Black-and-Gold: Just for the Hel-o-met

1950 Willys Jeepster decorated in tribute to the Pittsburgh Steelers

“The Helmet,” Ray Kasunick’s 1950 Willys Jeepster Steelermobile

The hood ornament is a six inch goal post. It’s planted right where it ought to be, just past the end zone of the white-lined football field spread across the hood of the car. Side mirrors are housed inside enameled half footballs and you’ll find bottle openers mounted on each of the rear fenders. A polished, functioning pony keg is bracketed to the back bumper.

What you’ll notice first, however, is the enormous dome-like roof. In every way–from the rounded ear-protecting extensions, windshield eye cutout, face mask, and team logos*–it is a Steelers football helmet fit for a giant.

grill and hood of 1950s era Willy's Jeepster decorated in tribute to the Pittsburgh Steelers

Goal post ornament perfectly placed for the hood football field

“The Helmet,” Ray Kasunick’s ultimate Steelermobile, came about by a series of chance events.

The Willys-Overland Motors Company ceased to exist more than 50 years ago. Their convertible Jeepster model was produced for just three years, between 1948 and 1950. In the world of classic cars, the Jeepster is a rare breed.

It’s not every day that you inherit three of them all at once. But that’s exactly what happened when an old friend of Kasunick’s moved out-of-state and couldn’t take his trio of classic Willys carcasses with him. So Ray ended up with the lot. Having already resuscitated a pair of pre-war Fords into slick, chopped hot rods, Kasunick seemed like an ideal candidate to bring one of the Jeepsters back to life.

detail of 1950s era Willy's Jeepster showing "HELMET" personalized license plate and mounted bottle opener

The Helmet’s personalized license plate and one of two rear fender mounted bottle openers

By this point, Kasunick’s friend Joe Grimm had converted a mid-60s Plymouth Belvedere into a certified black-and-gold flag-waving Steelermobile. Seen in an undated photograph, the two-tone paint job cleverly outlines the boxy squared-off shapes of the Plymouth. The car’s crowning glory, quite literally, was an oversized Steelers helmet placed squarely at the center of the roof.

The die was cast, the gauntlet thrown down. Kasunick and a small crew of friends spent the next couple years filling his North Hills garage/workshop with paint fumes and bent steel, wood frames and blown fiberglass. The Helmet was on.

two classic cars decorated in tribute of the Pittsburgh Steelers

The Helmet with one its inspirations–Joe Grimm’s mid-60s Plymouth Belvedere Steelersmobile [photo courtesy of Ray and Kathi Kasunick]

Rehabbing an old car from bare metal is plenty of work all on its own. Constructing a high-concept, functioning, street-legal football helmet roof is quite another challenge.

Kasunick, working with his friend Ed Staley, created the form from arched quarter-inch steel rod, chicken wire, foam rubber, and finally a blown-on fiberglass shell. The rough black surface comes from pickup truck bed liner. Paint job details for the Steelers logo and football field on the hood were applied by a very steady, dedicated hand.

polished half beer keg mounted onto back bumper of car painted in tribute to Pittsburgh Steelers

Rear bumper working keg/cooler

The rest of the features–including two rear seats from Three Rivers Stadium, team-specific interior fabric upholstery, and a football-shaped translucent rear window–all fell into place, friends chipping in where they could. The split football side mirrors come from a donated trophy, cut in half and bracketed to the window frames.

A number of the design elements–most notably the shiny keg, but also the twin Penn Pilsner tap handles on the front bumper, mounted bottle openers, and inside door decorations–all point to Kasunick’s past life. If the name is familiar, you probably remember Kasunick’s eponymous beer distributor on East Street, Northside. He recently retired after forty years in the business.

roof of Kasunick Steeler car signed by Frenchy Fuqua

“I’ll never tell.” The Helmet signed by #33 Frenchy Fuqua

Today, Ray and his wife Kathi enjoy taking The Helmet out–to games, to car cruises, and tailgate parties–often including nursing or retirement homes. “Anywhere it can bring a smile to someone’s face,” Kasunick says.

So far, The Helmet has been signed by one Dynasty-era Steeler, Frenchy Fuqua, who included the teaser “I’ll never tell.” Michigan native Fuqua reportedly told the couple, “I need a picture with you to show them how you do it back in Detroit.” The Kasunicks would love to get additional Steelers to autograph The Helmet.

two seats from Three Rivers Stadium used as back seats in a Steelers tribute car

The Helmet’s back seats came from Three Rivers Stadium. Its rear window is a translucent football.

No matter where you stand on boofing, ralphing, summer skiing, and the devil’s triangle, it’s been a rough week all around. It feels a little like the whole country got beat up and no one’s recovered yet. So it’s probably a little pollyanna to focus on sports fandom when there are much more important national discussions going on.

But one of the great things about sport is its ability to unify in a way few other things do [the weather, maybe? is it Friday yet?]. Not everyone likes professional football–and there’s a lot to take issue with–but every type of person does. In this time of such great division, the simplicity of one antique car, lovingly turned into a fantastic, goofy game-day oddity feels like just what we need. Why? Well, just for the hel-o-met.

Ray and Kathi Kasunick in front of their 1950s era Willy's Jeepster painted in tribute to the Pittsburgh Steelers

Ray and Kathi Kasunick in the home garage where The Helmet was built, North Hills


* Yes, The Helmet (the car) has Steelers logos on both sides; the team has the unique helmet design where the logo only appears on one side. The Orbit failed to ask Kasunick about this design decision, but it looks great.

Black-and-Gold: To the House! Steelers Structures

brick building with trophies in the window painted gold with black trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers dojo: Martial Arts Against Street Violence, Homewood

To paraphrase a well-trod cliché, if you build it, they will paint it black and gold.

What’s the point of owning your own diner, butcher shop, or martial arts studio if you can’t serve up those eggs and home fries or break lumber with your bare feet in a building faithfully decked-out in the home team colors? Firing the boss and doing what you want is the American dream! And just like those other local goals–one for the thumb, cracking open a six-pack, and, yes, stairway to seven–dreams really do come true*.

Today, for the start of the 2018 campaign, The Orbit salutes the über-fans who’ve gathered up brushes and tarps to decorate the façades of storefronts and residential exteriors in tribute to their favorite professional football team. Collectively, we’re calling these Steelers structures.

retail storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers storefront: Lawrenceville

empty retail storefront with cutout of Pittsburgh Steelers football player, McKeesport, PA

Steelers storefront: McKeesport

diner storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers diner: O’Leary’s, Southside

Sign for Cutty's Candy Store that includes the Pittsburgh skyline and a version of the Steelers logo with the word "Cutty" added

Steelers sweet shop: Cutty’s Candy Store, Homewood

retail storefront painted black and gold, Homestead, PA

Steelers snack shop: S&S Food Mart, Homestead

exterior of Ray's Barber Shop, Pittsburgh, with two homemade Steelers emblems

Steelers barber shop: Ray’s, Shadeland

storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers dojo: Three Rivers Martial Arts, Brookline

There are plenty of Steelers bars out there–pretty much every decent-sized American city has one (or more). Why, from Mugs ‘n Jugs in Clearwater, Florida to The Peanut Farm in Anchorage, Alaska, there will be no problem with Pittsburgh ex-pats catching the exploits of Antonio, Juju, and the gang any time soon. [There’s a semi-complete list up at SteerersBars.com.]

But if your local tavern runs the Steelers games on flat screen and imports a case of Iron City Beer for homesick fans, know they’re just doing the bare minimum. Real Steelers bars call to you from the street, wearing their own form of black-and-gold uniform or come bemuraled in crude renderings of trademark-safe generic football players frolicking on the gridiron.

brick building with first floor bar exterior painted black and gold, Brownsville, PA

Steelers bar: Brownsville

black tavern door with gold trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers bar: Gametime Tavern, Spring Garden

exterior of roadhouse bar painted black and gold, McKeesport, PA

Steelers roadhouse: Mellon’s Pub, McKeesport

The fully-committed football fan doesn’t just enjoy a couple dozen games a year. No no no. He or she wants to live football–through the long, cold off season, the extended draft weekend, mini-camp, and boring preseason exhibitions.

One can literally inhabit the football lifestyle in a full-on Steelers house. Why fool around? Let’s go foundation-to-roofline in black-and-gold! The house will pop from the snow and bare trees in winter; in the fall, you’ll be conveniently camouflaged in your game-day jersey.

house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers house: South Side Slopes

row house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers row house: Lawrenceville

Not every homeowner is willing to go all-in on the black-and-gold, which leads to phenomena of the Steelers porch. This very much feels like a keep-the-peace compromise between one super fan and the rest of his or her (but who are we kidding? it’s probably his) family. That, or said supporter just didn’t want to do the hazardous second- and third-floor work on the extension ladder.

Either way, these awkward “business inside, party on the porch” houses get much respect…but probably not from the home decorati.

frame house with black-and-gold porch, Beaver Falls, PA

Steelers porch: Beaver Falls

house with brick porch painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers porch: East Liberty

house front painted Steelers gold with black trim, Sharpsburg, PA

Steelers porch: Sharpsburg

Ma won’t even let you paint the porch? Well, there’s still an opportunity for a Steelers garage out back or around the side. The industrious football fan  can decorate a two-car shed in a bye-week afternoon. (Or even more time if his buddies “help”.) There’s no ladder work involved and they’ll look great housing your Steelermobile.

older 2-car garage with doors painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers garage: Spring Hill

2-car garage painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers garage: South Side Slopes

At this point, the casual Orbit reader may justifiably assume Steelers structures exist only in the spheres of retail storefronts, watering holes, and home improvement.

And you’d be wrong again! Make no mistake: you’ll have no problem locating the region’s favorite color scheme on factory buildings, car lots, and at least one (former) secret society.

ornamental dome painted black and gold on Dipcraft Manufacturing Company building, Rankin, PA

Steelers dome: Dipcraft Mfg. Co., Rankin

small masonry building painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers used car lot: Lawrenceville

brick building with cinderblock doorway painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers ex-secret society: Pythian Temple, Hill District

For those wishing to further pursue additional Orbit coverage of Steelers fandom, see also:


* No, a seventh Super Bowl win has not come to Pittsburgh…yet.

No Room for Squares: When the Pittsburgh Triangles Were Golden

members of 1976 Pittsburgh Triangles World Team Tennis, 1976

All smiles. [l-r] (trainer) Paul Denny, Danny McGibbeny, Bernie Mitton, Mark Cox, 1976

All sports fans, no matter how much they may deny it, suffer a common delusion. These devoted optimists assume their acts of ritual loyalty in the stands, parking lot tail-gates, and even back home on the sofa, will somehow compel their team to victory on the field of play.

These fantasies range from the relatively credible–filling a stadium with a fired-up crowd makes home field advantage a very real thing–to completely ludicrous acts of superstition. We’ve all known someone with a ridiculous game-day habit: the requirement of a particular team jersey; the arrangement of beverages on a coffee table; a tiny bird-sized Steelers helmet the pet parakeet must wear during the playoffs. It’s goofy, but it works…some of the time.

crowded locker room following Pittsburgh Triangles tennis championship, 1975

Clint Burton (right) with Triangles player Peggy Michel and team owner Frank Fuhrer, 1975

Tennis star Betty Stöve needed to use the crapper–bad. It was right before her match at the old Civic Arena and teenage Clint Burton was the kid on the bench with the key to the locker room. The only thing was…he couldn’t actually find where he’d put it. It was a simple mistake–Clint had switched sideline assignments with another boy who’d failed to hand over the most important thing Clint needed to do the job.

Stöve lost her set–likely in some level of discomfort–and her San Francisco Golden Gaters fell to the Pittsburgh Triangles on this particular summer night in 1976. It’s not how the average fan would choose to tip the scales for his or her team, but sometimes things just work out the way they do.

Pittsburgh Triangles tennis team in the 1970s

The Pittsburgh Triangles at home on a WTT multi-color court

In 1974, American professional tennis was on a tear. A year earlier, Billie Jean King had defeated Bobby Riggs in the much-celebrated, prime-time “Battle of the Sexes” match. King’s then-husband Larry, along with three other financiers, rode the wave to a completely new concept in the sport: convert the traditionally staid, solo/duet tennis match into a raucous team sport with streamlined rules, heavy crowd involvement, and a rock-and-roll atmosphere.

On the strength of Billie Jean King’s involvement, along with that of Wilt Chamberlain and Arthur Ashe, the new World Team Tennis league was able to attract a who’s-who of mid-’70s professionals in the sport. King was a player herself, as were Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Björn Borg, and “Nasty” Ilie Nastase.

tennis player Ille Nastase hitting a ball behind his back

“Nasty” Ilie Nastase of the New York Sets/Hawaii Leis, some time in the 1970s [photo: the Internet]

World Team Tennis games were played on a multi-color court, the advantage rule was dismissed to speed up play, and scoring simplified to 1-2-3-game[1]. Matches consisted of five sets where teammates switched off for one set each of women’s singles, men’s singles, women’s doubles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles. Scores of individual games were accumulated across the entire match. If you were lucky, a close match might be decided with something called a “super-tiebreaker.”

Breaking all rules of team sports, nearly half the clubs took references from the mechanics of the game into naming their franchises. There were no mere Lions or Spartans in World Team Tennis. Instead, the Chicago Aces, Cleveland Nets, and New York Sets did battle with the Phoenix Racquets, Indiana Loves, and L.A. Strings. [Aside: there is no doubt in this blogger’s mind that “The Baltimore Balls” was suggested at some point.] These were complimented by a collection of very of-their-era team names: the Houston E-Z Riders, Minnesota Buckskins, and Hawaii Leis. Most impressive were the double-entendres delivered in naming both the San Diego Swingers[2] and Boston Lobsters.

Danny McGibbeny on telephone at World Team Tennis match in the 1970s

Danny McGibbeny [on phone] and Daniel James McGibbeny

“I was the little stats guy,” Clint Burton says today, “I was always a math geek.” At just 13 years old, it was an unlikely move to put a middle schooler on the Triangles payroll as assistant statistician, but it helps to have your uncle Danny running promotion.

The year prior, a fresh-out-of-college Danny McGibbeny would charm his way into the fledgling Triangles organization–one of the league’s original 16 teams–as its first public relations director. McGibbeny was responsible for numerous promotions and activities, including writing copy for the local version of the league’s magazine/game program Super-Tiebreaker.

By 1975, McGibbeny had assumed the role of general manager, while still acting as P.R. director. There, he had the freedom to bring on his friends and family in a variety of support roles for home games. “Danny got everyone a job,” Burton says, “his friends from college, kids in the neighborhood. My father ran the scoreboard and my sister was a ball girl.”

tennis player Syd Ball talking with a young ball girl

Clint’s sister and Triangles’ ball girl Karen with the aptly-named Syd Ball, 1976

Burton’s early interest in sports, statistics, and “math geek” mind made the 13-year-old an easy fit as assistant to official stats man Drew Ondik. Clint went beyond the standard league-assigned stats sheet to develop a unique set of custom numbers based on additional play factors he would track during matches. At the end of the night, all of Clint’s work was typed-up and sent via an early Xerox fax machine to the league office in New York.

cover of 1976 Super-Tiebreaker magazine with tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis on the cover

Triangles star Vitas Gerulaitis on the cover of a 1976 Super-Tiebreaker magazine/program [photo: funwhileitlasted.net]

The Triangles didn’t have any players with the lasting name recognition of Chris Evert or Jimmy Connors. That said, Pittsburgh’s two biggest stars, Vitas Gerulaitis and Evonne Goolagong, led a group that would go on to win the 1975 WTT championship over Betty Stöve’s Golden Gaters in a home court match at the Civic Arena.

Gerulaitis, with his purple Lamborghini, monster stereo system, and on-court antics, was the undeniable crowd favorite. Vitas was so popular that he had his own rollicking “G-Men” cheering section at the top of the arena and occasionally paid for these super fans to travel to nearby away games.

Clint was there see Evonne Goolagong hoist the 1975 WTT championship trophy and–anticipating the winning coach Gatorade dumps of a generation later–there in the locker room for team owner Frank Fuhrer as he was hauled into the showers, fully clothed.

tennis star Evonne Goolagong-Cawley holding a trophy for the World Team Tennis Cup, 1975

[l-r] Danny McGibbeny, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, and coach Vic Edwards after winning the WTT Cup at the Civic Arena, 1975

Typically, when a sports team wins a championship, they try to change as little as possible–if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But World Team Tennis was not a typical sports league. “It was ahead of its time,” Burton says, “it gathered momentum, but couldn’t sustain itself.”

The 1976 season was one of highs and lows for The Triangles. There were player moves–fan favorites Rayni Fox and Kim Warwick were replaced by Sue Stap and Bernie Mitton–coaching changes, and a roller-coaster ride in the win-loss column.

large seated crowd watching tennis match

Triangles fans watch a sold-out match with the Civic Arena roof open, 1976

Most radical was the elevation of McGibbeny to his third job with the organization in as many years–this time as skipper. Danny replaced player/coach Marc Cox midway through the season while still maintaining general manager and public relations duties. Though untrained in the sport, the McGibbney-led team ultimately succeeded, going on a winning streak that took the Triangles back to the playoffs. “He didn’t know anything about tennis,” Burton says, “but he knew just how to talk to the players. Once he took over, they all started having fun again.”

Bill Winstein comic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Danny McGibbeny taking over as coach of the Triangles, 1976

Bill Winstein comic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Danny McGibbeny taking over as coach of the Triangles, 1976

After the 1976 season, both the Pittsburgh Triangles and World Team Tennis were in rapid decline. The league would limp along for another few years, but the Triangles day had come and gone. First subsumed in a one-season, combined Cleveland-Pittsburgh “Tri-Nets” team that never gelled, by 1978 professional team tennis had left Pittsburgh forever.

More painful than the fate of this oddball sports experiment was the parallel loss of its absolute heart in Danny McGibbeny. Suffering from quickly-declining physical health, Danny wouldn’t have had the strength for the 1977 season, even if the team had soldiered on. McGibbeny developed cancer that came on ruthlessly fast. He died on Sept. 6, 1977 at just 26 years old[3].

two young men look at the camera

“He was my hero,” Danny McGibbeny and Clint Burton, Christmas, 1975

Clint Burton’s career in professional sports statistics ended there, before he ever got out of high school. But the same analytical mind propelled him into the world of old-school “big iron” computer programming–FORTRAN, COBOL, and the like.

Today, Clint maintains the terrific Brookline Connection web site and FaceBook page. There, he works to document, digitize, and connect various aspects of the site’s namesake South Hills neighborhood. We thank Clint for all his help opening up to tell us his story and providing us with so many great photographs.

All photos courtesy Clint Burton, except where noted.

printed invitation for pajama party hosted by Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Vitas Gerulaitis, 1976

Always a party. Invitation to Goolagong/Gerulaitis pajama party, 1976.


[1] Traditionally, tennis games are played with an arcane scoring system of 15/30/40 and then a series of “deuce”/”advantage” points with the requirement to win a game by 2.
[2] The Swingers apparently never actually played a game, but their proposed team name is good enough to warrant a mention. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_TeamTennis.
[3] Clint Burton has a great tribute page with many more stories about Danny McGibbeny on his site brooklineconnection.com.

Black-and-Gold: Steelermobiles

car painted gold with black trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Type B: Heinz Field

PANTONE: PMS 1235 C. The bright color is undeniably in the yellow family, but it’s a deep-hued, bold, traffic-stopping yellow. It appears in street lane markers and yells loudest when you really need to pay attention. It’s also rich and warm with a lot of orange–not like those namby-pamby lemon yellows, canaries, and daisies.

Around here, the color is better known as Steelers gold (never “yellow”) and an outsized portion of Pittsburgh’s motorists have special-ordered it from car dealers, then washed, buffed, and shined it in their driveways to preserve maximum luster.

Collectively, these vehicles are Steelermobiles and there exist three distinct categories of dedication.

black SUV decorated with Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates stickers

Type A: Strip District

black and gold SUV with Pittsburgh Steelers logo

Type A: South Side

Type A: Certified Steelermobiles

The prototypic, incontestable, four-wheeled Steeler machine. These are black-and-gold hot rods, pickups, and sport utility vehicles so clearly decorated for Steeler fandom there can be no confusion or argument to the mission of their decoration. These cars exist to win professional football championships–or, at least to convey die-hard Steeler fans to the region’s purveyors of malted beverages, jalapeño poppers, and loaded nacho platters.

To fit this category, the vehicle must be fully painted in the Steelers black-and-gold color scheme. Typically there’s a base coat of one with significant detail accents in the other. These often take the form of sporty racing stripes to reinforce the athleticism of the Durango or PT Cruiser.

Additionally, the owner needs to have decorated his or her ride with the team name, insignia, and/or other after-market über-fan branding in a (semi-)permanent fashion. Those clip-on game day window flag attachments ain’t going cut it.

black and gold Hummer in front of single-family frame houses, Arnold, PA

Type B: Arnold

black and gold Ford Mustang in front of gray wall, Arnold, PA

Type B: Arnold

Type B: Black-and-Gold Road Warriors

These vehicles are almost entirely of the Steeler gold color, but with enough black detail work that we can assume the color selection was no coincidence. They must also be outfitted with Pennsylvania plates and be located in metro Pittsburgh or be spotted in one of the Heinz Field parking lots. Otherwise, it just starts to get too iffy.

Type B Steelersmobiles won’t, however, have the explicit labeling that’s required to be A-1 prime. We imagine that’s where a lot of spouses have drawn the line. Honey, you can have the bright yellow color, one might say, but you don’t get to put your football stickers all over my brand new Grand Cherokee. If only congress could achieve this level of compromise.

black and gold vehicle, Pittsburgh, PA

Type C: Friendship

convertible Volkswagen Beetle painted gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Type C: Steelers Beetle, Bloomfield

Type C: Goldenrods

The vaguest of the bunch. Type C Steelermobiles are painted predominantly in our old friend PANTONE 1235, but with no other identifying visual. In any other metropolis, the lollygagging ne’er-do-well spotting this vehicle on the street would simply remark on its garish electric orange-yellow paint job and move along. But in metro Pittsburgh, that particular color takes on a very special meaning.

This one brings up all sorts of psychological questions. Did the owners of these vehicles choose the color simply because they like bright yellow? Or instead because they’re die-hard football fans? Would they consider themselves in the category of the former, yet be subconsciously swayed to the latter by the pure osmosis of Mike Tomlin’s juju? It’s a heady subject, indeed.

black and gold Smart car, Pittsburgh, PA

Type B: Mendelson “Steeler Heaven” mobile, East Liberty

Smart car painted black and gold for A-1 Transit, Pittsburgh, PA

Type A: [Steelers logos on other side], East Liberty

As we know, correlation is not causation. Also, there are plenty of gold/yellow cars owned by people outside of Allegheny County who couldn’t give a damn about professional football. Some will dispute this whole theory. It’s a pretty weak frame to hang an investigation on, sure, but hear this blogger out.

The sheer volume of local cars and trucks tricked-out in electric Steeler gold makes this a phenomenon worth our attention. The dozen or so photos collected here are but the tip of the iceberg–there are so many Steelermobiles around town that we simply stopped bagging them after a while due to the incredible overload of options.

black and gold sport utility vehicle, Pittsburgh, PA

Type B: Lawrenceville

Ford Mustang painted gold with "Serious Issues" decal, Pittsburgh, PA

Type C: “Serious Issues 2”, East Liberty

Gone are the days (sigh) where the true faithful hand-painted their pop-up campers and shaggin’ wagons in team colors for the Sunday ritual. [Yes: we’re doing our best to collect these as we see them, but they’re few and far between.]

Like the players on the field, the bleacher crowd has moved on to a whole other level of box seat business professionalism now–factory-perfect paint jobs, mass-market team-official decals, license plate holders, and trailer hitch covers. Like punk rock apparel sold in chain stores at the mall, the fans have come out of the closet and parallel-parked their fleet of high-gloss war machinery right out front for everyone to see it.

black and gold pickup truck, Pittsburgh, PA

Type B: Lawrenceville

gold pickup truck, Pittsburgh, PA

Type C: Lawrenceville

Ram pickup painted in Pittsburgh Steelers black and gold

Type A: [with “Lord of the Rings” license plate frame and team logo trailer hitch] Bloomfield

Jeep painted gold with black details and Steelers decals, Hyde Park, PA

Type A: Hyde Park, PA

Jeep painted gold with black convertible top

Type C: Route 28, headed south

Jeep painted gold with black convertible top, Pittsburgh, PA

Type C: Bloomfield

front grill of a 1970's Cadillac with "DUBL YOI" Virginia license plate

Type B: DUBL YOI [Tribute to late former Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope], Schenley Park

A Football Team That Wanted Him: Johnny Unitas and the Bloomfield Rams

Paul J. Sciullo II Memorial Field, Pittsburgh, PA

Paul J. Sciullo II Memorial Field (neé Dean’s Field), Bloomfield. Johnny Unitas’ Bloomfield Rams practiced here in the 1950s.

Editor’s note: Back in April, we wrote a piece for our cross-continental sister blog The Portland Orbit[1]. In exchange, Orbit poobah David Craig offered to file a story for us during football season. Here you go.

by David Craig

When I think about Johnny Unitas, I think Colts football, his battle against Namath, and the Super Bowl victory that cemented his reputation. The Colts’ overtime victory in the ‘58 league championship is known as “the greatest game ever played” and helped pro football gain its immense popularity. I didn’t know he was born in Pittsburgh and was surprised to find out that he initially broke into the league when he was drafted–and then cut–by the Steelers.

book cover for "Pro Football Heroes" by Steve Gelman

Cover star Johnny Unitas perfects the hand off. “Pro Football Heroes” by Steve Gelman.

It was a 99 cent purchase made at a Goodwill Store that led to another Unitas discovery. How I came to own the book Pro Football Heroes by Steve Gelman escapes me, but the book opens with a chapter on Unitas describing the detour on his road to football glory after the Steelers released him in 1955:

“Convinced now that he couldn’t get into pro football until the next year, Johnny took a job as a pile driver on a construction gang. Meanwhile, to stay in shape for his next pro football tryout, he began playing with a semi-pro team, the Bloomfield Rams.”

From my knowledge of Pittsburgh I recognized this as a city neighborhood. Reading more confirmed this:

“The Rams played every Thursday night at the Arsenal Street School playground in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh.”[2]

Arsenal Middle School in Pittsburgh PA with a large green playing in front.

Arsenal Middle School, Lawrenceville. The Bloomfield Rams played their home games on this field. Now more grass than glass.

It intrigued me that Unitas began his storied career in Bloomfield before becoming “pro football’s last hero,” as Lou Sahadi called him in his book Johnny Unitas, America’s Quarterback. From an early age, Johnny lived for football. In Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas by Tom Callahan, Unitas’ mother talked about returning from the funeral home after his father died to find her then five-year old son throwing a football with friends. It seemed especially poignant that he sought comfort in the game after the loss of his father.

childhood home of Johnny Unitas, Pittsburgh, PA

Unitas family home, Mt. Washington

Unitas confided in a substitute teacher at school that he wanted to be a professional football player when he grew up. His sights were set on an athletic career but after failing the entrance exam to the University of Pittsburgh and being turned away from his hometown school, Unitas knew his professional chances would be nonexistent if he didn’t play in college. Another failed entrance exam found him starting his college career at the University of Louisville on academic probation. He did what he had to do to keep his dream alive.

Getting sacked by the Steelers was tough but he had been in a no-win situation. There were three other quarterbacks in camp that year, the most notable being Ted Marchibroda, who had better job prospects as a coach than a quarterback. Unitas was never able to show what he could do in preseason. Cut too late to join another team, he was forced to sit out a season and remained in Pittsburgh working construction to pay the bills.

At Steeler training camp, Unitas conducted a lesson in the “Hail Mary.”

When his old friend Fred Zangaro asked Johnny to join him on the Bloomfield Rams, Unitas had concerns about getting hurt. The team needed a quarterback but he didn’t want anything to get in the way of playing professionally. Unitas conceded, and played what he described as “sand-lot ball.” Explaining in a 1959 Look magazine article, “it was football and I was able to keep in practice.”

In the books by Callahan and Sahadi, the authors emphasized subpar playing conditions. The field was more dirt, rock and glass than grass and had to be sprayed with oil and water to keep the dust down. The equipment was ratty. Unitas had to search through piles of old gear to suit up. Players wore army boots instead of cleats. Unitas faced derision for being a college boy, a Steeler’s draftee and someone who dared dream of playing in the NFL. In his ebook The Best There Ever Was, Roland Lazenby describes a team, like Def Leppard, playing without a full set of limbs:

“…a roster loaded with steel-mill workers, many of them disabled. The offensive line alone featured just seven arms.”

Unitas in a rare Bloomfield Rams photo when he played both offense and defense. Courtesy Chuck “Bear” Rogers.

Later in the Look article, Unitas described an improvisational game plan that sounded like plays were diagrammed in the dirt as the team huddled.  “You had to take punishment,” was his simple description of the challenge of receiving pass protection from 140 pound linemen. Unitas led the Rams on an eight game winning streak and a conference championship. He experienced the satisfaction of winning–something that hadn’t happened much in his college years. The Bloomfield Rams offered him a sense of championship football he brought to his NFL career.

The Rams played in the Steel Bowl Conference against teams like the Pittsburgh Cubs, Arnold A.C., and the Nanty-Glo Blackhawks, along with teams from Shaler and McKeesport. The financial aspects of the league were small by today’s standards[3]. Unitas was paid $6 a game–money he was happy to turn over to his wife for groceries. By the end of the season, his winning ways earned him a pay bump of $15 a game. Opposing teams liked playing the Rams at Arsenal Field because the games there attracted crowds of anywhere from a few hundred to 1,000 people, each paying a $3 admission which meant a $500 pay out. After expenses, Coach Chuck “Bear” Rogers had a budget of about $350 to pay Ram’s players. His policy of fining players $3 for missing practice meant some guys had to play for free.

Johnny Unitas at Steelers training camp in a uniform he never got to wear on the field.

Johnny Unitas at Steelers training camp in a uniform he never got to wear on the field.

In considering Unitas as the father of great Western Pennsylvania quarterbacks, I wondered if the others had idolized him. An obiturary/tribute to Unitas written by Chuck Finder for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed the always quotable (Beaver Falls native) Joe Namath had considered Unitas “my football inspiration, my hero.” I imagine that the other western Pennsylvania quarterbacks knew enough about Unitas to think that if he could make it, they also had a shot. Lou Sahadi made a case for the western Pennsylvania quarterbacks describing the mentality that fueled them:

“John was first of those lunch-bucket quarterbacks to come out of western Pennsylvania. Later on came Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Joe Namath and Dan Marino. They were all the same. Guys who didn’t have anything. Guys who knew it was back to the steel mills or coal mines if they didn’t get the job done.”

historical plaque honoring Johnny Unitas that reads "(1933-2002) Pittsburgh native & Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, 1979. Here Unitas quarterbacked semi-pro Bloomfield Rams to a Steel Bowl Football Conference championship, 1955. Signed with Baltimore Colts, 1956, leading them to an NFL championship, 1958.

historical plaque in front of Arsenal Middle School, Lawrenceville

At this point this post should have the feel of a very late night AM radio sports talk broadcast. Imagine bursts of static and a distant echoing theremin whine as I sermonize about the early playing days of the great Johnny Unitas. I focused so much on his brief time in Bloomfield that I never got around to exploring the rest of his playing career. My sense is, if only on a subconscious level, his brief foray in semi-pro football offered a foundation that made him the player he became. No matter the pressure, weather, or game situations he faced, he could always draw on the challenges of his primitive Bloomfield days.

The experience must have given him an appreciation for quality teammates, decent equipment and reasonable practice facilities but it’s important to remember the Bloomfield Rams were there when Unitas needed them. He expressed this in Lou Sahadi’s book explaining that what had mattered most about playing for the Rams had been the feeling that there was a football team that wanted him.

I’ll leave it up to the Pittsburgh Orbit‘s head honcho Will Simmons to track down the Bloomfield Rams old 1955 Steel Bowl Conference trophy. I’m imagining his relentless pursuit in knocking on doors as he looks up players from the ’55 Ram’s roster, guys like Jim Deglau, Jacko Cray, Red Celender, Fred Zangaro, or even Coach Chuck “Bear” Rogers, if he’s still around, to get the full story of what it was like to play football with Johnny Unitas in Pittsburgh. That will have to wait until next season.


[1] “The Louie Files: The Greatest Moment in Rock-and-Roll,” Portland Orbit, April 6, 2017.
[2] Of course, this was actually down the hill in Lawrenceville at what is today Arsenal Middle School on Butler Street. There’s a historical plaque there to prove it.
[3] Editor’s note: This pay rate may actually not be that different from present-day. If any members of the [currently-active semi-pro teams] Passion, Rangers, Colts, or Wildcatz would like to comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Bibliography:

Tom Callahan, Johnny U The Life & Times of John Unitas, Crown Publishers
Lou Sahadi, Johnny Unitas, America’s Quarterback, Triumph Books
Roland Lazenby, Johnny Unitas: The Best There Ever Was, Triumph ebooks
Steve Gelman, Pro Football Heroes, Scholastic Book Services

Black-and-Gold: Here We Go / Random Acts of Fandom

car painted gold with black trim, Pittsburgh, PA

black-and-gold car, Heinz Field

With as bold a stroke as the custom paint job on a classic car–or as subtle as the jimmies on your doughnut–sides are taken and armament drawn. For it is here, dangling from front porches and stacked in the pop & chip aisle of Giant Eagle, that the enemy is engaged, troops fortified, and the City of Pittsburgh prepares for its annual fall campaign toward world dominance on the turf and sod battlefields of the AFC North.

doughnut with black-and-gold jimmies

doughnut with black-and-gold jimmies, Dunkin Donuts

Today it begins. Families bid tearful goodbyes to the husbands, brothers, and sons they’ll not see for the next four to five months–depending on how things go in the playoffs–as living rooms and finished basements are converted into makeshift bunkers where the foot soldiers of Coach Tomlin’s standing army perform isolation drills, practice daylight depravation exercises, and go on full intravenous diets of molten cheese and malted barley.

matching graves with Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Steeler graves, Allegheny Cemetery

Yes: ladies will be there, too–right to the end. We haven’t forgotten the mothers, sisters, and daughters who populate these same bleachers, tailgate parties, and La-Z-Boys of conflict. According to one well-passed-around story, “Pittsburgh has, by far, the largest base of NFL fans who are women”*. But–and this is just a hunch–we think most of those women will have the good sense to go back to the rest of their lives after the clock runs out on Sunday afternoon. Men? Not so much. We’ll see you guys in February.

one gold and one black lawn ornament flamingos, Pittsburgh, PA

black and gold flamingos, Woods Run

Oh, sure, the guys on the field getting paid the big bucks get all the credit, but who’s really winning these championships, huh? I’ll tell you, who, jack. It’s the lady who locates one black and one gold yard flamingo for the little grass patch in front of her house in Woods Run–no alarm system needed.

It’s the fourth-grader that spray-paints a set of tin cans black and then carefully strings them together as a mummy-wrapped Steeler robot. In New England they probably just buy pre-assembled Bradybots from China because everyone cheats anyway.

robot ornament made from tin cans, painted black with Steelers logo, New Kensington, PA

tin can porch robot, New Kensington

You want to talk about a Steeler fan? Just look up on the hillside, there’s a house there with yellow-gold painted walls and black trim on the roofline, window and door frames. Yeah, there’s probably a Jeep or maybe a big Ram pickup in the driveway with the same color scheme. No one drives a car that’s orange and brown. Those are loser colors.

house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

black-and-gold house, South Side Slopes

standpipe connector on apartment building painted black with gold Pittsburgh Steelers cap covers

standpipe connector, Shadyside

A Steeler fan has a long, long memory–one that goes way back to the cold, bleak pre-Noll era when Sundays weren’t so optimistic, and Cleveland [shutters] might still have a chance to make the playoffs. There’s the ex-pat–now relocated to Virginia–who has to contend him- or herself with the occasional drive home in a dynasty-era black Cadillac. The Rock probably had one like this before he had to hock his Super Bowls rings in the divorce settlement. The vehicle’s other ornament is a cryptic custom license plate that’ll only make sense inside Pittsburgh radio range: DUBL YOI.

front grill of a 1970's Cadillac with "DUBL YOI" Virginia license plate

deep cut: DUBL YOI, Schenley Park

steelers ornaments in front yard of home, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers frogs / Steelers logo mosaic garden stone, Mount Washington

Whether today is the first of a season of Sundays spent with your keister on the couch or you couldn’t give a hoot about the galoots in the boots, The Orbit hopes you can still enjoy the annual spectacle of your friends, neighbors, and country(wo)men flying those most glaring of high-contrast hues, losing their minds over a fake-punt, dropped catch, or blown coverage, and head-bobbing to the throbbing monotony of this year’s re-write of “Here We Go”.

May all your towels be terrible and may we still get three points off Chris Brown’s toe. Let’s go out there and teach Cleveland a new lesson in losing.

brick building with cinderblock doorway painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Pythian Temple doorway brick-over, Hill District


* “Pittsburgh leads nation in female NFL fans”, NFL.com, Sept. 12, 2007.

See also:

Sudden Death, Over Time: Steeler Graves

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers football helmet, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Robert K. James, Allegheny Cemetery

In the great Autumn campaign that is each of our lives, we’ll inevitably begin to feel those last seconds of the final game tick off the clock. We can all hope to make it deep into the playoffs–heck, some may even get lucky enough to reach this preposterous metaphor’s Super Bowl. But even with the very best “clock management,” we’re all heading toward a long long off-season in the sky at some point.

matching graves with Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Stacy and Stephen Slanina, Allegheny Cemetery

Forever, the Purple One reminds us, is a mighty long time. It’s likely, though, that The Prince was not thinking about funeral arrangements when he urged us all to “go crazy.” So I’m sure it’s with no small amount of consideration that most folks choose the design and ornament of a gravestone–either for oneself (if he or she likes to plan ahead) or for the loved one the family is burying (more likely?).

Why, there’s the stone itself, available in any number of shapes, sizes, finishes, and flourishes. There’s the text–a full name, sometimes with a favorite nickname, birth and death dates*, and then any manner of other possibilities: pithy epitaphs, Bible verses, embedded portraits, etched images both representational (occupations, avocations) and ornamental (flowers, angels, religious insignia).

grave marker with Steelers logo, St. Michael's Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Jack W. Springer, St. Michael’s Cemetery

If the deceased happened to champion a particularly well-loved, black-and-gold-hued eleven, chances are maybe better than you’d think that the emblem of said N.F.L. franchise will end up etched into his or her headstone. This act of committing and commemorating the deceased to eternity as a devoted Steeler fanatic lets the living know that while still tripping on this mortal coil he or she bled (hopefully not, you know, all the way out) black and gold.

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers flag, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Marie and Jim Coyner, Allegheny Cemetery

It’s a curious choice. Steelers fans would never admit it, but sports franchises are transient things. Pittsburgh has been fortunate to never have one of its teams skip town, but we’re only 80-some years into professional football history–there’s still a lot of time for a lot of things to happen.

Are there graves in Baltimore or Brooklyn or Hartford with Colts, Dodgers, and Whalers logos carved into them? I doubt it, but only because those moves all happened before the relatively recent phenomena of having one’s passions preserved in stone**. But what about St. Louis–are there fresh graves just set with Rams insignia marking them? Possibly…maybe even probably. What an indignity to give one’s afterlife to a team that just high-tailed it back to Los Angeles.

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Roman L. Bryant, Allegheny Cemetery

It makes you wonder if this happens everywhere. This blogger can certainly imagine the same level of devotion from fans of the Boston Red Sox or Montreal Canadiens or Green Bay Packers. But what about Cleveland or Cincinnati? They’ve got their own rabid fans, but are there Browns and Bengals graves? We sure hope not–life on earth following these teams was already Hell, why take that misery with you?

upright gravestone with Steelers logo, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Frederick J. Brown, Highwood Cemetery

What about even more marginal sports territories? Is there anyone in Seattle or San Jose that cares enough about the Seahawks or the Sharks to tattoo it on a gravestone? Does most of North Carolina, Florida, or Texas even know they have hockey teams? What monument maker could carve the offensive Cleveland Indian or Washington “redskin” into stone in good faith? I don’t even want to look at the terrible Anaheim “mighty duck”, let alone get buried under it.

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Jeffrey L. Turner, Allegheny Cemetery

All that said, the good people of Pittsburgh are quite comfortable with this option. It wouldn’t be my choice, but I’m glad it is for some. Studying the cemetery is like anything else where we see changes in culture reflected over time. In many ways, future generations will know more about us now from these Steeler graves (as well as the other custom designs and embedded images) than we can derive from their much more opulent 19th century ancestors. At least, they’ll know we (Pittsburgh) sure liked football. On that, they’ll be correct.

gravestone with large Pittsburgh Steelers football helmet, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Kevin Washington, Sr., Highwood Cemetery


* Coming across the occasional stone with no death date is always intriguing. We assume these are just folks who plan farther ahead than Orbit staff, but you never know.
** You’ll note that all photos are from graves dating from 2002 onward. We don’t know when monument makers began offering these kind of options, but almost all of the custom personal interest imagery seems to come from the 1990s-present.