February 3, 2006
A Link Forged by Tragedy
By JERE LONGMAN
SHANKSVILLE, Pa., Feb. 2 — Rick King, a deli owner, promised his son
black-and-gold pancakes on Super Bowl Sunday. Apparently, though, everybody
in Somerset County got the same idea to paint their devotion to the
Pittsburgh Steelers on a culinary canvas. By Tuesday, even the area Wal-Mart
ran out of black food coloring.
Told of King's dilemma, Michelle Kimmel, 42, a nursing student, said she had
the perfect solution for color-coordinated Steelers party food: "I'll just
make macaroni and cheese and burn it."
In many ways, the 250 residents of Shanksville are exactly like other rabid
Steelers fans in southwestern Pennsylvania, wearing their black-and-gold
jerseys and buying their Terrible Towels to wave in anticipation of the
team's fifth Super Bowl title with a victory over the Seattle Seahawks at
Ford Field in Detroit.
But people here also have a poignant connection to the Steelers that stems
from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Three days after United Flight
93 crashed in a field outside Shanksville, as the passengers and crew
resisted the hijackers, team officials, Coach Bill Cowher and a number of
players traveled 80 miles by bus from Pittsburgh to express their sympathy
and gratitude at a candelight vigil in the nearby commercial hub of
"People felt good that they wanted to be part of it," said Paula Long, 59, a
volunteer at the Flight 93 temporary memorial, located near the crash site.
"These big, tough Steelers that people put on a pedestal — they were letting
go of their emotions. It humanized them."
Later in that interrupted 2001 season, the Steelers invited a group of
firefighters and other rescue workers who responded to the plane crash to
attend a game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, presenting a check to the Red
Cross on their behalf and seating them in the owner's box.
"Class organization," said Terry Shaffer, 50, the chief of Shanksville's
volunteer fire department. "Treated us like royalty. Things were going
pretty bad for us at the time. We got to take our mind off things. It really
On Sept. 25 of the current season, firefighters from Shanksville, wearing
dress uniforms and carrying parade axes, returned to Heinz Field to serve as
the color guard during the national anthem before a game against the New
As the crowd responded generously, Shaffer said, one of the firemen thought
the Steelers had run onto the field before realizing that the applause was
for them, not the players.
"I got goose bumps," he said, adding that, four years after the plane crash,
"it amazed us that people still remembered we had a function there."
Shaffer and his fellow firefighters will watch Super Bowl XL at their homes,
or with friends, but at least one relative of a Flight 93 passenger plans to
attend the game. Kenny Nacke, the brother of passenger Louis J. Nacke II,
said the Steelers had provided him an opportunity to purchase a scarce
ticket. He said he had contacted the club recently and explained that he and
his brother spent part of their youth in the Pittsburgh suburbs and longed
to see their favorite team play in pro football's championship game.
It has been 26 seasons since the Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl during
their grand dominance of the league in the 1970's.
"I'm trying to complete a dream he had," Kenny Nacke, 44, a police officer
in Baltimore County, Md., said by telephone of his brother. "This would have
been the holy grail for him."
Somerset County has experienced its brushes with disaster in recent years,
with the crash of Flight 93 in 2001 and nine coal miners trapped at Quecreek,
later all rescued safely, in 2002.
At Ida's Store in Shanksville, Steelers caps and football-shaped decals that
say, "Luv Ya Black-n-Gold," are on sale alongside booklets and sweatshirts
that commemorate Sept. 11 and the town's unintended place in history.
Three or four years ago, the area might have needed a Steelers Super Bowl to
boost sagging community spirit, said King, 41, the owner of Ida's Store.
Now, he said, Shanksville was a place like other places, with longtime fans
pulling for their team, and people coming together on an uncomplicated
afternoon of food and football.
"Flight 93 is with us every day," said King, 41, who was assistant fire
chief in 2001 and was one of the first rescue workers to reach the crash
site. At the same time, King said, "Shanksville has moved on."
The talk this week in Ida's was of the Steelers and the rising fortunes of
the local high school basketball team. Steve Mishko, 23, a construction
superintendent, said he had hung a Steelers hammock in his bedroom. Don
Browning, 34, a carpet installer, wore a Philadelphia Eagles T-shirt into
the store but said he would have to burn it after losing a bet to a Steelers
Beyond the Super Bowl, Browning talked about another possible matchup later
this year, every bit as intriguing — a Pennsylvania gubernatorial race
between the Republican hopeful Lynn Swann, a Steelers Hall of Fame receiver,
and the Democratic incumbent Edward G. Rendell, a former mayor of
Philadelphia who is an Eagles season-ticket holder and a television analyst.
"I gotta go for the football player," Browning said. "If Ron Jaworski was
going against Swann," he said of the former Eagles quarterback, "it would be
different. But I gotta go for Swann. Rendell's still just a politician."
Ten miles away, in the county seat of Somerset, many of the 6,600 residents
were also seized by the malarial grip of Steelers fever. In the 17 front
windows at the home of Michael L. Kuhn, a lawyer, Christmas wreaths were
converted to Steelers wreaths, the red ribbons replaced by gold Terrible
Towels. Acolytes at Saint Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church have been
wearing their Steelers jerseys during Sunday services.
One area family planned to set up bleachers in its auto repair shop and
broadcast the Super Bowl on a big-screen television. Another family sent a
photograph to The Daily American, the local newspaper, featuring a Christmas
tree that remains up long after the holidays and is now decorated with
miniature Steelers jerseys.
At the Eat'n Park restaurant, 20 to 45 dozen smiley-faced Steelers cookies
have been sold daily in recent weeks. An estimated 80 dozen are likely to be
sold daily during Super Bowl weekend. Just inside the front door, a sign
advertising the black-and-gold cookies was turned around to face the
security camera, manager Barb Scherer said, lest a Steelers fan be tempted
to add it to his souvenir collection.
"Everything's a commemorative item this week," Scherer said with a laugh.
People here fully understand the disconnect in today's fan-athlete
relationship. Students complained in The Daily American on Thursday that
athletes were overpaid and out of touch. Last spring, Ben Roethlisberger,
the Steelers' starting quarterback, did not respond to an invitation to
speak at the graduation ceremony at Shanskville-Stonycreek School, said
Shaffer, the fire chief.
"Rudy Giuliani spoke in 2002," Shaffer said, referring to the former New
York City mayor. "He felt a strong connection between New York and
Shanksville. I wish Big Ben had felt the same connection."
Yet there remains a fierce devotion to the Steelers, who won their Super
Bowl titles while the steel industry collapsed. The Rooney family has owned
the team since its inception in 1933 and is perceived to operate with a
common touch. And even though many of the players are millionaires, they are
seen as performing with a resolute style that reflects the blue-collar
lifestyle prevalent in this area.
"Going underground is tough in the first place," said Richard Hanes, 37, a
coal miner from Shanksville. "If the Steelers win on Sunday, it makes Monday
a little easier."
Businesses and schools across the area have invited employees and students
to dress in Steelers colors on Friday. Farther south, in Baltimore, Kenny
Nacke plans by early Saturday to begin a 530-mile drive to Detroit to pay
tribute to his brother. Louis J. Nacke II, manager of a toy distribution
center, had boarded Flight 93 on a last-minute business trip two days after
his 42nd birthday.
He lived in New Hope, Pa., outside Philadelphia, but had lived as a young
boy in Penn Hills, a Pittsburgh suburb. The Nacke brothers fell in love with
the Steelers and the Pirates and dreamed of seeing their teams play in the
Super Bowl and the World Series. Such was their devotion that, on the third
anniversary of the hijacking, the family laid a wreath at the Flight 93
temporary memorial adorned with plastic Steelers and Pirates helmets.
Three days after the crash, when the Steelers attended a candelight vigil in
Somerset, running back Jerome Bettis and the former quarterback Kordell
Stewart consoled his parents, Kenny Nacke said. "They were hugging and
crying together," he said. "The compassion they had still brings tears to my
In November 2001, his family was invited to spend a weekend with the
Steelers and to attend a game, Nacke said. Relatives of a number of Flight
93 passengers and crew members were also honored by the Steelers at a game
this past Sept. 11, the fourth anniversary of the hijacking.
"I know they're in business to make money, but my impression is that's
secondary," Nacke said. "If they treat their players as well as they treated
my family, I can see why they are a successful team."
He would travel to Detroit with mixed emotions, Nacke said, referring to his
brother, whom he called Joey.
"It's exhilarating to accomplish something you dreamed about many years," he
said. "But it brings the sadness back. If he was still alive, Joey would be
figuring out how to get to the Super Bowl. It should be him going, not me.
He should be watching the game through his eyes instead of mine."