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Look it up: the keystone of pro football

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MY WEEKLY trip from Baltimore to Dover, Pa., to visit my 80-year-old friend Jim Jacques on his farm - 120 acres nestling in a bend in the Big Conewago Creek - has taken on wildly educational and entertaining overtones.

Even Jim, a decidedly non-sports fan, wants to see if the Steelers and Eagles can do it.

If the Keystone State was a key player in the November presidential election, necessitating endless hours of talk radio by which to judge Pennsylvanians' heart, soul and political leanings, what are we to make of Pennsylvania's currently hyperbolic state and status?

We're talking Pennsylvania as the center of the football universe.

Already, Gov. Ed Rendell has admitted considering a time change for his annual budget speech, in the event that either one of Pennsylvania's NFL teams wins the Super Bowl.

Other Pennsylvanians aren't quite as fixated as the governor on who wins. Rather, with the Eagles and Steelers competing at each end of the state for a shot at the Super Bowl, Pennsylvanians are giggly and ecstatic as they tap into some pretty deep cultural ore.

See, Pennsylvania is finally living up to its rich and gritty history.

Forget Texas and its Friday Night Lights. Forget Ohio and its Hall of Fame destination of Canton. Before the game migrated west and south, Pennsylvania was the first state of football.

"That's why the game is so rooted in this state. People don't leave. These are teams and loyalties inherited across generations," said Curt Miner, senior curator of popular culture for the State Museum of Pennsylvania.

The subject of Pennsylvania's football history is so vast, Miner used it as a topic for his dissertation. He has written an article for Western Pennsylvania History: "Gridiron and Iron Men."

"Football taps into something deeply historical for Pennsylvanians. We're conditioned by instinct to follow it," he said.

It goes way back. All the way back.

On Nov. 12, 1892, the Allegheny Athletic Association football team beat the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. The game was not the first football game ever played, but it did mark the first time a player - William "Pudge" Heffelfinger - was paid ($500) by Allegheny to play against Pittsburgh.

Hence, Western Pennsylvania is called the birthplace of professional football, according the National Football League and the State Museum of Pennsylvania.

The original National Football League was formed in 1902, when the Philadelphia Athletics and Phillies formed professional football teams and joined the Pittsburgh Stars in the first attempt at a pro league.

There's "The Cradle of Quarterbacks," a designation for Western Pennsylvania, the birthplace of Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Joe Namath, Jim Kelly and George Blanda.

There's Willie Thrower, from New Kensington. In 1953, he became the first African-American quarterback in the modern NFL, 30-plus years before Doug Williams, Steve McNair and either Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick got to a Super Bowl.

The state has also erected a series of cultural markers from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, honoring significant football players, commissioners and games.

"The latest one approved is for Art Rooney, founder of the Steelers," said Jane Crawford, spokeswoman for the State Museum.

It was also in Pennsylvania where Jim Thorpe, considered the United States' greatest all-around male athlete, became an All-American on the Carlisle Indian School football team coached by Glenn "Pop" Warner - another football legend.

"It's an overwhelming fact that Pennsylvania has the distinction of having produced more college football players up until the 1950s than any other state, players who went on to play elsewhere, including the NFL," Miner said.

"It's amazing how much all these players had in common; the Dan Marinos and Jim Kelly: guys from mill towns, sons of steel workers," Miner said.

All this Pennsylvania football lore and we've yet to mention Franco Harris, the Steel Curtain, Terry Bradshaw, Dick Vermeil, Ricky Watters, Bill Cowher's jaw or Mean Joe Greene's legendary Coca-Cola ad.

Pennsylvania's history as a football breeding ground is so hardscrabble and true, even Hollywood couldn't ruin it. Tom Cruise in All the Right Moves gave a realistic look at an ethnic Eastern European kid in a Pennsylvania steel town who wants to win a football scholarship to escape the mill.

And if Pennsylvania football encompasses Tom Cruise, then bring on Santa Claus. He's another important Pennsylvania football figure, serving as the saintly man that Eagles fans once booed.

This is the background and the context for all this football hoopla surrounding the AFC and NFC title games. The Steelers and Eagles will play at opposite ends of a state that is as united as it is divided right now.

"Hey, they should play the Super Bowl in Happy Valley," one York disc jockey proposed on a drive-time show this week.

Passing Leader Heights toward the George Street exit on I-83, I hung onto that station for as long as I could.

Callers really liked that idea about State College as Super Bowl ground zero.

"They could use a good football game up there," one guffawed.

Indeed, what better way to fumigate the dank air hanging over Happy Valley thanks to Joe "Gotta Go" Paterno and the Nittany Lions?

"How about Harrisburg? Let's play the game here," said the DJ's counterpart - an idea that sparked a new round of calls from football fans torn in two directions.

With the I-83 corridor running up the gut of Pennsylvania, the state is broken pretty much in half.

"We're caught right in the cross hairs here in Harrisburg," Miner said from his State Museum office.

"It's kind of the cultural fault line. West of Carlisle, that's pretty much Steelers country. East of Lancaster, it's Eagles," he said.

That Western Pennsylvanians are generally neglecting Bill Belichik and the Patriots and Eastern Pennsylvanians are discounting Michael Vick and the Falcons is not exactly smart, but it's understandable.

It is a birthright, this dream of an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl. America's new national pastime was always Pennsylvania's.

That helps explain why, in a Keystone state of mind, Michael Vick and the Patriots do not presently exist.

NFC TITLE GAME

Atlanta (12-5) at Philadelphia (14-3)

When: Tomorrow, 3 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Line: Eagles by 5

AFC TITLE GAME

New England (15-2) at Pittsburgh (16-1)

When: Tomorrow, 6:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Line: Patriots by 3

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