Raising the Bar: Friends, athletes pitch in for out-of-town Steelers fan | Smack and Gold | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Raising the Bar: Friends, athletes pitch in for out-of-town Steelers fan

"I've got the best all-star team on my side."

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I always get irked when I hear a story about a major sports league cracking down on a neighborhood establishment because it cheekily gave away discounted beer when the home team lost or promoted a Super Bowl party as a Super Bowl party, instead of substituting it with the generically legal: "Big Game."

Without the support of fans -- many of whom congregate and forge friendships at these local watering holes -- I'm pretty sure professional sports would cease to exist. 

Rallying around your favorite sports team runs deeper than hoping for a hearty box score; it's about building life-long bonds that don't have an off-season or include the words "strike" or "lockout."

While NFL owners and players are tussling over dollar figures that can't be added up on most calculators, Excuses Bar & Grill (located on East Carson Street, in the South Side) recently staged an event that took on greater magnitude than that of the Super Bowl -- I mean "Big Game."

Ten years ago, lifelong Michigan-born Steelers fan Paul Stuefen, or "Stoof" as his friends call him, met patrons of Excuses through an MSN football chat room on the Internet. 

In 2003 -- whether it was the allure of watching his favorite football team compete live or the promise of eating grilled kielbasa with the regulars from Excuses -- Stoof and his wife, Gina, decided to travel eight hours from Western Michigan to make their maiden voyage to Heinz Field.

Stoof enjoyed himself so much that now he makes annual trips to Pittsburgh -- he hasn't missed a home opener in five years -- bringing with him his Michigan Steelers Posse. (Yes, there's a reason it's called Steelers Nation.)  

When describing Stoof, Excuses' all-pro bartender, Alisa Carfaro, says, "He has never met a person that didn't immediately become a friend. He brings many smiles to those he meets." 

That's why it was a sad day in late March when Stoof's tailgating buddies were told he was diagnosed with brain cancer -- this after he suffered a sudden seizure and underwent emergency surgery where a shotgun blast-sized hole was cut into his skull to remove a tumor.

Coming from a fan base that takes great pride in its gritty, blue-collar work ethic, it was no surprise that Stoof didn't want any type of charity or extra attention spent on his behalf. However, you'd think after all of his Steelers road trips, he would have learned that Pittsburghers are just as stubborn when it comes to helping a brother in need.

Unbeknownst to Stoof, his pals at Excuses organized a raffle/auction to assist him as he simultaneously underwent radiation and chemo treatments. Like a scene out of It's a Wonderful Life, Excuses' backroom began filling up with Pittsburgh sports memorabilia. 

Rare Steelers jerseys that you'd be hard-pressed to find on eBay were donated; Penguins' announcer Mike Lange uncapped his Sharpie and signed various rally towels, each bearing one of his different catch phrases; local restaurants donated gift certificates; Jordan Staal gave up his Winter Classic sweater; and signed items from Mario Lemieux, Mike Rupp, Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor, Jerome Bettis and Ralph Kiner were also collected.

While locals were buying raffle tickets for the auction, Wade Werbelow, a Steelers fan from Wyoming (once again, that's why it's called Steelers Nation), was sifting through a stack of IRS forms to set up a proper foundation to raise funds for Steelers fans, like Stoof, battling life-threatening diseases.

Following the event, Excuses sent Stoof a care package (which couldn't be more aptly named) that included a DVD of the live auction and a link to a secret Facebook page that was filled with well wishes from the numerous Steelers fans Stoof has befriended over the years.  

After scrolling through and reading every last entry, Stoof admits it took him two days to stop crying, proudly affirming, "I've got the best all-star team on my side."  

I am well aware that professional sports leagues own trademarks and copyrights for each and every one of their franchises, but when it comes to the heart and soul of a team, that license belongs to fans like Stoof and his family at Excuses. 

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