Steelers Fan Friday: Is there anything to the mystique, curse of the Terrible Towel?

Another Friday has rolled around and, on Flag Day in the United States, the fan topic that came to mind was whether there really is something to the mystique and the supposed curse of the ‘Terrible Towel’, the closest thing to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ rallying flag. The iconic towel, a piece of NFL and Steelers lore and history, is widely recognized around the world and was dreamed up by the famed voice of Steelers broadcasting, Myron Cope. After its debut on December 27, 1975, many versions of the official towel have been created, offering fans variety while still remaining true to the original idea: that to wave the towel would create a type of magic that would boost the team to victory. But, is there anything to the converse; a theory that while the towel brings the Steelers good luck, anyone who mistreats or disrespects it – especially an opposing player or NFL team – predicates tragic results?

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It began as a gimmick

Cope, working at local Pittsburgh radio station WTAE, was pivotal in setting forth the wave that would become a mass run on towels. Several days before the Steelers hosted the then Baltimore Colts in the 1975 NFL Playoffs at Three Rivers Stadium, he and his counterparts wanted to fire up the crowd. His broadcast, asking fans to bring yellow, gold, or black dish towels to the stadium, would become the start to one of the most famous towels in not just sports history, but world history.

Poised to strike

Cope was almost prophetic when he said the famous words, that the “Terrible Towel is poised to strike.” Today, Steelers fans don’t care if plain dish towels and a publicity stunt were the originators of the official “Terrible Towel”; they take them all over the world with them and proudly display them wherever they are. And Cope? He’s gathered a faithful following across Steeler Nation for an idea that many in Pittsburgh media, and even some Steelers players, were highly skeptical would even become a success. In fact, at his passing, Cope became one of the most revered men in Steelers and Pittsburgh history.

Linebacker Andy Russell, according to Cope’s book, “Double Yoi!”, didn’t like the idea of the towel. “We’re not a gimmick team. We’ve never been a gimmick team,” Russell told Cope. Cope opted to do an end-around on those in the locker room who weren’t necessarily on board. “I found Terry Bradshaw seated on a stool at his locker,” Cope wrote. “‘How do you feel about the Terrible Towel?’ I asked him. He looked up and said, ‘Huh?’ I check[ed] him off as a yes… I reported back to Ted Atkins that the Steelers overwhelmingly approved of the Towel.” During that debut game, Russell returned a fumble for 93 yards and a touchdown. It inspired a local fan, Lisa Benz to write and send Myron the following poem, according to Cope:

He ran ninety-three
like a bat out of hell,
And no one could see
How he rambled so well.
“It was easy”, said Andy
And he flashed a crooked smile,
“I was snapped on the fanny
By the Terrible Towel!”

The gimmick worked! What Cope couldn’t imagine, however, was just how much mojo those towels would generate for the Steelers or how much of a jinx a simple piece of fabric could bring to those who publicly denigrated the object of so much Steelers pride. The Terrible Towel was, indeed, poised to strike.

“I did not see the Terrible Towel as witchcraft to hex the enemy. It would be a positive force, driving the Steelers to superhuman performance, but if it experienced a yen for mischief and created fatal mistakes by opponents, I would tolerate that.” —Myron Cope

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The origin of the “curse”

There is no hard date or time for when the curse originated, and it’s something that has been debated for quite some time. Many fans argue that it began with LenDale White and Keith Bullock of the Tennessee Titans disrespecting the towel in 2008 after beating Pittsburgh; the Titans would lose their next two games, including the playoffs, and start off their next season 0-6. For the towel to have been a symbol of Pittsburgh magic for so many years before a curse took effect seems a bit of a stretch, however.

The earliest record I could find was when Cleveland Browns running back Earnest Byner stepped on the Towel in 1994 that Brentson Buckner had accidentally dropped while he was twirling it. According to Buckner, “After (Byner) stomped on it, he yelled ‘We don’t care about your towel. We’re going to beat you this time.'” The Steelers stomped the Browns, 29-9.

According to Vince Palamara, he believes the “curse” originated on the aftermath of a January 1995 home loss to the then San Diego Chargers. Admittedly, his theory is a tad disturbing, even if the facts can be verified. The first tragedy struck when the daughter of the Chargers’ quarterback coach, Dwain Painter, was swept out to sea while scattering the ashes of her mother, who had committed suicide hours after the AFC Championship game; she was joined by her brother, Doug, who was found staggering naked and bloodied, by the Coast Guard. Members of the 1994 Chargers team did suffer from numerous tragedies, including player deaths, but I hate to think it had anything to do with a rally towel. I’ll let you decide.

On the lighter side…

Not everyone who has allegedly been cursed suffered such tragic results. The Cincinnati Bengals have been struck at least twice, as have the Baltimore Ravens – both AFC North rivals. On December 4, 2005, at Heinz Field, T.J. Houshmandzadeh wiped his feet on the Towel and the Steelers went on to beat Cincinnati 31-17 in the playoffs on their way to a victory in Super Bowl XL – the Bengals wouldn’t reach the playoffs again until the 2009-10 season (and Houshmandzadeh had departed the team). Derrick Mason (Ravens) stomped on a Terrible Towel before the September 29, 2008, game at Heinz Field and Baltimore then lost all three of their games against Pittsburgh, including the 2008 AFC Championship game. On November 18, 2012, Ray Rice (who is no longer in the NFL) walked off the field waving the Towel and subsequently lost four of their last 5 games, including one to Pittsburgh at home with Charlie Batch in as the third-string quarterback. On December 18, 2016, Jeremy Hill of the Bengals tried to rip a Terrible Towel after scoring a touchdown, but was held to negative yardage after the incident and was forced to leave the field several times with a knee issue; the Bengals were shut out in the second half of the game and eliminated from playoff contention. Hill suffered a torn Achilles while with the Patriots in 2018 and is a free agent.

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Mascot mayhem

Some of the funniest examples of the “curse” come in the form of teams’ mascots, not their coaches or players.

First, Jacksonville Jaguars mascot Jaxson de Ville (Oct. 2008) used a Terrible Towel to wipe under his armpits and buttocks. The result? Pittsburgh buried the Jaguars, 26-21, and Jacksonville went on to lose eight of their remaining eleven games in the season. The mascot didn’t learn his lesson, though. In October 2014, Jaxson de Ville held a towel in one hand and a sign in the other that read, “Towels Carry Ebola.” It was a poorly timed jibe due to the outbreak of the disease in West Africa at the time. Even though the Jaguars organization issued an apology, they went on to lose 13-of-17 games following the error in judgment. And now you know why the Steelers/Jaguars series has heated up in recent years.

Who are the other mascots who’ve hurt their teams? Phoenix (Arizona) Mayor Phil Gordon handed a Towel to the Cardinals mascot, Big Red, who also used it to wipe his armpits before Gordon blew his nose on it; the Cardinals lost to the Steelers, 27-23, in the Super Bowl. Detroit Lions mascot Roary The Lion stepped on, bit and tore a Terrible Towel apart; the Lions were sacked three straight times and lost, 28-20. Let’s just assume that Steely McBeam was proudly waving his Terrible Towel every time his counterparts took a jibe at the symbol that Pittsburgh fans and the organization have come to love.

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So, is it real or imagined – the mystique and the curse?

There are Steelers fans that will read this and adamantly insist that both are real. The Steelers have won six Lombardi Trophies, after all. They’ve witnessed players and teams that have treated the Towel horribly end up with egg on their faces, metaphorically.

I personally own four Terrible Towels. I cherish them. I don’t treat them with the same respect as the American Flag, for example, but they do have a special spot in my “fan cave” and I only ever wave the original gold Myron Cope towel (even though I own a black one and two other special occasion/commemorative towels). For me, the Terrible Towel is Pittsburgh; it’s a symbol of a fanbase that can get rowdy with each other but who will always back another brother or sister in black-and-gold when it comes to others trying to put down the team they love to cheer to victory – the Steelers.

So, fans, what’s your take? Real, fake, imagined… leave a comment and let us know. And have a ‘Terrible Towel’ kind of beginning to your weekend. Here we go!

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