In the old days, the boys in uniform were in it together. They were a hardscrabble lot, with rough hands and stained clothes, and when they went home from the mill or the plant or the stadium, they could exhale, knowing they'd put in an honest day's work.
Sunday night's Super Bowl features two of the NFL's oldest teams and the two perhaps most associated with their communities. They were named decades ago for the workers that once defined Pittsburgh and Green Bay, the steel workers and the meat packers. That began a connection that ran deeper than sports; it was a connection. Men raised their sons to follow them in the family business, and they taught them to love the same teams, too.
"Part of the culture," says John Borkowski, a third-generation Pittsburgh steel worker whose two sons also work in the mills. "It's just passed down from generation to generation.
"A lot of pride."
And before years passed and things changed, football players were part of these communities.
Years before he became a butcher himself, Jim Hujet used to ride his bicycle to Lambeau Field during training camp. Then some burly player with a number on his chest would smile and borrow the boy's bike, riding from the locker room to the field, because that's the way it is in a small town.
In Pittsburgh, steel workers and players were like long-lost kin. The Steelers wore the U.S. Steel logo on their helmets, and in turn, the men in the mill wore yellow and black hardhats.
In these cities, Sundays are like holidays. The connection between blue-collar workers and high-dollar athletes has changed, but that doesn't mean the passion has been lost. Football players don't have much in common with meat packers or steel workers anymore, but the feeling of community remains.
"I heard something the other day," says Chris Higbee, a country singer who grew up near Pittsburgh. "We've never been about the glory, never been about the show part of it. It's always been about going to work."
The fairy tales of the past are out of reach now, the stories of the blue-collar grunts playing catch with the starting quarterback now separated by money and hardship.
The industries that were once identified so strongly with those cities are struggling, and the workers who considered football players their equals now feel detached from their teams' roots.
"It's really hard to connect with them now," Hujet says during a break at his meat processing plant in New Franken, Wis. "It's not like it was."
One of the reasons, Hujet says, is that meat packers are no longer seen as all-American workers. Instead, he says, they're shunned and ridiculed as cheap labor who'll do anything for a buck. Years ago, packing houses slaughtered a few dozen steer per day. Now, Green Bay's chamber of commerce president, Fred Monique, says the city's two juggernauts will push through more than 1,000 head of cattle in a day.
"We're considered to be on the bottom of the totem pole," Hujet says.
About 660 miles southeast, spinning steel used to be a proud job. Steel Town was a steel town. A man named George "Champ" Saddler, 58, says he used to go home with burned fingers and singed eyebrows, but at least he knew he worked. Smokestacks sliced the horizon in those days, great billows of exhaust emptying into the sky.
"You've got marks on your body now," Saddler says, "that you got 27 years ago."
Now, computers do most of the jobs. Many of the mills have been torn down; there's no longer a steel mill in Pittsburgh's city limits. The last relics are on the outskirts, far from the urban core of what is now a robotics and nuclear engineering hub.
Saddler still has a job -- he's a training coordinator for several mills around Pittsburgh -- and that's more than a lot of his old friends can say. But things have changed. The metal industry that once built America has now collapsed.
"I did the heavy work," he says. "I was the grunt man for, shoot, 20 years. I know all about that. Then technology kicked in, and they don't even pour steel the same way. Ain't nothing the same way now."
A union job in the mills pays well, but it's nothing like what the players are making. Nearly three years ago, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- a player whose grizzled look and unrefined reputation makes him as blue-collar as anyone in the NFL -- signed an eight-year, $102 million contract. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers' 2010 salary was $8.6 million. Hujet says a meat packer with a good salary makes about $35,000.
It's not easy now for meat packers or steel workers to identify with that.
As players' salaries have skyrocketed, diminishing one connection to these tight-knit towns' sports heroes, a down economy and higher industrial value on technology, not manufacturing, has made the teams' names more historical than representative of the current landscape.
Pittsburgh isn't a steel town anymore. Green Bay is more identified with its paper mills than anything. But that doesn't mean the steel workers and meat packers don't still take ownership in their teams.
"You paint the helmets, you do all the hoop-la," Saddler says. "Everything you see is black and gold. All through the mill. It's a lot of talk -- the only talk in the mill right now."
Christian End is a Xavier University professor who studies sports fans' behavior, but more than that, he's a Packers fan.
He's too young to remember the days when NFL players might eat at the same diner as their fans, or bowl in the same alley, or drink in the same dive. He says fans have adjusted out of necessity, and now that average Americans have trouble connecting with players, most football fans focus only on the uniform.
End says it's easier to remember that he supports the Packers and not necessarily the millionaires who spend offseasons traveling the world and dating lingerie models.
"Players are going to come and go; we're going to love you as a Packer," he says. "The disconnect is probably much greater than it was at one point in time for team sports, but there's a strong identification with the organization that probably compensates for some of it."
With so many differences between athletes and the workers they're supposed to represent, how is there not more resentment? Why did Borkowski assign a "Steeler room" at his home, the walls covered in team trinkets? Why does Saddler still set aside a day's worth of emotions when the Steelers are playing?
"Sundays, it's church and football," he says. "If the Steelers play at one o'clock, you can't watch no more football. It takes so much out of you.
"It's hereditary. My dad is 87 years old. He might be worse than me. You're not allowed to root on nobody else. That's the way it is in most families here. Every time they change players, you love the next player. It's the way we were brought up."
The love affair remains, even if one side has been jilted. End suggests it's not because of the deep-rooted connection to the industries, but rather what football means to families. Connections survived, he says, even if it's not between industrial workers and the football players they admire.
"If you're born into that Packers household," End says, "it's never going to change."
Hujet doesn't hide that he feels slighted now by the Packers. Players keep getting richer and more famous, less attached to the real world that Hujet is firmly part of. But he tells a story. His voice softens, and he shares a time when he and his father would sit around the radio as the Packers were playing. Those were good days, he says.
These are the connections that persisted through all that change, even if some perished.
"I just got hooked on it," he says. "We'd just sit by the radio and listen."
Hujet wants to turn against the Packers for what they've done. You can hear it in his voice when he's asked about the connection between Green Bay's meat packers and its football team.
"It's just a name," he says.
But he won't miss tonight's Super Bowl. He wouldn't dream of flipping channels or pretending as if he didn't care that his team -- the one whose players used to borrow his bicycle at training camp, one tradition that has held on through the years -- is playing for its fourth Super Bowl championship.
He admits it. Tonight's game means more than who wins. It's about the old days and the new ones, too. His son, Rick, is driving from Minneapolis to watch the game with his dad, the same way Jim used to do when his family could only get a radio signal piping in the sounds of the game.
That much hasn't changed.
"When there are big family get-togethers, it's usually on the background," Rick Hujet says. "The Super Bowl is a big thing."
Borkowski, the steel-mill legacy man, has a similar story. Two years ago, he and his eldest son packed a car and drove from Pittsburgh to Tampa, Fla., for Super Bowl XLIII. They made that long drive, talking about football and other things, and then that Sunday, they watched as Roethlisberger -- that multi-millionaire who'll likely never punch a time card or worry about layoffs -- led the Steelers to another championship.
Borkowski says he never thought about how different he was from the men on the field, the ones who have a different life now, but deep down, they're still the same boys with rough hands and stained clothes. Borkowski says he'll remember the day with his son more than any encounter with a football player, more than any connection to a bygone time.
"The experience of a lifetime," Borkowski says. "I may never do it again. We got to do it one time, anyhow."