Enemy Territory

What could possibly convince a Clevelander to convert his saloon into a Steelers bar?

A large man in a black robe, cheaply shiny white cape and pointy yellow half-hat grabs the mike. "Let's make some noise!" the pope shouts.

I'm at Parma's Blue Moose Saloon, the most exciting place in town on this Sunday in January. I'm having fun, but it's a guilty fun, like I've crashed a great party at the Soviet Embassy in the '80s.

"Our Father, who art in Pittsburgh," intones Pope Rooney.

Five minutes before the kickoff of the AFC Championship Game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Broncos, I'm surrounded by black and gold. Almost everyone in this buzzing, buzzed crowd sports a Steelers jersey: Roethlisberger, Polamalu, Porter, Randle El.

"Thy kingdom come, four Super Bowls won," Pope Rooney chants. An attendant in black holds the pope's pastoral staff: a yellow pole topped with a Steelers banner.

This NFL playoff season, the Blue Moose Saloon has reinvented itself as Cleveland's biggest Steelers bar. To the universal disgust of Browns fans (or at least the ones who listen to sports radio), this steely piece of enemy territory is reveling in championship glory.

"Forgive us our penalties," His Holiness pleads. "Lead us to think they're evil, and deliver us to Detroit!"

Pope Rooney, named after Steelers owner Dan Rooney, is really Dennis Briggs of Cleveland, who was chosen for the papacy today because he's dating a woman who works here. Guys pat his shoulder and say "Hey, pope!" as he strides by. "I feel like I'm a celebrity, man," he says.

Briggs, a longtime Clevelander, has been a Pittsburgh fan since Terry Bradshaw led the Steelers to the Super Bowls of the '70s. Being a Steelers fan in Cleveland is "rough, man - brutal." Browns fans call him a "traitor," he says. "But it's all in good fun."
Across the bar, Blue Moose owner Pat Potopsky greets customers in half a Browns jersey stitched to half a Steelers jersey. The three-diamond Steelers logo sits on his baseball cap, right next to an old-school Brownie.
"I'm torn," he shrugs.

Two days earlier, Potopsky sits in a quiet Panera Bread cafe in Middleburg Heights, looking very confident in his business decision. He's wearing a tan shirt with his bar's logo on the lapel: a cartoon moose holding a sandwich and a beer. A well-built guy with brushed-back hair, Potopsky seems gruff at first, but his cherubic face softens and turns ruddier as he smiles. He likes telling this story.

He's a lifelong Browns fan, a season-ticket holder in the Dawg Pound for 17 years. He went to Case Western Reserve University during the Bernie Kosar era, razzing his three roommates from Pittsburgh on game days. When he lived in Los Angeles, Chicago, Cincinnati and Dayton after college, he'd hit the local Browns Backers bar on fall Sundays.

When Cleveland lost the Browns, though, Potopsky adopted the Steelers - another team from a "blue-collar town" that plays "smash-mouth football," he explains. Now he roots for both teams. When they play each other, he roots for the Browns.

Potopsky opened the Blue Moose three years ago, shelling out lots of cash for a 14-foot projection TV and the three wide-screens in the next room. But NFL Sundays were dead: just a couple dozen customers. Some were Steelers fans: five or six at first, 20 this year. "Put our team on the big screen!" they kept asking.

So this season, after Pittsburgh clinched the AFC North, the regulars convinced him to take out an ad inviting Steelers fans to the bar. They even helped Potopsky pay for the ad, on sports-talk station WKNR, voiced by drive-time host and Pittsburgh native Kenny Roda, who addressed the audience as "y'uns," Pittsburghese for "y'all."

Potopsky figured he'd get 60 or 70 new customers for the first playoff game. Three hundred showed up. "I never thought it would snowball this way."

The bar got 30 phone calls a day, half from Steelers fans, half from angry Clevelanders. "You live in Cleveland! How could you betray the Browns?" Potopsky recalls them saying, when they weren't shouting obscenities. "We told 'em it's a business. We fill our place on Sundays."

Potopsky went on Roda's show to defend his move. "My money's black and yellow," he says. He told the listeners he liked the Browns too, but if the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl, he might convert. By the next Monday, after the Steelers won, he says fans were calling WKNR, saying they'd convert too.

That's how Potopsky came up with the religious gags. Clevelanders who want to join the Steelers Nation can get "baptized" at the Blue Moose: The pope anoints them with Iron City Beer.

I'm sitting in the Blue Moose's sports pit with my friend Natalie and her boyfriend, George. He's from Pittsburgh; his mother even attends the same church as Rooney (the Steelers owner, not the pope).

George is wearing a gray Steelers sweatshirt. Natalie, who grew up in Steeler country on the Ohio River but defected to the Browns after college, is wearing a gold shirt over a black shirt. That's as far as she'll go for love.

"I think she'd look good in a Jerome Bettis jersey," George says.

"I can't do it," says Natalie.

On third-and-three for the Steelers, a Ben Roethlisberger pass bounces off Denver cornerback Champ Bailey's hand, and receiver Hines Ward hauls it in. First down.

Across the table, Judy jumps up, cheers and waves her Terrible Towel, Pittsburgh football's eternal rag-flag. She's blond and blue-eyed and wears a 22 jersey (in honor of running back Duce Staley) and white, black and gold Mardi Gras beads.

A Steeler drops the ball. Fumble, an official signals. "He was down!" Judy shouts.

Most of the time, Judy is Judy Davidson, 41, who lives in Euclid and works for Forest City. But in Cleveland's muny lot for Browns-Steelers games, she's Pittsburgh Judy, the "biggest Pittsburgh fan in Cleveland." She's included in the caricatures of lot regulars on one tailgater's rusty camper, known as the Taj Mahal. "I'm the only one in black and gold!"

The fumble call is challenged. Judy was right: It's still the Steelers' ball. She high-fives George, Natalie and me.
Judy grew up in Thompson, east of Painesville. At 10, she watched a Browns-Steelers game with her family. Pittsburgh won, so she decided to root for them. She was the only Steelers fan in a family of four kids. Why? the others asked her. "Because they win," she'd say.

Most everyone I talk to today is about 40 - and that's probably not a coincidence. They were forming their sports loyalties when Bradshaw and the Steel Curtain dominated Super Bowls IX, X, XII and XIV.

"Christmas Eve, I saw a guy take a female Steelers fan's Terrible Towel and pee on it," Judy says. "Three years ago, a guy took a female fan's blanket and burned it. They're ruthless!"
The Steelers score. I head to the far end of the bar, past the subtler Pittsburgh supporters in T-shirts or hats, to where Dennis Gerlach and JoAnn Mason of Parma sit by the wall, wearing a Browns jacket and a Brian Sipe jersey, respectively.

Gerlach says he's not sure who to root for today. He was brought up to believe the Steelers were the "evil empire," but like most Browns fans, the words "Broncos" and "AFC title game" conjure terrible Fumble and Drive memories.

I ask about betrayal. Gerlach says being in a Steelers bar doesn't offend him. "The same thing happens in a lot of cities."

The crowd cheers. Jerome Bettis has delivered another touchdown. He wiggles his head to celebrate; the crowd cheers louder.

"If the Browns were in the playoffs, you'd see the same thing," Gerlach adds.
This is true. Browns Backers Worldwide, an organization run by the team, claims 45,200 members in 272 cities.

There's even a Browns bar in Pittsburgh: 50 to 70 Cleveland fans gather on fall Sundays at The Bridge on Carson, a bar in Pittsburgh's Southside neighborhood owned by a nonjudgmental New York Giants fan.

The Browns Backers watch the games in a private room, in "relative peace," says club member and Youngstown native Jeff Shirilla - avoiding the "taunts and jeers" they suffered at a bar they used to share with Steelers fans. "It was unbearable at points," Shirilla says - especially when the Pittsburgh fans would abandon their team's game to root against the Browns.

In the fourth quarter, with the Steelers up 27-10, Potopsky stands up, showing off his change of clothes: a black Pittsburgh jersey. The owner puts his arm around Pope Rooney. Then, right in front of his three wide-screens, he pours the contents of a silver Iron City Beer bottle onto his Steelers hard hat.

His conversion is complete.

"It's nice cheering for somebody that's winning," he tells me. "It's electric."

He hands me a full shot glass, links arms with me, and gets me to do a cherry-bomb shot with him.

Having fun? I ask.

"Absolutely," he says, and flashes a big grin.

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