Y’ins gon’ rut fer Stillers? I ask the room for its opinion in my best Pittsburghese, a language I’m woefully out of practice with. Nevermind. Out here in Saint Paul no one can tell if I’m getting it right or not. The language, with deep Polish and Appalachian roots never made it outside of the hills of Western Pennsylvania a land with its own rugged rhythm tempered by a gentle decency. It’s an easy culture to define by language but a hard one to get to know.
The upcoming Superbowl features two teams from “The Midwest”, the industrial heart of the nation that quietly defines much of what we consider solid and good about the USofA. We can find this stretch on a map as one people, but we can also hear it in the way they talk and the values they cherish. It’s where football itself was founded and continues to thrive in basic principles of fair competition. It’s America both unassumingly small and big hearted at the same time.
What is the Midwest? The best answer can be found in the map of the use of terms for fizzy drinks across the nation. One simple word defines the region about as well as anything else, at least at a first glance. Here is the map:
The word “Pop” springs out of the Appalachians and moves westward, following the Ohio River and splitting “Missouri” from “Missourah”. It gets a bit fuzzy to the far West, a land settled by many people from the center, but somewhere around Kansas City the real Midwest tapers off to the more open and stubborn Western Culture. That Midwest, which includes Pittsburgh and Green Bay, holds only about 1 in 6 Americans, but 1 in 3 of the NFL teams.
One word betrays us, “Pop”. But there’s a lot more to this culture than this simple marker.
Wisconsin is the state that gave us both the Republican Party and the Progressive Party, the home of “Fightin’ Bob” LaFollette. They may not seem to have much in common, but both were based on the idea that people working together and standing up for what is right can make the world a more fair and decent place.
Pittsburgh is a town defined by hard work and making things happen. When the city started to fall on hard times in the 1970s, the business leaders gathered to figure out what they could do to save the place from ruin. Westinghouse promised to work with Carnegie-Mellon to create what became the Robotics Institute, PPG promised a new headquarters downtown. Art Rooney promised that his Steelers would win the Superbowl, a bold brag if ever there was one. They won 4 rings in that decade.
The Midwest was founded to be one giant factory, with basics like iron flowing out from Pittsburgh to the auto assembly plants of Detroit and the small engine centers around Milwaukee. But it also gave us Football. “On any given Sunday,” the saying goes, any team can beat another. Everyone has a chance to be their best when competition is set up as fairly as possible. Parity is not a bureaucratic initiative, it’s a way of life.
That’s what the Midwest is all about. Work hard, play hard. Everyone gets their shot and everyone has a good life.
This part of the nation has fallen on hard times lately as the decline in manufacturing has decimated its traditional base. The cycles of politics are defined not so much by the talking heads on teevee who think they know everything but by the desperation of the ravaged Midwest voting one way and then the other, hoping to see the values of fair competition and hard work somehow make their way to Washington. It hasn’t happened so far.
But two Midwestern teams did make it to the Superbowl. I can’t help but cheer for the Steelers and the great city of Pittsburgh, but I won’t be upset if the Packers take it. We’re all in this together. You can find us all easily enough when we ask for a “Pop”, but this is the part of the nation that also gives us most of our beer – from Iron City to Miller and even Budweiser. That’s what we’ll all have together as we enjoy watching our teams smack helmets in a brutally fair fight. What more could you ask for?