Even by Arizona Cardinals standards, 2004 was a gloomy year. That April, Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. The Cards were in the middle of a 10-year stretch without a winning season. Even though they'd broken ground on a new stadium in Glendale, some locals mumbled that the team should move to Los Angeles.
If you watched the Cardinals back then, chances are you saw an abnormally lanky guy covered head-to-toe in red paint, with feathered wings affixed to his arms. "The Birdman" appeared on the stadium's jumbotron about 10 times a game because there wasn't much else for local cameramen to focus on in the stands — most face-painted, sign-wielding fans at Cards games were wearing the other team's colors.
The Birdman says he was one of a handful of original Cardinals super-fans, an Arizona native who'd followed the team since they arrived in '88, a guy who took his cheering to the next level during those dim days back in Sun Devil Stadium. The team wasn't much to watch, he says, but he was happy to do his part to give the Cardinals fan base some credibility.
"If you watch other NFL games, they always have these hardcore guys who dressed up, and they're the super-fans for their cities," he says. "The opposing fans at Cardinals games would get dressed up and heckle our group about what bad fans we were. So we decided we wanted to get dressed up, too, and take our city back."
At least, The Birdman decided to dress up.
Now that the Cardinals are in the Super Bowl, you'd expect this self-proclaimed super-fan to be the happiest guy in the Valley. But he isn't. He may be the most notorious fixture ever in the Cardinals' stands, but he's given up the feathers and the makeup. Hell, he's given up watching Cardinals games at sports bars with his buddies, much less attending them. He even turned down a ticket to the biggest Cardinals game in history, this Sunday in Tampa.
Turns out all it took to kill off this former symbol of Cardinals fandom were a little extra security and a slightly longer drive to the West Valley. Sigh.
Forget standing shirtless in sub-zero temperatures, as super-fans from Rust Belt cities do, or flying thousands of miles to a game — The Birdman got sick of dealing with the minor inconveniences of the Cardinals' gorgeous, state-of-the-art stadium.
Apparently into self-loathing, he acknowledges that he's a stain upon super-fans everywhere. He says he lives with the intense shame of having given up on his team, on his Birdman persona. So much so that he would be interviewed for this only if New Times agreed not to publish his name.
The former Birdman jumped off the Cards' bandwagon this year, just before most everyone else in town jumped on.
He knows it's not much of an excuse, but he blames Glendale for his woes. The new stadium's security wouldn't let him run up and down the aisles flapping, he says, and the drive from his house in Scottsdale to the new stadium was way too far. He also got sick of painting his 6-foot-2, 150-pound body and spending his Saturdays shopping for tailgate supplies.
Poor, pitiful ex-Birdman.
He did try his hand at being a normal fan, only to be met with scorn.
"The first time I went to a game not as The Birdman, I was heckled by our own fans in my section! All these people were, like, 'Listen, don't come to the game if you're not The Birdman. You can't just stop being The Birdman.'"
The irony, of course, is that none of these fans was dressing up. No one offered to pick up The Birdman's wings and carry on the flight. They just shamed him for wanting to watch the game in street clothes.
But it's even more ironic that a guy who was almost a symbol of the Arizona Cardinals would let fellow fans shame him. Not much of a super-fan, and hardly the ferocious Red Bird that should symbolize a professional football team.
Now that the Cardinals are in the Super Bowl, perhaps a new Birdman will emerge. Somebody possessing the attitude of the model on our cover this week.
The grounded Birdman's story's pathetic, and he's fitting for what the Cardinals have been historically — the NFL's most dysfunctional franchise.
It's been pointed out before, but it never ceases to amaze: The Cardinals are the oldest continuously operated American professional football club, yet they had a total of two playoff wins before this year. So when a guy who considered himself the Cardinals' ultimate diehard fan just gives up — during a season that winds up with his team in the Super Bowl — should it surprise anybody?
The former Birdman's reflective of many Cardinals fans in a city with no professional football tradition. Many fans of the red-and-white are margarita-swilling creampuffs too lazy to update their wardrobes so that they aren't be wearing the jersey of a pretty-boy quarterback who stood on the sidelines all season holding a clipboard.
They completely failed to support their team back when going to a game might've warranted two applications of sunscreen and a couple of bottles of water, and now they're routinely out-cheered by opposing fans in their own cushy retractable-roof stadium.
When the Philadelphia Eagles took a one-point lead in the NFC Championship at University of Phoenix Stadium, before the Cardinals came back and won, the hugely outnumbered Philly contingent was deafening.
In Arizona, "fan" hardly means "fanatic."
It would be unbelievable in a historic football city, but the Cards almost didn't sell out their first-round playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons, requiring an extension from the league to avoid a local TV blackout. This sort of thing hasn't gone unnoticed nationally.
At the beginning of the season, ESPN ranked every NFL team's fan base, and the Cardinal's came in dead last: 32nd. This season, things have changed on the field. Now, it's time for things to change in the stands and at the sports bars.
Cardinals fans need to step up, develop some toughness, lest our state be humiliated by the boisterous support enjoyed by our opponents, who — because of five Super Bowl victories — have a national fan base. The same ESPN article that named Cardinals fans the worst in the NFL put the Steelers at the very top. Rest assured, Steeler Nation is going to bring it.
Clayton Jacobson of Parker's is the kind of fan the Cards need. Born in Englewood, California, he adopted the Red Birds during their Tempe days and has been a season ticket-holder since.
"We have, I call it, a make-believe fan base," Jacobson says. "They don't really understand the power of the 12th man — they have no idea.
"I have a friend who's a Seattle Seahawks fan, and I took him to his first Cardinals game this year — when we played the Bills — and he converted to a Cardinals fan. He was like 'What's wrong with your fans, man?! The stadium's full, but no one knows how to yell. No one makes any noise. It's really weird.'
"He believes in the 12th man because he was up in Seattle and he's seen it actually happen, but the people here, they don't understand it yet."
Negativity's the problem, Jacobson says. Cardinals fans need to feel the mojo and expect to win. At the NFC Championship game, he was surrounded by fans who complained about the third-quarter collapse that could've given the Eagles the game. When he'd had enough of the complaining, he challenged another Cards fan to a fight.
"Cardinals fans were getting quieter, when they should've been getting louder. My thing was, hey, we're behind now. They really need us! But, no, not Cardinals fans," he says. "At the time, everybody in the end zone was sitting down. And this guy behind me's saying, 'Yep, I told you. I told you they are going to lose this game.'
"And that was it. I stood up, I turned around and I said, 'Look, pull your head out of your ass and root for our team! One more negative statement out of you and I'm going to kick your ass.'
"This guy goes, 'But they're playing shitty.' And I go, 'Look, dude, I don't think you heard me: I'm going to beat the living shit out of you if you have one more comment that's negative. If you don't have anything to say that's positive, don't say anything at all.'
"But, he continues to insist, 'They're playing shitty.' I say, 'Dude, you don't understand: I'm going to fucking kill you if you say one more negative thing.'"
Years of losing have taken their toll on the Arizona psyche, Jacobson knows, but it's time people get over it.
"Nobody wants to pull for a team and then have the a-hole guy next to them say, 'Ha ha ha, told you!' Like [Cardinals quarterback Kurt] Warner, you have to believe. And the Cardinals fans don't believe. I mean, they just don't believe."
They may not know how. Cards fans don't seem to know what to do when they actually try their hand at hooliganism. Take the two bozos who, police say, tried to vandalize the Chandler front yard of Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb before the NFC Championship.
Rex Michael Perkins, 37, of Chandler, and Ryan Hanlon, 29, of Gilbert, were arrested on suspicion of criminal damage on January 18 after cops say they used diesel fuel to burn "Go Cards" and "Go Kurt" into McNabb's lawn. Police tracked them down when they found a cardboard sign at McNabb's house with a postage sticker bearing Perkins' address.
Leaving an address is an obvious rookie mistake, but what kind of pussy statement is "Go Kurt?" If you're going to harass McNabb, burn "Fuck Philly" and a big "81" (the number of McNabb enemy and former Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens) on the grass, then plop a "for sale" sign in the yard.
Boom, message sent. If you're going to risk arrest, make it count!
Last week, someone changed an electric road sign in Tempe to read "Go Steelers." Somebody had to see whoever did that in the act. Why wasn't the responsible party found beaten in a nearby alley? If a Cardinals fan pulled that stunt in Pittsburgh, you can bet he would be.
Cardinals fans are showing a little spark. New Times was on hand at Sky Harbor International Airport to see what organizers estimated was 1,800 people cheer on the team as members boarded a plane to Tampa.
Contrast that to the number of people who showed up in 20-degree weather to see the Steelers off to Tampa that morning — 30,000, according to Pittsburgh TV station WTAE — and you see what this story is getting at.
Even if they were playing the Baltimore Ravens (a team that wears purple and employs a stupid marching band to play at halftime) or the San Diego Chargers (a squad that's also from a Sun Belt city with a large percentage of fair-weather fans), Arizona's genteel Cardinal fans would have their work cut out for them in Super Bowl XLIII.
They're matched up against the grubbiest, loudest, and nastiest fan base in all of sports — as well as one of the largest.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are White Trash America's team. Though Raiders, Eagles, and Browns fans certainly have their own reputations for trashy behavior, Steelers fans win the prize for crudeness. It's hard to find a trailer park anywhere in the country that doesn't have a black-and-yellow flag fluttering from the door of a doublewide.
Anecdotal evidence of the mindset of Steelers fans is everywhere — do a search for "Steelers fans" on YouTube and bear witness to a 90-year-old woman getting the team's logo tattooed on her arm at her family's insistence and a guy who became estranged from his brothers after he put a giant Steelers logo on his father's tombstone.
But there's much more than that out there.
Take the team's official band, a country act called The PovertyNeck Hillbillies. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appeared in the video for the group's song "Mr. Right Now."
Or the team's mascot, Steeley McBeam (that is, the guy who portrays him), blowing twice the legal limit during his DUI arrest last year. Or the way a Steelers fan accidentally set fire in November to a dozen Redskins fans' vehicles in Washington by leaving a grill full of burning coals in the back of his car. Or Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's calling a press conference to say he'd temporarily changed his name to Luke Steelerstahl before the Ravens and his hometown team met in the AFC Championship game.
Before that contest, some strings were pulled to have a Terrible Towel waved on the International Space Station (no word on whether the astronaut Steelers fan was part of some experiment to see how hillbillies fare in a zero-gravity environment).
A columnist for the Baltimore Examiner summed it up pretty well in an article called, "Why do we hate Steelers fans? Let me count the reasons," where he described them as wearing "stone-washed, black Wranglers with a 'Terrible Towel' hanging from the back pocket like Cooter from The Dukes of Hazzard."
Geography has a lot to do with why some Steelers fans are the way they are.
Pittsburgh's the largest city in the massive poverty-stricken backwoods known as Appalachia, and the Steelers are the only NFL team that plays on Appalachian soil. (Technically, Nashville and Charlotte, where the Tennessee Titans and Carolina Panthers play, respectively, aren't in Appalachia). The heart of the Steelers fan base is in the moonshine-making hills of western Pennsylvania and hollows of West Virginia, and their location colors much about them.
Take Myron Cope, the longtime Steelers broadcaster who died last year. His calls were screeched in a hillbilly patois nearly indecipherable to the ears of somebody accustomed to Standard American English. But, in the Steel City, his "Pittsburghese" made him a deity. "Kin yinz belif tha way he moved that pal? Yoi, he's slippy!"
Thing is, many Steelers fans may be impoverished but they find a way to support their team. The last time the Steelers were in the Super Bowl, ESPN columnist Greg Garber speculated their fans outnumbered Seahawks fans 25 to 1.
At a neutral-site game like the Super Bowl, cheering goes beyond the intangible effect of getting players psyched up. Home teams usually get more calls, and referees unconsciously seem to respond to all the spinning piss-yellow towels.
Ask Seattle Seahawks fans about referee Bill Leavy's "shameful" performance in Super Bowl XL. Ex-Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren addressed it at a post-season rally: "We knew it was going to be tough going against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I didn't know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts as well."
Cardinals fans, that's what could happen if you get out-cheered all game long — the Super Bowl will be turned into a Steelers home game.
Maybe that's why Steelers fans are so cocky going into this weekend. In the Valley, Steelers faithful certainly aren't suffering from the crisis of confidence that almost made the aforementioned Clayton Jacobson take a swing at another Cards fan.
Kim Chapman describes herself as a "hardcore" Steelers fan. "I would say, Steelers by at least 14," she says smugly.
Chapman, who watches Pittsburgh games at First Round Draft in Gilbert, one of a half-dozen Steelers bars in the Valley, has little respect for the Cardinals or their fans: "They're playing in a college stadium for how many years, and they finally got their own official NFL stadium a couple years ago? Come on!"
She's asked why Cardinals fans lack the swagger of Steelers loyalists? "Look at the team," she says with a sneer. "Now they can back it up a little — until next Sunday."
Dave Wilson, a Steelers fan from California who now lives in Chandler, says Cardinals fans don't know what they're up against. Neither the Cards nor their fans, he says, will have any hope of matching up with the Steelers and their supporters come Sunday.
"I think they're going to have an eye-opening because it's going to be a sea of black and gold in that stadium. It's going to be like a Steelers home game," he says. "Somebody's gotta pop the Cardinals' bubble, you know? And if somebody's got to do it, it might as well be the Steelers."
You'd think that attitude would engender some hostility around Phoenix, but Wilson says he's had very few problems.
"What I see, living in Phoenix, is when you're driving down the freeway — and I've got Steelers stickers in the back window of both my cars — you get the honk from a guy. And as he drives by, you see he's got the Steelers license-plate frame. I get more of that than I do dirty looks from Cardinals fans."
So he's asked, "You're saying — even the week before Arizona plays Pittsburgh in its first Super Bowl — you're getting a thumbs-up instead of the finger around here?"
Yoi, Cardinal fans, maybe yinz should change that.
If you want to know what the Cardinals are in for, and what the Pittsburgh organization's all about, look how the Steelers got to the game of games: They made it because of a cheap shot with three minutes left in AFC Championship game against Baltimore.
Anybody watching would be hard-pressed to say Steelers safety Ryan Clark didn't fully intend to deliver the helmet-to-helmet collision that snapped Baltimore running back Willis McGahee's head back hard enough to make him fumble the biggest pass of the game for his team — which led to his getting hauled off the field on a stretcher.
Was it legal? Well, football-wise, yes. Was it dirty? Definitely.
The Steelers are a rugged football team led by the league's best defense. They're tough across the board, too. In June 2006, QB Roethlisberger was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle. He flew into a Chrysler's windshield, then hit the ground head-first, fracturing his jaw and sinus cavity, knocking out two teeth, and suffering a nine-inch cut on the back of his head. The accident didn't cause Big Ben to miss even a pre-season start.
This season, Hines Ward, a Steelers wide receiver, broke the jaw of a Cincinnati Bengals rookie linebacker with a hard block. Yes, a receiver broke a linebacker's jaw with a block.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison, the NFL's reigning defensive player of the year, is one of the dirtiest players in the game. Harrison became wildly popular among Steelers fans when he body-slammed an intoxicated Cleveland Browns fan who'd run on the field during Pittsburgh's 41-0 rout of the Browns three years ago — on Christmas Eve.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, went most of this season without a running game or a focused defense, only to find themselves in the playoffs. They've looked great this month, dismantling the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina and coming back against the Eagles after letting Donovan McNabb's team overtake them.
Can they win Sunday? Of course.
Not only are they playing their best football now, they've got two coaches who helped mold the current Steelers team before landing in the desert. Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator of the Steelers during the team's last successful Super Bowl season, and assistant head coach Russ Grimm was a Steelers assistant for six seasons.
That should give the Cards what former New England Patriots offensive coordinator and current Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis calls a "decided schematic advantage."
There's no doubt about the Steelers' stout defense, but it was built to match up against the smash-mouth teams in their division — not a trio of 1,000-yard receivers led by the high-flying Larry Fitzgerald.
This isn't to say the Steelers are weaponless against the pass. They employ Troy Polamalu, one of the greatest safeties in NFL history. The wild-haired Polamalu can rush the passer and cover a receiver equally well, racking up both sacks and interceptions. He's especially deadly in Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's exotic blitzes.
But, if you look at the four games the Steelers lost this year, they came against teams with seasoned, astute quarterbacks comfortable with dropping back and making reads: the Manning boys, McNabb, and the Titans' Kerry Collins. Warner certainly fits that mold.
The Cardinals' no-name defenders are somewhat of an X-factor, because it's hard to tell how good they are. They looked great playing Atlanta, but that was against a rookie quarterback. Certainly, the performance in Carolina had more to do with QB Jake Delhomme's falling apart than what the Cards did. They looked superb against the Eagles for three of the four quarters they played but nearly blew the game when they started trying to prevent big plays instead of stopping all progress.
If recent history tells us anything, though, it's that you never know what teams will look like in the Super Bowl.
Keep this in mind: The Steelers were the Cardinals. Literally — the teams merged for one season in 1944 because neither could field a full team in the military-draft-depleted NFL. But it's more than that.
Five Super Bowl victories have a way of erasing bad memories, but Pittsburgh went without a winning season for its first 10 years in the league. The Steelers were blown out in their first playoff game in 1947, and didn't get another playoff appearance for 25 years. The Steelers had zero playoff victories in their first 39 years of existence. That's almost as pathetic as the Cardinals.
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The media and their fans keep calling the Steelers among the NFL's most storied franchises. And they are. But even if they win this Super Bowl, they'd still have only half as many championships as the Green Bay Packers. They'd need three more rings to have as many as the Chicago Bears, two more to have as many as the Cleveland Browns, or one more to have as many as the New York Giants.
Let's leave it at this: The Cardinals have been underdogs in Las Vegas for the past three playoff games. They're underdogs again against the Steelers in the Super Bowl. But they could win. They could be the Giants of this season (every storied franchise must start somewhere).
And their fans could go a long way toward helping them win the biggest one ever. If they can grow a pair.