn sky. He looked over at the fence, saw the black ribbons were finally down. He missed his friends, but he figured it was about time. Mountains rose in the distance. A creek chuckled nearby.
Grall looked out at his world, one that seemed much like it did before. Then he climbed back in his truck, the one with the Steelers tag screwed to the front. He put it in drive, looked forward and headed back to the mine.