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Steelers enjoy taste of Ireland

Posted Mar 17, 2016

Steelers Digest documented the Steelers trip to Dublin, Ireland for the 1997 'American Bowl' preseason game vs. the Bears

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The following story was published in the August 9, 1997 edition of Steelers Digest.  The Steelers traveled to Dublin, Ireland to face the Chicago Bears in the 1997 'American Bowl', the first of five preseason games prior to the 1997 regular season.  The Steelers defeated the Bears, 30-17.  Click here to learn more about Steelers Digest or to subscribe today.

DUBLIN, Ireland - Riding down this city's streets, they're impossible to ignore, a cornucopia of electric, gaudy, often tasteless color.  The doors on one particular series of brick row houses were pink, royal blue, lime green, emerald green, a bold black-and-white pattern, red.

Ah, explained a Dubliner, the reason for the various bright colors is that long ago those were used to help the locals distinguish their homes from their neighbor's after tossing back a couple of pints at the local pub.

This is Ireland, an island of lush greenery, an island made up of people prone to uncommon gestures of friendship and unbelievable acts of violence, a country where every night is New Year's Eve in its pubs, a country that loves its sports but mocks the deification of athletes.

The Steelers' players and their wives, staff and close to 500 of their fans traveled to Ireland from July 21-28 to introduce American football and culminate a dream of Dan Rooney's.

"My people are from here," Rooney said one afternoon while watching his team practice at University College Dublin. "It's a labor of love."

Even though Steelers veterans had reported to training camp just 72 hours before boarding a plane bound for Dublin, Bill Cowher allowed the players some time each day to experience the Irish culture and tour the country. The even-handed approach is not common to NFL coaches, but Cowher pulled it off to the degree that the Steelers put on a crisp showing in the game against the Bears, while giving 80 players the opportunity to carry away memories of Ireland beyond the practice fields and meeting rooms.

"You make a trip, you have to make a decision," said Cowher.  "We came over here and felt one practice would allow us to get enough work done. At the same time, you bring the wives and family over and you want to spend time with them. We're still getting good quality work, enough meeting time and at the same time we have enough free time to enjoy the time here."

The Steelers' traveling party enjoyed their time in Ireland with tours that included visits to Belfast and the factory where Waterford crystal is made, with pub crawls, with rounds of golf, with a barbecue that included both the Bears and Steelers, with enough shopping to leave even the most well-heeled among them cringing at the thought of next month's credit card statement.

Through it all, the Steelers had a chance to expand their own horizons while offering the Irish an up-close look at American professional sports. Just as it required a period of adjustment for Americans to perform such apparently routine tasks as crossing the street, the locals who gathered daily at the University College Dublin needed time to decipher what they were told was football practice.

The most curious where the children, who gawked at the size of the players in uniform, argued among themselves as to what the purpose of American football actually was, and fought each other for autographs and souvenirs.

Steelers linebacker Patrick Scott was asked for his helmet, another player was asked for his shorts (after all, they were adorned with the Nike swoosh).  Gloves, wristbands, and caps were hot items, and anyone wearing them was certain to be stopped by an impish freckled face. Once, a towel bearing a Gatorade logo was flipped into the group of youngsters and the ensuing skirmish only was resolved by a loud rip.

The Irish autograph seekers are as aggressive as those in the United States, but they were more indiscriminate and less informed. Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis were in no more demand than Sean Reali and David McCann.  If you wore shoulder pads, you got asked.

As for the rules of American football, well, just say the speed and violent collisions were more appreciated than a nifty run or a pinpoint pass to a cutting receiver.

In Ireland, the sports are hurling and Gaelic football, games in which the athletes have other full-time jobs, games in which brutality is common.  During one Steelers-Bears workout, an Irish journalist told a couple of Americans about a hurling match the previous night that included one player losing a testicle. The Irish mocked American football for the amount of padding the players wear, and they actually believed a helmet and shoulder pads would allow them to run into, say, Levon Kirkland in a goal-line drill and not feel pain.

If the Irish found American football confounding, the members of the Steelers' traveling party who visited Belfast had just as much difficulty understanding the violence that grips the area. Dan Rooney's grandfather emigrated from Newry in Northern Ireland, and because of those roots and his continuing interest in helping the situation there, the Steelers traveling party visited Belfast while the Team President and three of his players ventured into hard-line Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods to show children there how American football is played.

But as with everything else that greeted the Steelers on this trip, the education went both ways. Maybe the street kids of Belfast now have a better understanding of football, just as wide receiver Corey Holliday and tackle Paul Wiggins have an appreciation for a lifestyle hauntingly similar to that endured by many inner-city American youth.

In America, children die needlessly because of the color of their clothes. In Belfast, it's your religion. In both places, the battles are bloody and fought by angry youth in search of respect.

"In the United States, everything's still based on color," Holliday told a reporter.  "We look different.  So you can tell when someone's a minority.  Here (in Northern Ireland) you can't tell by looking.  It's strange."

Explained Rooney, "We had planned the trip to Belfast when there was a lot of trouble and things like that. We were committed to go there. We never canceled it, which they appreciated. The people in the North appreciated that, the people who put their lives on the line every day."

But when Rooney brought many of his players' wives and fans to Belfast, a cease-fire was in effect, and the very idea of that was visibly important to him.

"It's tremendous, beyond this game," said Rooney.  "It's just a great hopeful sign they can build on.  They have some excellent people who are working on it now to take the cease-fire and get talks going in the right direction, so something good can come out of it."

Just through Rooney's stubborn refusal to give in to fear and cancel this trip, something good already had come of it.

Back in Dublin, a city that has become one of the primary tourist attractions in Europe, the pace of life is less strained. So much so that events are scheduled two different ways.

If the time of an event is listed as, say, 3 p.m. sharp, that means it will start at the appointed hour. If it's simply scheduled at 3 p.m., maybe it's underway by 3:30, maybe not.  And no one cares. As one bus driver explained to his American passengers, "We'll leave at 8 p.m., but if you're not back until 8:15 don't worry, because when God created time, He created a lot of it."