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The tender story behind the Steelers’ Terrible Towels

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Posted: Saturday, September 22, 2012 12:00 am

This Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers will play the Oakland Raiders in a matchup between the perennial Super Bowl contenders and the the 0-2 underachievers.

Plenty of Terrible Towels, the Steelers' most visible symbol, will be on display. Wherever the Steelers play, loyal fans wave their towels with abandon. Around Pittsburgh, fans can buy towels that celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Halloween and St. Patrick's Day. The towel has been on Mount Everest's peak, on the International Space Station, at the Great Wall of China and in Vatican City. A pink towel, introduced in 2009, promotes breast cancer awareness. At Heinz Field, a Terrible Towel wall displays each of them. Whatever the occasion may be, there's a towel to match.

But few outside of Pittsburgh know the touching legacy behind the towel, which is much more than simply evidence of the Steelers' football excellence.

Here's the towel's wonderful story: Myron Cope, a longtime and beloved Pittsburgh broadcaster, created the towel in 1975. Sales immediately took off. In 1996, Cope turned the towel's trademark over to the Allegheny Valley School, which has several campuses and group homes throughout Pennsylvania that treat developmentally disabled people. The school receives all the profits from the towels' sales.

Ever year, in virtually every Pittsburgh retail outlet and online, hundreds of thousands of the towels, officially trademarked "Myron Cope's the Official Terrible Towel," sell for about $7 each. The Steelers manage the towels' marketing and then cut a check, usually in the low five figures, payable to the school. When the Steelers play in the Super Bowl, sales can exceed $1 million. In all, the Allegheny Valley School has received nearly $3 million.

Cope specifically outlined how the school is to spend the proceeds. Each dollar goes to benefit residents and not for the general construction fund. The money is earmarked for specialized wheelchairs and for programs that will enable the most challenged to turn on lights or music by merely blinking their eyes. As the school's chief executive officer, Regis Champ, said: "Our needs are daily."

Danny Cope, Myron's son, is one of the roughly 900 people the school serves. He has been a resident since 1982, when he was a teenager. At 2, Danny was diagnosed with severe mental retardation and autism. Today Danny, who has never spoken, is 44. Thanks to the loving care he received, however, Danny now has a paying job on an assembly line that packages snack food.

As Champ recalled the glorious day that the towel's rights were transferred, Cope came into his office with a pile of documents, threw them down on his desk and said, "'Regis, I'm giving you the Terrible Towel.' I was speechless. I knew that this would be the legacy that outlived Myron."

Cope, aged 79, died in 2008. His daughter Elizabeth draped his coffin with a quilt made out of Terrible Towels sent to the family by a fan. Whether you are a Steelers fan or not, buying a Terrible Towel helps a great cause. You can purchase them here: shop.steelers.com/catalog/TerribleStuff/.

Joe Guzzardi lives in Pittsburgh. He advises all visitors to claim a lifelong allegiance to the Steelers regardless of the team they may truly root for. Contact Joe at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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