By Steve Levin, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
An estimated quarter of a million people -- one of the largest crowds in Pittsburgh's history -- clogged Downtown arteries yesterday to honor the Steelers and their Super Bowl XL victory.
Clinging to lampposts, perched in trees, hanging out of office windows, crowded on parking decks and standing 15-deep in places along the 1.2-mile parade route from Mellon Arena to Gateway Center were people of every size, age and color, a true Steeler Nation that had endured 26 years of dashed dreams and unfulfilled prayers while waiting to celebrate the championship.
And celebrate they did.
Grandmothers unashamedly screamed out players' names as the 58-vehicle motorcade took two hours to navigate the route, led by the flag-bearing Pittsburgh Paramedic Honor Guard.
Grown men wearing the jerseys of their favorite players gaped and shouted as individual Steelers slowly moved past in the backs of chauffeured cars and vans.
Children who had played hooky from school and painted their faces stomped their feet and waved homemade posters. "Feb. 5, 2006, The Best Day of My Life," read one, giving the date of Pittsburgh's 21-10 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
"This is a rebirth," yelled Elaine Hatton, 59, of Center Township in Beaver County, who said she had attended all four previous Steelers Super Bowl parades. This one was different, though.
"We died and were resurrected," she said.
The parade featured a bit of everything, with crowds breaking into cheers and song all along the route.
There were seven high school marching bands, mounted Allegheny County sheriff's deputies on their skittish horses, Pittsburgh motorcycle police, city vehicles with horns blaring and lights flashing, and cars filled with Steelers players, the Rooney family, coaches, the team's broadcast trio of Tunch Ilkin, Craig Wolfley and Bill Hillgrove, and county Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Bob O'Connor.
The Steelers players themselves seemed to enjoy the show, too, taking their own photos and videos of the changing scenes along Centre, Sixth, Fifth and Liberty avenues.
Antwaan Randle El flopped on his back on his car's trunk, reveling in the crowd's chant of "Sign Randle El! Sign Randle El!" referring to his pending free agency.
At the end of the parade route at Commonwealth Place, Troy Polamalu took backward leaps three times off a sport utility truck into the crowd, bodysurfing the sea of raised arms.
Also in the parade were Gladys and Johnnie Bettis, parents of just-retired Steelers running back Jerome Bettis.
"This is just the most incredible moment of my life," Mrs. Bettis said. "We knew winning the Super Bowl was big, but this is even bigger. I had no idea there were this many people in Pittsburgh."
City Public Works Director Guy Costa estimated the crowd at 250,000, which would tie for the city's second-largest gathering. The biggest is believed to be the spontaneous outpouring of 300,000 people on Oct. 14, 1960, after Pirate Bill Mazeroski's ninth-inning home run won Game 7 of the World Series. About 250,000 people were estimated to have attended a Saturday, June 15, 1991, Downtown parade for units returning from Operation Desert Storm.
Although many school districts warned that they would not grant excused absences to students attending the parade, thousands of youngsters apparently came down with black-and-gold flu.
Absenteeism at many schools was much higher than usual and administrators believe it had a lot to do with the victory parade.
Debra Masley, a staff member at Clairton City School District, said 14 percent of the students and nine staff members didn't show up for school yesterday. But she added that the district has seen a flu outbreak.
Usually, about 5 percent of the students in Brentwood Borough School District won't show up on an average day. Yesterday, about 15 percent of them stayed away, said Ron Dufalla, the superintendent.
The absentee rate was double what it normally is in Baldwin-Whitehall School District and administrators said more than 200 additional students left school early to attend the parade.
Whitehall residents Kevin Walsh, his wife, Nancy, and three school-age children -- Shane, 16, Samantha, 14, and Cassidy, 9 -- waved from a sidewalk.
"I got my three kids out of school because I think this is an important family event," he said. "I don't think missing one day of school is going to matter that much when they're going to have memories of this for a lifetime."
I soooo wish I was there! I would have definitely skipped work/school for the parade. I guess a bunch of peoples' feet got run over from the parade cars because they were all in the street. Lucky! How many people can say "My foot got broken because Big Ben's car ran over it?"
Also, I think it's really mean of the school districts to not declare Parade Day a county-wide holiday. If only Parade Day was a national holiday because I totally would have gone.
p.s. Special thanks to Liza's intern for the marching band pic ;)