The History of the NFL’s Biggest Gimmick: The Terrible Towel

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Pittsburgh Steelers fans wave terrible towels during the 2018 AFC Divisional Playoff game

Every team has its traditions, but few are as popular as the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ Terrible Towel. Since what started as a rally cry during a playoff game in 1975, the towel has dominated Heinz Field for every home game. So with the sustained prominence of the Terrible Towel, how did this unique tradition start?

The Terrible Towel’s history

Rally towels have been a part of professional sports for what seems like forever. While they’re popular in Pittsburgh, the rest of the football scene doesn’t get into them as much.

In 1987, baseball saw a rise in rally towel popularity when the Minnesota Twins’ “Homer Hanky” was created. Hockey saw rally towels take off after Vancouver Canucks head coach Roger Neilson waved a white towel at the refs as if to say “I surrender” out of frustration; fans took to waving towels in solidarity after that.

But the Terrible Towel is the most well-known of all rally towels, and it turns out that it may have been the first official one. Pittsburgh broadcaster Myron Cope created the Terrible Towel as a way to encourage fans to rally around the Steelers during a playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts in 1975.

While towels have no doubt been waved at professional sports events prior to 1975, there are no official records of them. Pittsburgh can have that crown. After Cope’s rally towel idea took off, fans flocked to stores and bought out the yellow and black hand towels.

Many stores complained about getting stuck with mismatched sets of bathroom towels, having sold out of the hand towels but nothing else. So the Steelers created the official Terrible Towel, and the design has remained unchanged since.

A yellow towel with the slogan “Official Myron Cope Terrible Towel” emblazoned on it in black, the Terrible Towel gets waved nonstop anywhere the Steelers play. They turn the stands into a sea of yellow and black.

Terrible Towel traditions

Like most traditions, there’s more to the Terrible Towel. In 2010, the Steelers began a new pregame tradition. Before each matchup, a celebrity steps onto the field to start the Terrible Towel Twirl before kickoff. This ceremony gets Steelers fans to start waving the towels in a truly unified demonstration.

Celebrities who have participated in the Twirl include Seth Meyers, Joe Manganiello, Alyssa Milano, Channing Tatum, Wiz Khalifa, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

While some traditions are cute and fun, others are a little more sinister, like the Terrible Towel Curse. Over the years, opposing teams have occasionally disrespected the Terrible Towel. It has often resulted in negative consequences for them.

The most recent example occurred in 2016. Bengals running back Jeremy Hill tried to rip a Terrible Towel in half after scoring a touchdown against the Steelers. The Bengals ended up losing and were eliminated from playoff contention.

It’s only stupid if it doesn’t work

Like most superstitions surrounding sports, the Terrible Towel is something that will be around for a while — as long as the Steelers win every now and then. It would take a truly terrible season for fans to consider it a lost cause.

If they can come back from their 1-4 start to the season this year without fans giving it up, then it’s safe to say the Terrible Towel will be waved for many years to come.