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Pittsburgh Steelers fans swarm to Super Bowl without tickets

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TAMPA, Fla. - On a quiet street in a north Tampa neighbourhood dotted with palm trees, where every now and then an alligator wanders from the lake into someone's back yard, there's a banner hanging on Chris and Beckie Veronisi's house that says, "You're in Steelers Country."

And they don't mean just this week, when the Pittsburgh Steelers are in town to play the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl. The Tampa Bay area is loaded with western Pennsylvania transplants, and that means it's loaded with Iron City beer, pierogi and Steelers fans.

"I have a whole drawer full of flags," says Beckie Veronisi, whose husband grew up in the Pittsburgh area. "He has close to 50 or 75 Steelers hats.

"Not a day goes by when he doesn't have something Steelers on."

Throw in the Steelers supporters arriving from points north to go to the game - or who just have a yearning to party and watch it on TV here - and the Super Bowl atmosphere is starting to take on a home-game vibe for the Pittsburghers.

"They're the most dedicated fans of any sport I've ever seen, and I've been around universities," says former New Yorker Bernie O'Brien, whose O'Brien's Irish Pub in north Tampa has been home to the local chapter of the Black and Gold Club for more than a decade.

ESPN.com agrees, choosing Steeler fans as the best in the NFL last year.

The phone at O'Brien's has barely stopped ringing since the Steelers won the AFC championship game Jan. 18. Most of the calls are from Pittsburgh-area people who want to come down.

"Nobody has tickets, they're not even asking me for tickets," O'Brien says. "They just want to come here to watch the game here."

Another "Steelers bar" is right down the road, owned by Johnstown, Pa., native Chris (Tank) Jaksec, who has the Steelers logo tattooed on one of his arms. His place, Tank's Tap Room, is one of more than 30 establishments in the Tampa Bay area where Pittsburgh fans gather on football Sundays. Jaksec also has been taking call and after call from folks who are coming to town and want to be among their Steelers brethren.

Pittsburgh-area TV and radio stations are doing live broadcasts from O'Brien's and Tank's this week. Both places are stocking up on Iron City, the preferred brew of the Steelers faithful.

Bob Purvis, 41, grew up in Beaver, Pa., and now lives just outside of Tampa. He reckons the loyalty of Steelers fans stems partly from the longtime ownership of the team by the Rooney family. Owner Dan Rooney is seen as an approachable, regular guy who cares about the fans. In other words, he's one of them.

"It's not just a logo or a corporation," Purvis says. "It's something that's been passed down through the generations."

Folks wearing the red of the Arizona Cardinals may be a little harder to find among the sea of black and gold on the streets of Tampa this weekend.

Brian Dragos is one die-hard who will be flying cross-country to be here. He grew up in Minnesota but has been a Cards fan since they moved to Arizona two decades ago.

"It may be our once-in-a-lifetime shot," the 51-year-old Chandler, Ariz., resident says.

He acknowledges that his team lacks the rich tradition and fanatical fan following of the Steelers, but "just like our team, we're learning how to win."

Dragos says he's fully prepared to be outnumbered by Steelers fans on the streets and in the stadium. That even happens at Cardinals' home games sometimes.

"I think the Steelers have five Super Bowls, we have zero," he says. "I think our average record is 4-12. That doesn't build a very big fan base."

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