The Social Media Curtain / by Maxwell Young

The Stillers had just triumphed over the Kansas City Chiefs in a knock-down-drag-out of a 2016 Divisional Playoff game when Antonio Brown--not even showered and changed--let the world catch a glimpse of the rituals and gaiety that are only confided in a team's inner sanctum. Boasting numbers of 44k ("Woo! That's a lot of K's," shouted offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva in the video), the Stillers locker room was broadcast via Facebook Live starring the likes of Le'Veon Bell and a particularly enthusiastic ex-Stiller, Sammie Coates.

By now, Stillers Nation is accustomed to the pop star lifestyle of AB. If you're not, this piece by The Undefeated on Brown's social media usage should paint the proper picture.  Then there's the hip hop bars of Juice, the "Rappin' Athlete," and even the millennial virility of newcomer Juju Smith-Schuster.  Watching some of these personalities unfold during the sacred moments of that post-game was not only a demarcation in sports history but also symbolic of this generation's Pittsburgh Stillers, whose personas transcend their play on the field. 

Some might argue that's not a particularly good thing.  Le'Veon Bell, still looking to be "fairly" compensated for his value to the franchise, has surprised teammates by not reporting to the team's facilities in preparation for their season opener against the Browns.  This is a deviation from last year when Bell refrained from training camp activities only to return locked-and-loaded for a full regular season. Football was football and when it was time to strap up, Bell was in the huddle with his brothers.  Through the second year of a contract stalemate, it appears as though Bell is only concerned about himself.  And although number 26 is established as a premier player in the NFL with millions of followers to reinforce this popularity, his five seasons with fellow Killer B's Big Ben and Antonio Brown have been championship-less.  That's not Stillers football, and that’s not the track record Stillers Nation expects from one of the deadliest offensive trios to ever grace the gridiron. This team is flashy with their splash plays, creative celebrations, and bespoke Gucci suits--everything is finesse. They are not the Steel Curtain anymore, no, welcome to the Social Media Curtain where image is everything.

Personal social media accounts of Stillers players only scratch the surface of the worldwide exposure Stillers Nation has.  A quick search for "Steelers" on social platforms pulls a number of fan, news, apparel, and parody pages that provide additional commentary throughout the NFL season.  Below are a select few of these accounts as well as a conversation with John Irvin, founder of Stiller Gang, the fan base responsible for extreme tailgates, unique merchandise, and a worldwide cohort.

Pittsburgh Dad

The quintessential Yinzer--Pittsburgh Dad reinterprets what fandom of the Stillers really looks like in his weekly reaction videos on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.  His enunciation of Pittsburghese and aptitude of football culture make his skits like "At The Steelers Game" quite authentic.  Pittsburgh businesses have caught onto the popularity of Pittsburgh Dad as well, and now he's starring in local commercials.

Evil Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin is a man of few, yet impactful words.  Though he is often emotive with his body language, his press conferences are filled with distinctive one-liners such as, "We're not Powerball excited, but we're excited," "The standard is the standard," and "Everybody with a helmet on is in the mix."  With over 100,000 followers on Twitter, Evil Mike Tomlin is the alter ego of the twelfth year head coach--fully transparent with no tact.

City of 6

For over 50 years, Stillers Nation has taken the journey up to Saint Vincent's College in Latrobe, Pa. for the free spectacle that is NFL training camp.  Of course, there are die-hard fans who travel thousands of miles to see the makings of the latest Stillers squad, but some of us don't have that freedom.  Fortunately, City of 6 was on the campgrounds from start to finish, filming one-on-one drills and full-padded competition.  Every day he'd upload multiple clips to Instagram of Stillers draft picks acclimating to the system or Antonio Brown demonstrating that he's already in mid-season form.  Coverage was so comprehensive that SportsCenter used one of his highlights of Brown in their Top 10 Plays segment. 

Stiller Gang™

Stillers faithful have probably noticed the large banner of a skull wearing a hard hat that says, "Stiller Gang" hanging from one of the rotundas at Heinz Field.  It is apparent every game, adding to the hometown aesthetic.  It is also the official signage of one of the largest Steelers fan clubs in the world.  Whether at home or away, Stiller Gang hosts weekly tailgates where supporters of the Black n' Yellow showcase their affinity with a variety of official merchandise.  In fact, Stillers linebacker Vince Williams and mega-fan Snoop Dogg have been spotted in Stiller Gang gear.  We caught up with John Irvin via email:

ITR: Some people become Stillers fans by birth, others are Stillers fans because they’re from Pittsburgh...some base their support on merit, while others are fans by association. We accept band-wagoners and roll our eyes at the fair weather-ers. What’s the story behind your Stillers fandom? 

JI:  I was born in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers are a part of the culture. It's taken for granted here that the average citizen is a fan. You have the occasional jag off that just wants to go against the grain, but for the most part we all support the home team.

ITR: Favorite Stillers memory? 

JI: Of course my 1st game was the most memorable... But my favorite Stiller moments were being present at Shazier's draft (the "fans" present at Radio City boo'ed when we didn't select a DB) and Dec. 25, 2016 when AB stretched for the Inch That Stole Christmas. Intense isn't powerful enough of a word to describe the emotion in Heinz Field at that moment... We all went nuts

ITR: What was the impetus behind Stiller Gang (and when was it founded)? How were you able to spread this identity across the globe? 

JI: I attended my first game ever (thank you for the ticket, Bobbi) Dec. 4, 2011 and was blown away by the camaraderie amongst fans from all over the world and all walks of life. People who normally wouldn't interact with each other based on demographic differences embraced each other like family, bonded by a common love for them Stillers. On that day the first "Bang Bang Stiller Gang" was uttered (we beat the Bungles 35-7) and an idea was formed to gather fans under a common banner. The following summer of 2012, the movement began. Spreading across the globe has been made possible in part by social media, and in part by people in key places pushing the movement. The West Coast (California has the most Steelers fans outside of PGH in the US) has shown a tremendous amount of support, and it couldn't have been done without Martin Villareal pushing out West. Mexico, Germany, The UK, etc.. all places with people going all out for the movement and creating the momentum that spreads it further.

ITR: What do you make of Le’Veon Bell’s contract situation? The recent disparaging comments by his offensive line suggest a rift between the all-pro back and his army. How does his absence affect our season? 

 The Stillers offensive line sees the Le'Veon Bell situation a bit differently now that his contract holdout could extend into the regular season. Quotes via  @Steelerzn , Border by  @StillerSupply

The Stillers offensive line sees the Le'Veon Bell situation a bit differently now that his contract holdout could extend into the regular season. Quotes via @Steelerzn, Border by @StillerSupply

JI: I understand Bell's perspective. He wants guaranteed $ just in case he gets hurt and his career is cut short. He produces as a running back and a wide receiver and feels he should be paid accordingly. The front office feels like they don't want to pay and gamble on him remaining healthy. I wish this situation had been taken care of because I would love to see him on the field. However, if he isn't, the next man up will handle the job. James Conner has been working hard in the offseason and will be up on Sunday. The apparent rift is unfortunate and I hope these guys can work it out like family and come to a better understanding. How this affects the season depends on Conner's play and the play of the team as a whole.  

ITR: What cities are you looking forward to traveling to the most this season?

JI: All of the away games outside of the AFC North are going to be crazy this season. Florida is FULL of Stillers fans, so Tampa Bay and Jacksonville will both be packed. Jacksonville is a grudge match and we want revenge for last season. New Orleans is a game I'm looking forward to just because of the location. We look forward to seeing our fellow fans from that part of the South. Texas will definitely be present that weekend. Same with Denver. Oakland is a game I'm looking forward to not only because we will be with our West Coast chapters, but because of the historical significance. It will be the last time we play the Raiders in the city where the Immaculate Reception happened.

ITR: Which Stiller Gang cohort goes the hardest? 

JI: Man for man, pound for pound, the German Chapter of Stiller Gang EU goes the hardest. Big air mileage. They flew in from Heidelberg for four games last season and will attend at least 4 this season. 

ITR: Describe the difference between the 1970s Steel Curtain, the early 2000s Stillers, and the 2010s Social Media Curtain Stillers.

JI:  I feel that one of the biggest differences between the eras is the speed of the game and how it's changed the offensive attack. All 3 eras played above the bar for their respective periods.

ITR: What’s our record this year?

JI: 13-3, then we win the Super Bowl... Bang Bang Stiller Gang!