Tailgate Tales – people, practices make a Steelers game unique

From Yinzer burgers to Father Paul, this tailgate is like no other in the league.

by Kelsey Swintek
December 8, 2021

The forecast calls for a ‘wintery mix’ and a swirling wind stings my cheeks. But don’t worry — Bruce is still mixing up his signature frozen margaritas. As we approach his spot, I hear the whirr of his blender. I met Bruce at my first tailgate, three years ago when I moved to Pittsburgh. Because of the pandemic, it’s been a while since I’ve been back. He wraps me up in a big friendly hug and recites the last time we saw each other: October 6, 2019. 

“You’d just bought your house, and the Steelers lost to the Ravens. Hell of a game.” He hands me a paper cup of margarita. 

The Uniform

Bruce is dressed in Steelers head to toe: a black Steelers bucket hat covered in pins and patches, a yellow hoodie layered underneath a Jack Lambert jersey, a faded Terrible Towel tucked in waistband of his black and yellow striped shorts (yes, shorts), white crew socks with a Steelers helmet and yellow sneakers tied up with black laces, reading Steelers along the side of his feet. 

He tells me that he bought the infamous shorts 27 years ago for $1, and he has worn them to every home game since. 

“They’re basically silk, they’re so soft at this point,” he said. I am fully bundled (hat, mittens, turtleneck, sweatshirt and puffy coat) and ask him if he feels cold. He laughs, “It’s only supposed to be 35 degrees today.”  

A man in black, yellow, white and gray camouflage patterned pants offers to take our photo. 

The Menu

Bruce hands me a margarita to bring to his pal Steve, who’s cooking over at the Eat n Park official tailgate just on the other end of the lot. He sports an apron with some Pittsburghese phrase printed across the front, and a giant smile. It smells tempting as he lifts the lid of a commercial smoker to show us the brisket. The tables in front of him have sausage, buffalo chicken sticks, potatoes and a batch of white chili. 

A man walks by and repeats twice to stop by the the burger cook off. “Jalepeno Yinzer burgers” he offers, and keeps moving, rushing to someone somewhere else. I find out later it’s the final round of the Giant Eagle Ultimate Tailgreatness Grilling Contest. I speak to Winnie at the gate of the Official Steelers Tailgate. Drinks are available for purchase inside and entry is free. There’s a live band and a whole lot of energy. I wait in line for a corndog when the Pittsburgh Steeline assembles behind us, marching into the lot one block over.

The Soundtrack

Full disclosure: I seriously love a drumline. I love hype. I abandon my quest for a corndog and follow alongside the group to watch their performance. According to their website, the Pittsburgh Steeline is a professional entertainment drumline that performs at all Steelers home games. Just like that — the separate open-trunk tailgates come together, cheering and waving Terrible Towels and stomping our feet. A man with a megaphone shouts over the growing crowd, “Here we go!”

The weather worsens and tinny speakers blare Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” and Styx’s “Renegade.” 

The Reverence

Father Paul, the team chaplain, passes us on the sidewalk as he makes the rounds to his usual spots. I wonder what he prays for: a win, good health, togetherness? 

During a Steelers home game, this blacktop is holy ground. We all come together. We break bread and chant encouragement. We share faith in our team, in our city.

Kelsey Swintek is a writer living in the East End. She publishes a weekly newsletter, where she writes about musings, shares her photography and renders occasional epiphanies. You can find her on a long walk with her dog, Fala, or with an IC Light at Kelly’s in East Liberty. Kelsey's Newsletter: Lucky Rigatoni Instagram: @KelseyPizza

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