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Packers, Steelers steeped in success, blue-collar roots

By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
Terry Bradshaw took the Steelers to their first Super Bowl in 1975, and Bart Starr took the Packers to the first-ever Super Bowl.
Terry Bradshaw took the Steelers to their first Super Bowl in 1975, and Bart Starr took the Packers to the first-ever Super Bowl.
  • NFL's most successful teams, with 18 championships between them, clash Sunday
  • Denny DeLuca has a beam from Three Rivers Stadium in his basement at home
  • Packers saved life of Jim Becker, 81, because he sold blood to pay for season tickets
  • Ron Vergerio has Steelers luminaries tattooed across his back, arms and chest

(CNN) -- If you want to know more about two of the NFL's smallest-market yet most successful franchises, talk to the fans.

Let 80-year-old Jim Becker of Racine, Wisconsin, who saw his first Green Bay game "a couple of weeks before Pearl Harbor," tell you how he used to sell blood for $10-$15 a pint to pay for his season tickets.

Or Denny DeLuca, 57, a chef from Carnegie, Pennsylvania, can tell you how a steel beam from Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium -- that, for 30 years, DeLuca adorned with a magic-marker timeline of NFL milestones -- came to be part of his basement.

Though teams such as the Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Lions could make their cases had they ever made the Big Game, Super Bowls don't get much more blue-collar than this.

"Pittsburgh's no longer the steel producer it was years and years ago, but that part of it is still there, as far as connecting with the team," said Ron Vergerio, 57, a bus driver from Cheswick who has been a Steelers fan since he first saw Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb play in the 1960s.

And Vergerio really connects with his Steelers, so much so that he has spent the past decade transforming his body into a collage of players and city landmarks. His back, arms and chest are covered in Steelers past and present -- and not necessarily the biggest stars, mind you, but guys he simply grew to like.

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In addition to a portrait of the Steelers' cigar-chomping founder, Art Rooney Sr., there's Kordell Stewart, Joey Porter, Lynn Swann, "Mean" Joe Greene, Jerome Bettis, Max Starks and Troy Polamalu.

His rib cage bears a rendering of Mel Blount (after whom his only son is named) staring down the Oakland Raiders' Cliff Branch, and he spent five hours at the tattoo parlor Thursday having offensive tackle Flozell Adams added to the roster.

"In this city, the whole Steelers thing, it goes from father to kid," he said. "I have four kids, and they all grew up going to Steelers camp -- and three of them are girls."

Becker has 11 children he raised as Packers fans, and money was tight when they were growing up. He felt it was wrong to dip into the household grocery budget to pay for his season tickets, he said, so he would give blood a few times a year to scrape up the cash for them.

In the 1950s, you could get a ticket to a game for $5 or $6, he said, sniping, "Now, you can't get a beer for that." He got his first season tickets in 1959.

"I got four season tickets the same year Vince Lombardi came," he said, referring to the renowned coach from whom the Super Bowl trophy now takes its name. "Things took off like lightning from there."

Though he once held 10 season passes (he was given six more about 20 years ago when a close friend died and left them to him), he now has only eight. His daughter's ex-husband got two in their divorce.

Upon his induction last year into the Packers Fan Hall of Fame -- yes, that exists -- he estimated that he had sold hundreds of pints of blood over the years. He also explained how the Packers saved his life, or at least lengthened it.

During a routine physical in 1975, a doctor told him he had hemochromatosis, a blood disorder that had taken his father's life at 43. The treatment for the disorder is to regularly remove blood so that iron levels return to normal. A doctor told him he may have prolonged his life by attending all those Packers games.

Not Their First Rodeo
Green Bay and Pittsburgh have been to a collective 11 Super Bowls before Sunday, with great success (Super Bowl numbers in bold)

1 Packers 35 - Chiefs 10

2 Packers 33 - Raiders 14

9 Steelers 16 - Vikings 6

10 Steelers 21 -Cowboys 17

Steelers 35 - Cowboys 31

14 Steelers 31 - Rams 19

30 Cowboys 27 - Steelers 17

31 Packers 35 - Patriots 21

32 Broncos 31 - Packers 24

40 Steelers 21 - Seahawks 10

43 Steelers 27 - Cardinals 23

Source: NFL

Perhaps no anecdotes are as revealing as the two teams' names.

Green Bay conceived the Packers in 1919 when co-founder Earl "Curly" Lambeau persuaded the Indian Packing Co., a meat-canning business where he earned $250 a month as a clerk, to pay for equipment and open the company field to practices.

The Steelers started off as the Pirates, taking their name from the popular baseball franchise. In 1940, founder Art Rooney Sr., who had purchased the team for $2,500 in 1933, changed the name to reflect the city's economic mainstay.

The Rooneys still own the Steelers, while the Packers are owned by 112,158 stockholders (read: fans) who wield the team's 4.75 million shares without receiving a single dividend.

In addition to being the second- and fifth-oldest franchises in the NFL, respectively, the Packers and Steelers also boast the league's greatest success.

Green Bay has 12 championships, including three Super Bowl wins, to its name, while the Steelers' six Super Bowl wins are the most in NFL history. Only the Dallas Cowboys have attended the Big Game as many times as Pittsburgh.

Both teams' luminaries include a cast of hard-nosed gridiron greats known as much for their toughness as for the statistics they racked up along the way. It's worth noting that Super Bowl XLV will be the first without cheerleaders, as the Packers haven't fielded a squad since 1988 and the Steelers since 1970 ... this is, after all, football.

Of course, the Packers have Lambeau and Lombardi in the Hall of Fame alongside Don Hutson, Clarke Hinkle, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung and Reggie White.

Along with Blount, Swann and Greene, the Steelers have also sent guys like Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Rod Woodson to the Hall.

DeLuca, the chef from Carnegie, calls Dan Rooney, the son of Art Sr., "the architect" and credits him with creating an atmosphere that spurns the bombastic, blinged-out prima donnas that often dominate sports headlines.

The franchise builds up teams from within, and though he concedes there have been exceptions, DeLuca said Steelers are often humble team players, as renowned for their mental acumen as for their physical prowess.

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"Everybody says the same thing: 'We play as a unit; it's a brotherhood,' but here, it's true," DeLuca said. "They could put Daffy Duck in there if Dan Rooney thought he could do the job."

Though DeLuca has scores of stories about his days as a Steelers fan, one of the most fascinating is the steel beam in his basement. At the old Three Rivers Stadium -- "on the 50-yard-line, as high up as you could be" -- DeLuca sat for years under the beam, which supported a box for cameramen.

He hid a magic marker there and would document the game's highlights: "Terry Bradshaw 500th complete pass," "Lynn Swann three touchdowns in one game," "Donnie Shell knocks out Earl Campbell."

When the Steelers were ready to retire Three Rivers, DeLuca would go down to the stadium and watch the bulldozers prepare for the implosion. He became friendly with a security guard who had just moved from Syracuse, New York, and was craving a good meal.

"Get me that beam and call me. I'll get you a good meal," said DeLuca, who cooks at an upscale Italian restaurant. "The next night, I'm at work, and we hear a knock at the door. The car parker says, 'Some guy with a piece of metal is out here. I think it's a repairman.'"

And with that, the beam became part of DeLuca's basement, which has been outfitted as an elaborate shrine to his favorite team. DeLuca has watched many a Steelers away and playoff game in the cellar.

This year, however, he'll be joining his daughter for the game because Carnegie Mellon University has moved DeLuca's Steelers Room in its entirely to a gallery for the exhibition, "Whatever It Takes: Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals, and Obsessions."

So, how about our tattooed Steelers friend and blood-giving Cheesehead? Do they have big plans for Super Bowl Sunday, you ask? Nope. Both said the hooting and hollering of a sports bar is distracting.

Vergerio plans to watch the game at home with a small crowd, mostly family, and Becker said he'll be sitting "right here in the lounge chair I'm in right now."