Pittsburgh is home to many sports firsts: the Pittsburgh Pirates participated in the first Major League World Series, the city was the first to have a retractable dome stadium and the Steelers were the first to win six Super Bowls.
Back in 1961, the city added another first to their arsenal when nine young Robert Morris Junior College students took the field as the Steelers' cheer squad, the Steelerettes. More than half a century later, the women, who are mostly in their 70s, remain a loud, energetic and tight-knit group.
“We call ourselves the rah-rah sisterhood,” said Norreen Modery, 71, who cheered in 1964. “We just have the best time together and we just can’t believe how much we’ve grown and how much we’ve really clicked as a group.”
But the Steelers weren't the best team in the NFL at that time by a long shot. Ticket sales were low and management was looking for a way to fill seats at Forbes Field and eventually Pitt Stadium.
RMJC Vice President William V. Day, who also happened to be the entertainment coordinator for the Steelers, proposed the idea of a cheer squad. It would benefit enrollment at RMJC and increase attendance at the football games.
Steelerettes were chosen based on looks and dance ability. Modery said they were also required to maintain a 2.0 GPA, could not interact with the Steelers players and had to attend RMJC.
“And you couldn’t be married,” Modery said. “Once you were married, ‘buh-bye!’”
Modery and Vallerie Miller, a 1964-65 Steelerette, said the group was separated by nearly 35 years. They reunited in September of 2001 shortly before the opening of Heinz Field.
“Now every month we get together,” Miller said. “We have outings together, family get-togethers. We have stayed together since.”
The women compose one of the oldest Robert Morris, now university, alumnae groups. They’re a part of the alumni council and have been celebrated at a number of events. At their most recent homecoming game, their table remained the busiest. A constant stream of people asked for selfies with the women.
Outside the school, they're still easily identifiable.
“When we are someplace as a group and people come up to us and tell us, ‘Why are you together?’” Modery said. “We’ll say, ‘Well, we were cheerleaders for the Steelers.’ (They’ll say) ‘Oh my goodness! We’re so happy to meet you! Can we have our picture taken with you?’”
The Steelerettes estimate about 70 women were a part of the squad throughout their tenure. Some members have since passed, but the group remains tight.
“It’s a support system like you can’t image,” Miller said. “Each of us, we’re there for one another. That’s a friendship that’s priceless.”
Their short stint also makes them unique -- they were the only Steelers cheerleaders.
“We’re a legacy. There’s been only us, this one group for nine years,” Miller said. “We’re it.”
When the Steelers moved to Three Rivers Stadium in 1970, the Steelerettes disbanded. The team hired coach Chuck Noll and drafted Steelers legendary quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
They’d go on to win four Super Bowls in six years.
And though the Steelers went on to become one of the NFL's most successful teams, Miller said it's important to remember the less successful days.
“Never forget the past, never forget what Pittsburgh’s all about,” Miller said. “We weren’t always the city of champions. We had to learn and grow with perseverance.”
Find more about the Steelerettes at Heinz Field and in the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center.