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January 31, 2006

In the trenches of Steelers territory: Confessions from a game-day bartender

Photos by rosemary cannonR Place Pub is a small neighborhood tavern situated at the corner of Whipps Mill and New Lagrange roads in Lyndon. On most nights a steady clientele of regulars ascends to assume positions on bar stools, at a pool table or around tables scattered about the two-room bar. Live music and karaoke entertain into the early mornings, and during the warmer months the volleyball court out back is host to local tournaments. It can get wild, indeed. But typically it’s a place to unwind — to share pitchers, gossip, insults, compliments, laughter and (sometimes) wives. A place to take in a game of pool, play a few rounds of shuffleboard and drop a few quarters in the jukebox to pass the time away.Except on game day.Welcome to R Place Pub —: home of the Pittsburgh Steelers Louisville fan club. Please keep your hands — and team preferences — to yourself, and do not feed the fans. They will bite.R Place is the home of the local Pittsburgh Steelers fan club. That began 10 years ago for no particular reason — R Place co-owner Cres Bride simply says he’s always been a fan of the team and respects the Rooney family operation. On Sundays during the season, pool tables get covered up with large boards, the jukebox is unplugged and there’s generally no room even near the shuffleboard table. Direct TV satellites beam in every Pittsburgh game through the season. The crowd is a melting pot — blue-collar, lawyers, car salesmen, East, South and West Enders. There’s a formidable female contingent, too, and lots of kids (it’s a restaurant/bar). They all cheer on the Steelers.And to the local black and gold brigade that takes R Place hostage for afternoons of fierce pigskin competition, the Steelers aren’t just a team to root for, they’re a way of life. These people bleed hot steel, and, in fact, a majority are actually from Pittsburgh, transplanted downriver by Ford, PNC, the collapsing steel industry of the ’70s or simply for family, friends and love of fast horses and cheap bourbon. Whatever the case, Sunday football is theirs, and they claim Pittsburgh with every ounce of heart and soul.I’ve been fortunate (or unfortunate) to endure a few years of losing seasons from a great vantage point — behind the R Place bar, waiting hand and foot on these devoted fans. I’ve mopped tears by the bucketful, patted backs on the way out and uttered the pitiful “maybe next year, guys” refrain. I’ve poured stiff drinks to drown losses and led cheers to their wins. I see most of these people more than my extended family. In fact, I count Bill Cowher as an uncle. Thankfully this year, there were more cheers than jeers — the Pittsburgh Steelers R Place Pub co-owner Cres Bride, middle,: does not hail from the Steel City, but has always had a respect for the Rooney family operation.are in Detroit for Super Bowl XL. I wish I could say I knew they’d make it all along. Bartenders are supposed to be all-knowing, right? But it seemed like a long shot. Who thought they’d beat the Bengals, prevail over the Colts and then win at Denver? Certainly not me. But believe it or not, every fan at R Place never had a doubt.Perhaps it’s the sort of mental devotion you see at R Place that thrusts The Bus through every defensive wall. Perhaps their prayers healed Ben’s thumb. It’s certainly not an absurd theory — there are enough of them here and at similar places around the country to move a mountain of steel. And at R Place, their devotion can be felt, seen and smelled as if it were a breathing entity. It’s definitely something to see and experience; there should be guided tours on Sundays. But remember: Don’t feed the Pittsburgh fans. They will bite.And it starts early on Sundays. In Kentucky you can’t buy liquor or beer before 1 p.m. But that doesn’t stop these fans; they huddle in the parking lot ’round about 11 a.m. to tailgate and talk game strategies. Grills are fired up, Pittsburgh staples like pierogies (sort of like ravioli with mashed potatoes inside, minus the marinara sauce) and brats are consumed, and mass quantities of Rolling Rock and Iron City, smuggled in trunks, are imbibed. As noon approaches, the parking lot crowd starts to trickle inside to stake out a seat at the bar or an entire table smack dab in front of a big screen. They suck down Diet Coke in anticipation of the American swill. Food orders are placed, lucky charms arranged, nerves unchecked. There are thousands of high-fives over any given three-hour period and at least 10 chants of Here we go, Steelers, here we go … woo woo! Bottles get broken, tables thumped and stomach juices exposed (which I didn’t have to clean up, thank you). It’s more intense than an Eminem song, more patriotic than “The Star Spangled Banner” and rowdier than a Kid Rock moshpit.Any given Sunday: you will find dozens of the black and gold brigade’s finest tailgating in the Pub’s parking lot. Rolling Rock, Iron City, pierogies, brats — the best of Pittsburgh staples are served up.If you’re looking for a place to watch the big game Sunday and you’re placing your hopes with the Steelers, R Place will welcome you, arms open, into their family. If you’re backing the other guys, however, stay away. Stay far, far away. I cannot protect you. No one can protect you.I’ll be behind the bar, polishing that Steeler pride, dusting off nerves and stocking the beer. It’ll be a long day for me, but an even longer one for the black and gold brigade. This time it’s personal. This one’s for The Bus. R Place Pub is located at 9603 Whipps Mill Road. On Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 5), the pub is renting a large, heated outdoor tent to accommodate more Steelers fans. Specials include $1.50 bottled domestics, $4.25 pitchers and 35-cent wings. For more info, call 425-8516.Contact the writer at shavens@leoweekly.com