Steelers themed Father’s Day pieces are in vogue. You’ve seen them everywhere from Steelers.com, to paid sites, to blogs. Writers take time out to thank their fathers for instilling in them a life-long passion for the Steelers, and/or talk about how they’re doing the same with their sons.
- Those pieces are from the heart, and almost always a must-read.
- Yet this site has never joined the cause because my father isn’t much of a Steelers fan.
Dad and I. Pawley’s Island South Carolina, Summer 1979.
Oh yes, he’s Pittsburgh born and bred, and pounces his “dahntahn” pitch perfectly even if he hasn’t lived in Steel City since the 60’s. But sports in general, and the Steelers in particular, are little more than background noise for the man who got his start on Warrington Avenue in Allentown and spent his formative years on Cedarcove Road in Baldwin.
- But then I thought, isn’t that the point?
- That you can be a perfect Pittsburgh dad and not be a Steelers fan.
Well, it is. And to explain why, we’ll go back to where I got my start. The venue is Dino’s barbershop, which still operates in the Aspen Hill Shopping Center. My dad hasn’t been a patron for years, but it is where he got his hair cut when we first moved to Maryland in the early 70’s and where I started getting my hair cut.
- For a long time, Dino himself cut our hair. Then we moved on to get it cut by George.
Although I’m not sure if George was from Pittsburgh, he most certainly was a Steelers fan: His barber’s ledge featured a framed copy of the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell and various now-iconic Iron City Steelers cans.
- This is important because it was in George’s chair that I first got a clue that my dad might be an atypical Pittsburgher.
It would have been the early 80’s, after the glory years ended, but the before the glow had completed faded, when George asked, “So your father’s from Pittsburgh, eh? Boy, I bet there’s nothing your daddy likes to do on Sundays than drink beer and watch football.”
The question surprised me. The only time my dad watched football was when the Steelers were in the Super Bowl.
- So I asked, “You mean, when the Steelers are on, right?”
George clarified, “Sure, but I’d guess your daddy likes doing that on Sunday whether he can see the Steelers or not.” George’s entire line of questioning wasn’t simply strange, it was foreign. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw my father sit on the couch to watch TV on a weekend afternoon, let alone watch football.
My father and I share many things, and one of those is that God gave us many gifts, but athletic ability is not one of them. He, like me, spent his childhood always being the last picked for teams only to end up getting lambasted by “friends” whenever we failed to catch a pass or make a basket in games that both of us would have preferred not to be playing.
- In contrast to me, my dad is graced with an ability to take his athletic inability in stride.
Al Thomas doesn’t pretend to be perfect, and if someone else has a problem with that, well it is their problem, not his. I don’t know at what age he realized that not having athletic talent was just the way things were and the way things were going to be, but whenever that moment came he accepted it and didn’t give a rat’s ass over whether his peers thought less of him for it.
- He certainly never thought less of himself. And that’s a lesson he still offers me to this day.
One of the byproducts of that process is that my father developed an almost complete lack of interest in sports.
For me, things were different. When I was young, my dad would tell me, “Don’t worry. The older you get, the less important athletics will be, and by the time you’re an adult, they won’t matter at all.” And yet, while I longed for the to get to high school when mandatory gym class would end, high school was where I chose to make my first foray into organized athletics.
And I didn’t go out just for one of those “wimp sports” like track or cross country (let’s be clear folks – that’s what I thought then about those sports, not what I think now). I went out for wrestling. And I was every bit as bad as expected. I’d go for weeks without scoring a point in practice during my first year.
My coach, amateur wrestling Hall of Famer Dave Moquin, didn’t cut people, but he later admitted that he almost pulled me aside to ask me “Are you sure you really want to do this?”
- Mr. Moquin’s patience and my persistence paid off.
While I never grew into a “good wrestler”, by my senior year I was Varsity starter. A below average one, yes, but a legitimate Varsity starter. Wrestling is tough. And to this day I remain proud that, of the dozen novice sophomores who came out for wrestling in the fall of 1987, I was the only one who was still on the team as a senior in the spring of 1990.
- The others had found the sport too demanding and quit.
Perhaps, not incoincidentally, it was at this same time that I started actively following the Steelers, at least as actively as someone could do in suburban Maryland before in those pre-Internet days.
- My dad supported my foray into wrestling, even if he never quite understood why I was so devoted to it.
He was also perfectly OK with my rising interest in the Steelers, although I’d know better than to ask to watch NFL Primetime over 60 Minutes or Murder She Wrote on Sunday nights. Nonetheless, I can say that my father took me to my first football game, the 1990 Steelers pre-season game against the Redskins at RFK Stadium. Even he, a certified football ignoramus, knew enough to tell me how horrendously lost the Steelers’ offense looked under Joe Walton.
That game also provided a mini-preview to the phenomenon that was to become Steelers Nation – EVERYONE in our row overlooking the end zone from the lower end of RFK was a Steelers fan.
- In many senses my father’s lack of Steelers fanaticism is ironic because, besides his “Dahntahn’s”, he is very much a “Pittsburgh Dad.”
The textbook we read in Sociology 101 while in College listed characteristics typical of blue collar parents vs. white collar parents. Based on that check list, my father scored out as a blue collar parent, despite the fact that he was a college graduate and life-long white collar worker, and despite the fact that my grandfather could have been considered a “white collar” worker.
- It seems that Pittsburgh imparted its working class mentality and ethics into my father (and mother, too) just the same.
- He was a better father for it and I am a better son because of it.
As far as the Steelers are concerned, it occurs to me that our father-son-relationship kind of flips the script. Yes, I do remember watching Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV with him. He took me to my first football game. But the Steelers were something I had to find myself.
I can remember at my brother’s wedding reception my father telling me, “Have you talked to Scott (my brother’s new brother-in-law), he went to Colorado where Kordell Stewart, Joey Porter and Clark Haggans of the Steelers went.”
To which I inquired, “How did you find that out?” and he explained, “Son, I’ve learned that because I’m a male, and because I’m from Pittsburgh, people automatically assume I’m a Steelers fan. And at this age I’ve also learned that saying, ‘Oh, I don’t like sports’ is a conversation killer.”
Yet, my father will tell you now that my own passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers has prompted him to pay more attention. Indeed, one of my proudest moments as a blogger was getting an email from him after he finished reading my profile of John Stallworth, telling me how much he had enjoyed reading it.
- But as nice as that is, it is only an extra.
I had to learn to twirl a Terrible Towel on my own, and I learned it pretty well. And that’s fine.
But there’s so much about life, being a good friend, being a good husband, being a good person and being a better man that I could have only learned and can only continue to learn with the guidance and mentorship of my father.
Thank you dad. Happy Fathers Day!