Published: January 29, 2009
There is one Steelers fan in Pittsburgh ambivalent about the team’s success.
“It’s actually been really hard for me, with the Steelers going to the Super Bowl,” the 38-year-old Elizabeth Cope said. “Because I have to see the Terrible Towels everywhere. It’s great. But it hurts.”
The towels are a swirling reminder of her father, Myron Cope, a longtime Pittsburgh broadcaster credited with creating the Terrible Towel in 1975. Before he died last February at age 79, Elizabeth Cope watched last year’s Super Bowl with him in his hospital room. She draped his coffin with a quilt that a fan had made out of Terrible Towels.
But the great part comes from what each of those towels does for people like Danny Cope, Myron’s son and Elizabeth’s older brother.
Myron Cope left behind something far more personal than a legacy of terrycloth, a battle flag for a city and its team. In 1996, he handed over the trademark to the Terrible Towel to the Allegheny Valley School. It is a network of campuses and group homes across Pennsylvania for people with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities. It receives almost all the profits from sales of the towels.
Danny Cope is one of the roughly 900 people the school serves. He has been a resident since 1982, when he was a teenager. He was diagnosed with severe mental retardation when he was 2. He is now 41.
“He’s never spoken,” Elizabeth Cope said. “Which is kind of funny, because Dad is known for his voice. It’s almost like the Terrible Towel is Danny’s silent voice.”
Hundreds of thousands of the towels — trademarked as “Myron Cope’s the Official Terrible Towel” — are sold every year, for about $7 each. Through the Steelers, who handlethe marketing of the towels, the school receives a check every month, usually for tens of thousands of dollars.
A Super Bowl changes everything. The company that produces the towels, McArthur Towel & Sports of Baraboo, Wis., produced 450,000 of them last week, after the Steelers won the A.F.C. championship. The company expects to duplicate that this week before Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals, its president, Gregg McArthur, said.
A Steelers victory would most likely lead to orders of at least 500,000 more for a pair of Super Bowl versions of the Terrible Towel, one with the score against the Cardinals, the other declaring the Steelers as six-time Super Bowl champions.
Before this season, Allegheny Valley School had received more than $2.5 million from the towels since 1996, said its chief executive officer, Regis Champ. Roughly $1 million of that came during and immediately after the 2005 season, when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. This season is likely to top that.
“It’s an incredible help for us,” Champ said. “We’re a nonprofit organization, and our primary funding is through Medicaid. While Medicaid is very good to people with disabilities, it is limited in what it will cover.”
Champ said that Myron Cope wanted the money to go not for construction projects, but for individual assistance for residents. Recent purchases include high-end specialized wheelchairs and sensory programs that allow severely disabled residents, including quadriplegics, to perform tasks such as turning on lights or music with a movement of their eyes.
The money has also been spent on adaptive communication devices, computers that give voice to those who cannot speak. Danny Cope has one.
The checks are usually spent as they are received.
“Our needs are daily,” Champ said.
Elizabeth Cope receives none of the proceeds from the Terrible Towel. Her father (whose wife, Mildred, died in 1994) transferred the trademark out of gratitude to the school.
“He came into my office, and he had a pile of papers,” Champ said. “He threw them down on my desk and said, ‘Regis, I’m giving you the Terrible Towel.’ I said, ‘Myron, I have about 10 of them. I’ll take another one, but ...
“He said, ‘No, I’m giving you the rights, and you’ll be able to get all the proceeds from the Terrible Towels.’ I was speechless. I knew that this would be the legacy that outlived Myron.”
The idea for the towels came out of a 1975 meeting Cope had at WTAE, the Steelers’ flagship radio station where he was the voice of the Steelers. Executives wanted a promotional gimmick, something to raise the excitement level during the playoffs.
Pittsburgh’s blue-collar fans were not the pompom types. But towels were far more utilitarian, useful for wiping the seats or protecting against the chill. Cope dubbed them Terrible Towels. On air, he encouraged fans to bring gold or black towels to the first playoff game against the Colts. It seemed too gimmicky, until about half the crowd began waving them at the start of the game. The Steelers won their second consecutive Super Bowl, surrounded by a sea of swirling towels.
Soon they were trademarked and mass-produced. They have been imitated by other franchises, but usually they are handed out for free, and they feel both unoriginal and uninspired by comparison. Even the N.F.L. could not contain itself; it is selling a white “Trophy Towel” to fans of both the Steelers and the Cardinals.
“When I see other towels in other stadiums, I know they probably have no personal story behind them,” Elizabeth Cope said. She said she has “millions” of them at home, and recently donated some framed originals to a Pittsburgh museum. There is one displayed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Myron Cope was treasured in Pittsburgh for his enthusiasm, nasally voice and quirky exclamations such as “Yoi!” and “Double yoi!” But he knew he would be most remembered for the towel. And he made sure that it would always be more than just something to cheer the Steelers to victory.
When Danny Cope arrived at Allegheny Valley School, Myron Cope told Champ that doctors said he needed 24-hour supervision and would never be able to work.
Danny Cope, who is also autistic, now lives in a supervised group home with four others in a Pittsburgh suburb. He shops and goes to sports events. He has a paying job, packaging pretzels and snacks on an assembly line.
“Myron said that he was thankful for the life his son had,” Champ said.
The connective threads are strong. Many of the Terrible Towels go through a workshop in Chippewa Falls, Wis., similar to the one where Danny Cope works. About 80 employees with severe disabilities help fold, tag and box the shipments, McArthur said.
Come Sunday, when the Terrible Towels are swirling around Raymond James Stadium, they may also be swirling around Danny Cope. His friends like to watch the games, and Cope understands the Terrible Towels mean something exciting is happening.
“But as far as the legacy his father left?” Champ said. “No, I’m afraid Danny doesn’t understand that.”