Tri Pi braves elements, paints chests for Pitt football


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Jonathan Perlman (far left), Pat Gardner (far right) and other students spelled “Pitt Strong” in body paint at an October football game against Miami to honor the Tree of Life victims.

By Ben Mankowski, Staff Writer

First-year receiver KJ Hamler sprinted a punt return 39 yards for a touchdown to stretch Penn State’s lead to 24 over the home Pitt Panthers. That was the cue for a majority of the home student section — the Panther Pitt — to get out of the freezing rain and head home.

After nursing a one-point lead at halftime, the Nittany Lions ran away in the second half en route to a 51-6 win over Pitt in September of 2018.

But as scores of Panther fans filed out of Heinz Field that night, a select group of students occupying the front row remained — the Pitt Painting Panthers, or “Tri Pi,” as they call themselves. They are Pitt football’s self-confessed superfans that brave grisly weather and brutal losses to be there for the team they love.

“That game I vividly remember at halftime, we were all so cold, we did a lap around the stadium to warm up,” senior mechanical engineering major Jonathan Perlman said.

The majority of Tri Pi consists of engineering students who simply love Pitt football. They can be seen at every home game in the very front row, often with shirts off and chest paint on. This relatively small group is typically the rowdiest and most high-spirited at every game, supplying energy to fans around them.

For Perlman, the self-proclaimed “rowdiest Pitt fan,” his membership with Tri Pi began his first year while attending a Pitt football game with friends.

“My first Pitt game I had no intention of painting up,” Perlman said. “I went early for Rib Fest with four friends … We ran into seniors who were also engineers and they told us, ‘We’re painting up and have two spots left. Does anyone want to paint up?’”

Perlman (far left) first “painted up” in his first year at Pitt in 2016 when the Panthers opened the season against Villanova.

They enjoyed the game and fandom experience from the front row. And after, Perlman stayed in contact with those who introduced him and eventually joined his newfound chest-painting aficionados on the engineering student council. From there, the group stayed centered in the engineering school as Perlman and others got more involved and recruited fellow engineering students.

Evan Kaseman, a senior mechanical engineer who also served as student section leader in high school, spoke to how close the group has become over the years.

“We treat it like a fraternity in a way,” he said. “It’s a family.”

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor
Evan Kaseman, a senior mechanical engineering student, cheers from the front of the student section at Heinz Field.

Pat Gardner, a junior computer engineer, also found his love of “painting up” as a first-year when Pitt played Oklahoma State in 2017. He’s been involved ever since and now helps the group stay organized.

“This year I started the GroupMe for the whole group and bought the paint and everything,” he said. “I’ve kind of functioned as an informal leader.”

The game-day logistics are taken very seriously for every member. They have to gather the paint and often prepare a whole day ahead of time to be ready by kickoff.

In order to get front row seats for every home game, the group leaves for Heinz Field hours before the regular students don their game-time attire. In anticipation of the sold-out 2018 game against Penn State, Perlman and his friends showed up the night before kickoff.

“For the big games like Penn State, we spent well over 12 hours camping out,” Perlman said.

Student shuttles don’t leave until three hours before game time, so instead, they take Port Authority buses and the T to beat the crowds.

With 39 members currently in the group chat, Tri Pi has enough members to fill multiple rows in Heinz Field, but only a select few of about six to eight are at every game. From the number of responses they get from active members, they then gauge what phrase or word they can spell out on their chests.

This has ranged from player shoutouts like “P-!-C-K-E-T-T” to more meaningful messages like “P-I-T-T-S-T-R-O-N-G” and multiple stars of David at Pitt’s Homecoming game this year. The idea for “Pitt Strong” was Perlman’s, who is Jewish himself and wanted to honor the Tree of Life victims at the Miami game.

“[Perlman] came to us with that idea a week or two before the game,” Gardner said. “Jonathan brought it to our attention that we should plan it for the game, and it turned out we had enough numbers to do it.”

Tri Pi’s photo from the front row of the Miami game ended up trending on Twitter, and Steelers wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster stopped by and took a picture.

To figuratively hold the title of Pitt football superfans, this group has fought through plenty of poor conditions and brutal losses, but none more miserable than Pitt’s 2018 loss to Penn State.

Cold and rainy weather coupled with the fact that the Panthers could not get a break on the field. Throughout all this, the group refused to give up and stayed the whole game in the front row.

“We were committed, we were not going to put shirts back on,” Kaseman said. “We were already going to get hypothermia anyway.”

The end of the game was even worse for the group as the large majority of the student section had already left.

“As the game got close to the end we went to the bathroom after we lost,” Perlman said. “And we weren’t sure if we were blue from the paint or blue from being freezing.”

But for every heartbreak like Penn State, senior members like Perlman can look back on their experiences and remember the incredible wins as well, like this year’s upset of No. 15 UCF. Perlman claims that he lives and dies with the Panthers more than anyone else.

“I don’t know if anyone else can match my level of intensity but everyone in that group I paint up with, we’re all in equal-level fandom,” Perlman said.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor
Perlman (far right) and other Tri Pi members cheer on Pitt football.

Kaseman added that he hopes the group will continue after he and his peers have all graduated, as they truly believe any added value to the football team’s performance is worth painting up, camping out and freezing for. 

“I hope we’ve inspired another group of students to do the same,” he said. “I feel like if we can get people to consistently come to games and stay for the whole time, I think that’s a huge impact on the football team.”