What's black, gold and white all over?
By RICK GERSHMAN
CARROLLWOOD -- Stop me if you've heard this one:
A Pittsburgh Steelers fan walks into a bar.
She watches the season opener on the TV, as her beloved Steelers lose 21-3. Now she's crying and gasping, hardly able to breathe.
The owner consoles her: "Donna, calm down, it's just a football game. I mean, what did you do when your mother died?"
"I knew my mother was going to die," she sobs. "I wasn't expecting the Steelers to lose."
It's no joke: Donna Montagnino, a Carrollwood hairdresser, truly was inconsolable after that Sept. 9 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Sept. 11 attacks postponed the next week's contest, and the following weekend, Pittsburgh had a bye. On Sept. 30, the Steelers finally played, and how: They routed the Buffalo Bills 20-3.
That victory started a 12-1 run, and Pittsburgh finished the regular season 13-3. The Steelers face the visiting Baltimore Ravens, defending Super Bowl champion, in an AFC playoff at 12:30 p.m. today.
Few could be more thrilled than Montagnino, 41, who was Miss Pittsburgh in 1979 and now is one of the most hard-core Steelers fans south of the Mason-Dixon. A hairdresser for almost 25 years, she calls that "my hobby." Being a Steelers fan, she says, "is my job."
Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 22, 2000, under the headline:
The faithful return: Fans come back as Steelers begin practice
Sweaty and tired after a two-hour practice, Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jerame Tuman was graciously signing cards, shirts and hats yesterday when a woman handed him a miniature football helmet.
"I'm taking it back to Tampa with me," the upbeat woman said. "I'm in town for a funeral."
"I'm sorry you're here," Tuman said, but apparently there was no need for his sensitivity.
"I'm not. I'm happy I'm here," the woman said with a chuckle.
"If you're going to die, die during training camp," she said blithely, giving new meaning to the term "die-hard fan."
Many of Montagnino's fellow Tampa area Steelers fans first saw the story on the Internet. Even those who didn't know she was in the Pittsburgh area to attend a funeral knew that she had to be the mystery woman.
She was attending the funeral of a woman who was "like a second mother" to her in their hometown of Latrobe, Pa., about an hour's drive east of downtown Pittsburgh.
Montagnino spent some time at training camp, went to the funeral, and went back to training camp.
Know anyone with a shrine to the Steelers? Montagnino's home has three, and her spot at the salon has a small one.
She works at Haircrafters in the Westwood Plaza on Gunn Highway at Casey Road.
Her exuberance fills the small salon, her raspy voice rambling on about the Steelers, players she has met and hung out with, the fan-friendliness of former Steelers coach Chuck Noll compared with current coach Bill Cowher.
Noll, who coached the Steelers for 23 years and led them to an unprecedented four Super Bowl victories over six years, gets the nod. However, she said, "I love Bill Cowher," who consistently has led Pittsburgh to the playoffs since Noll retired in 1991.
She dresses in Steelers colors -- black, gold and white -- virtually every day. Her fingernails often are painted black and gold. She wears Steelers caps.
Montagnino also loves the Gruden boys, Jon and Jay, who coach the NFL's Oakland Raiders and the Arena League's Orlando Predators, respectively. She has cut their mother's hair for 16 years. Kathy and Jim Gruden, the coaches' parents, live nearby, and Jay graduated from Chamberlain High.
Still, her heart belongs to the Steelers.
When they play today, Montagnino will be at O'Brien's Irish Pub, in the Main Street Plaza on N Dale Mabry Boulevard. Montagnino helps run the local Steelers fan club, the Bay Area Black & Gold Club, and members watch games at O'Brien's. She does a cartwheel every time the Steelers score a touchdown.
The walls of her home are covered with autographed pictures of Steelers coaches and players, many from the glory days of the 1970s, but plenty from subsequent eras, too.
She has written Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart letters. Actually, she has written lots of players letters. She swears, only half-joking, that Noll once used a play she sent to him, just "with a few changes."
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