Fan assembles Steelers shrine in basement

Tony Jovenitti | June 15, 2010    

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series taking an in-depth look at… Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series taking an in-depth look at the psychology of sports fans. Read part two and part three.

Denny DeLuca and his friend were enjoying a Steelers game at Heinz Field last year, until a locust decided to go for a swim.

“It kept dive-bombing my friend’s Coke,” DeLuca said. “It must have been the sugar in it or something.”

DeLuca covered the cup to capture the locust after it splashed into the sugary soft drink. Then, he took it home.

He painted it gold, and now it hangs above a TV in the basement. This might seem odd, but in DeLuca’s basement, this bug is among hundreds of mementos in his Steelers room. He has spent countless hours painting figurines and finding souvenirs for this room. By this point, the dead bug hanging from the ceiling is barely noticeable upon first glance.

On the surface, professional sports consist of a bunch of grown men getting paid millions of dollars to play a game. But if that’s all there is to it, then why do fans spend hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars to cheer on these athletes?

Some fans give time, effort and money to their teams because it is fun. Others use it as an outlet. But by looking deeper, some people find that sports often mirror life — triumph, tragedy, hope and despair can all be seen throughout the season in every sport. Nearly everything in sports can be translated into a life lesson.

The story of David and Goliath might be a biblical tale, but it is more likely to be referenced on ESPN than in church. There is perhaps no other city where sports are more ingrained into everyday life than Pittsburgh.

DeLuca’s Steelers room is not large, but there are more towels, ticket stubs, figurines and other keepsakes to fill an entire aisle in a Wal-Mart Supercenter — though he would never sell any of it.

“It’s just fun,” he said. “I get a kick out of seeing people’s reactions.”

DeLuca, a few family members and some friends from church gather in the room to watch away games. Nobody drinks alcohol there.

“It’s a safe place to come and watch the games,” he said.

The seed for his collecting hobby was planted in the 1970s as the Steelers started winning Super Bowls.

His dad owned a restaurant in the Strip District, DeLuca’s, and every time the Steelers won a championship, he would get one of the collectible Super Bowl glasses.

He kept them aside over the years, and in the 1990s — when the Steelers re-emerged as playoff contenders — he set them on top of the TV.

Over the years, he kept all of the stubs from his season tickets, and he would buy small football figurines at flea markets. He used his knack for crafts and painted the figurines to resemble Steelers players and placed them in his room in the basement.

He never buys anything from a store for his room, and every item has a story behind it.

At Three Rivers Stadium, DeLuca would sit in section 617. When his kids were little and they had to use the restroom behind 617, they would run all the way down to the last stall to go the bathroom so nobody could hear them.

The toilet seat from that stall is now hanging in his basement with a Cleveland Browns sign and fake dog droppings attached.

But that’s not the only thing he salvaged from Three Rivers. A steel beam from the stadium sits at the base of the TV stand.

On the 50-yard line of Three Rivers Stadium, a catwalk was erected and seats were removed to accommodate television cameras. DeLuca would rarely sit in his own seats, because they would always move to the 50-yard line to stand under the catwalk for a better view.

During games, they would write on the steel beam supporting the catwalk every time someone scored an important touchdown or did something else noteworthy. Before the stadium was imploded, he asked some of the workers to go cut that beam out for him.

They did. But they didn’t wear a mask while doing so, and they were fined. The incident was chronicled in the Post-Gazette, and the article is framed and sitting on top of the beam.

The beam might be the most noteworthy item in the room, but it’s not DeLuca’s favorite.

“That is my most prized possession,” he said, pointing to a black, rotten old pickle.

“At one of the games at Three Rivers, my son threw a pickle from a burger at the wall, and it stuck,” he said. “The weeks went by, and nobody removed it. Finally, at the last game, we took it and put it in a bag to keep in the room.”

The bagged pickle is tacked onto the shelf above the TV and hangs just above the top right corner of the screen.

However, all of these storied keepsakes are difficult to find upon first glance. The room is a potpourri of black and gold. There are several large stadium parking signs, footballs found in the parking lots the day after tailgates, special Coke bottles commemorating the first game at Heinz Field — they were misprinted because the game was postponed because of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, a small Cleveland Browns handmade trophy case — which, of course, is empty — a mud-stained “Go Browns” towel with toilet paper hanging from it, six handmade Lombardi Trophies, first down markers from Three Rivers, a pin from Super Bowl XLIII that Dan Rooney gave to him at Rico’s Restaurant, a life-size Troy Polamalu dummy made from a mannequin hanging from the ceiling. There is also a turnstile at the door to the room that came from Kennywood’s Jackrabbit rollercoaster, which he decorated in Steelers logos.

That is only a small percentage of what the room actually contains.

Still, DeLuca said he doesn’t think of the room as just a place to store his memorabilia. DeLuca, his daughter Jamie, son-in-law Dan and three friends from his church, Amy, Howard and Jim, watch every away game in the room. Everyone has their own designated seat and their own role.

Six Superman figurines sit on a shelf above the TV to represent them. DeLuca painted them black and gold and personalized them for each of his friends who watch the games with him.

There is a cowbell hanging from the ceiling, which commemorates Jerome Bettis. During his playing days, Jamie would shout, “Run you big cow!” every time he got the ball. They would ring that cowbell every time Bettis scored a touchdown.

Dan said he isn’t particularly fond of Ben Roethlisberger. So DeLuca rigged up a Roethlisberger figurine with fishing wire to hang from the chandelier — made of Steelers 75th Anniversary cups. When Roethlisberger throws a touchdown, DeLuca lifts up a weight that sits by his chair and the figurine dangles in front of the TV to taunt Dan.

DeLuca, however, said he doesn’t live and die by wins or losses, and he didn’t take this season’s disappointment to heart.

“The Steelers have been so fortunate over the years. Yeah, we’re bummed out when they lose, but my mind looks forward to next week,” he said. “It’s a game, and you can’t win them all.”

He created the room simply for fun, and he feels a sense of family in it also. Members of his church will often leave Steelers items on his porch, and nobody will tell him who did it.

DeLuca and his room were profiled in the Post-Gazette recently, and one person who read the story called him and left a message.

“You should be ashamed of yourself for worshiping those overpaid crybaby athletes,” the message said.

DeLuca wasn’t bothered.

“It’s just fun,” he said. “The people here don’t make excuses for themselves or for the team. They want to win, but they understand the game. Football relates to life. Every job everybody does is like a big game. There are tasks to do and a lot of work to achieve the desired results.”

The same goes for his Steelers room.

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