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The spirit of Pittsburgh sports remains strong: Joe Trojcak

Posted 6/28/17

It was a cloudy afternoon on Dec. 31, 1972. I was 10 years old, so heading out to ring in 1973 was not in my plans.

I finally mustered up the concentration to build the big project on my Radio …

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The spirit of Pittsburgh sports remains strong: Joe Trojcak

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It was a cloudy afternoon on Dec. 31, 1972. I was 10 years old, so heading out to ring in 1973 was not in my plans.

I finally mustered up the concentration to build the big project on my Radio Shack 100 in 1 Electronic Kit that my dad got me for Christmas: the AM radio. It took almost over an hour with dozens of connections.

I placed it on top of our black-and-white console television, attached it to our 1962 bronze tabletop antennas and started moving the long pieces of metal to try and draw in a signal. It worked!

But within one minute my joy of accomplishment turned to total shock. The news came on and the announcer gave the report that the plane of Roberto Clemente, the all-star outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was missing and he was feared to be dead.

How could this happen to my hero? Why would someone who was working so hard to help the victims in Nicaragua lose his life? I had just seen my first live Pirates game that July. Clemente was hurt and did not play. Now I would never see my hero play again. Pittsburgh’s sports nation was devastated.

The 1970s were the beginnings of Pittsburgh becoming a title town. The Pirates had already won the World Series in 1960 and 1971, but the Penguins were still considered a startup team (their first season was 1967), and the Steelers were always struggling. I remember my Aunt Roni saying how bad she felt for her husband, Tom, who was a huge football fan. He had to live in a city with such a terrible professional team. Little did any of us know what was about to break out with the Steelers.

On Dec. 23 1972, just a week before we lost Roberto Clemente, our family gathered around a radio in the basement of my grandmother’s home in McKees Rocks to listen to the Steelers actually play in a playoff game. The game was almost lost until the “Immaculate Reception.” Time had almost run out. Suddenly all my relatives were jumping and screaming. Franco Harris hauled in Terry Bradshaw’s deflected pass inches off the ground, and the Steelers were a playoff-winning team! This was the defining moment toward the first four of six Super Bowl championships.

Fast forward to a May afternoon in the early 1990s and once again I am visiting my family for my godchild’s Katie’s First Holy Communion. The festivities had moved to the backyard picnic portion. That is when I saw certain family members carefully watching the clock so they could head down to Civic Arena to watch a Penguins playoff game.

The team built around Mario Lemieux was about to have their names etched on the Stanley Cup. None of the five Stanley Cup championships would have ever happened if we did not have No. 66 on the ice and his clever understanding of how the fan base of the 412 area code would respond if he would buy the team and bring it out of bankruptcies. Mario went on to build the PPG Center that has the potential to sell out hockey games for the next decade and host numerous national shows and events.

The Penguins’ fifth championship won this year is due to Mario’s skills as a team owner and mentor for Sidney Crosby, arguably the best player of this generation. Mario recognized Sidney’s abilities and the dangers of quick success, so he had Sid move in with his family for five years. Mario’s dedication to mentoring Sid has paid dividends in so many ways, especially as we now see Sid, no longer the kid, mentoring young players.

There is an undeniable spirit that flows from all three Pittsburgh teams and their fans. It begins with the owners and coaches of the Penguins, Steelers and Pirates. The players catch it and if they have a good heart, the players want to play their entire careers in Pittsburgh. The fans amplify it from the seats, crowded bars and in their homes as they cheer.

It is important to note that certain professional sports figures in Pittsburgh have been less than angelic role models. Drug abuse, motorcycle accidents, and arrogant, sometimes disgusting behavior have been a sad part of the Pittsburgh sports legacy. But so have the stories of repentance and rehabilitation. Pittsburgh owners have high standards of conduct for their players both on and off the field and will let them go if a turnaround does not happen.

Every professional team has their charity work. Their dedicated fans generously participate. Players go the extra mile to help their community. But the three teams that play along and near the three rivers in Pittsburgh have something extra.

Let’s begin with Clemente’s generosity and ultimate sacrifice. Roberto played his heart out on the field. Go to YouTube and watch his blazing throws from the outfield fence.

Consider the Rooney family and that since 1969 we have had nine Presidents of the United States but only three head coaches netting six Super Bowl championships.

Look at the incredible second chance that the Steelers gave to Rocky Bleier after nearly losing his foot during the war in Vietnam.

Then you have the “Rooney Rule,” launched by the family that owns the Steelers, which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coach and senior football positions.

Mario Lemieux turned his intense battle with Hodgkin’s disease into the incredible Mario Lemieux Foundation and its fight for a cure for cancer. Mario is another athlete who played his heart out on the ice and has helped so many, especially when you consider his additional work with The Penguins Foundation.

The Pirates Charities do tremendous work for the Pittsburgh region, and so do many of the individual players and coaches. The daughter of Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has Prader-Willi syndrome, and he is a spokesman for the fight against the rare genetic disorder. Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison and his wife, Brittney, just conducted a charity event for expected mothers with financial challenges.

Many people do not realize that on the day Coach Bill Cowher won the fifth Super Bowl for the Steelers, Art Rooney Jr. gave him a rosary that he kept in his pocket the entire game. This spirituality is part of the reason that St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe hosts Steelers training camp every year.

When you play Pittsburgh, you play the city and all of the fans of the other two teams. It’s a special family. The bond is very real.

We travel very well, too. You could see this as the Penguins visited the Pirates and Steelers to thank them for cheering them on in the playoffs.

The spirit of Pittsburgh sports is filled with a deeper spiritual yearning. Just take a look at some clips of Troy Polamalu diving, hitting like a well-disciplined beast. Observe that every hit, every play, every down began first with Troy making the sign of the cross. Then he unleashed his very aggressive action on he field and concluded the play with an additional blessing.

That three-step action showcases the spirit of Pittsburgh sports and the love all of us Steel City fans have for our black and gold.

Joe Trojcak is the owner of Progressive Enterprises Sound Studios in Elizabethtown. He gives motivational presentations to encourage career building and entrepreneurship under the title “Fire Up Now.” Reach him at joet@progressivestudios.com.

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