The (Not So) Terrible History Of A Steel-City Icon

By Michael LeCompte

Whether we’re Pittsburgh fans or not we’ve all seen the iconic shots of crazed Steelers fans rigorously twirling their yellow Terrible Towels en masse. These towels have been around the world (from the Oval Office and the Great Wall of China to the summit of Everest) and out of this world (the International Space Station).

To a casual observer the act of waving a towel overhead in public must seem very strange. It is a rather odd phenomenon. In no other venue than a professional sports stadium is the twirling of a towel while screaming like a maniac anywhere close to acceptable behavior.

How did the Terrible Towel come about then? Who was the fist fan to grab a hand towel from their bathroom before heading off for the game?

Like so many sports trends the Terrible Towel began as a gimmick. In an effort to attract both sponsors and fans, Pittsburgh radio station WTAE came up with the idea of fans waving yellow towels for a playoff game in 1975.

Myron Cope, the nasally, Pittsburgh accented voice of the Steelers pitched the idea for the towels over the air. The promotion worked, fans loved their Terrible Towels, the Steelers won the Super Bowl that year, a dynasty was born and a tradition was started.

Terrible Towels now have “Myron Cope’s Official the Terrible Towel” printed on them. In 1975 they sold for $6, today they are about $10, which makes them one of the more affordable NFL souvenirs. Proceeds from Terrible Towel sales go to the Allegheny Valley School, which serves children with mental and physical disabilities.

Of course icons also make easy targets for rivals and the Terrible Towel has been fodder for Steelers’ foes for years. Opposing teams have stomped on them and rival fans have burned them. Before the Steelers played the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl the Mayor of Phoenix famously blew his nose with a Terrible Towel (his Cardinals went on to lose the game).

In perhaps the most tasteless act of Terrible Towel desecration Jaguars mascot Jaxson Deville held up a sign reading “Towels Carry Ebola” at a game in October.

Many teams across professional sports are known for the passionate involvement of their loyal fans. Cheese heads, rally towels, even rally monkeys, the proliferation of 12th man flags over the past few years, but perhaps none are as instantly recognizable as the Terrible Towel.

These “16X24” pieces of yellow cloth can unite a city, rally a team, and instantly incite either passion or rage, making them not only a Steel-City icon, but a culturally relevant aspect of fandom.

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