Monday, November 19, 2012

Pittsburgh - Home of the Black & Gold

Have you noticed that all three of Pittsburgh's major sports teams use the Black & Gold color scheme?  I was thinking about that after my last post explaining why I am a Steelers fan.  I think it is pretty cool that they use the same colors and it subconsciously ties Pittsburgh sports fandom together.

The Black & Gold coloring comes from the Pittsburgh city flag, which has an interesting origin story as well.

The first major team to adopt the colors was the NHL Pittsburgh Pirates in 1925.
The next team was the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers (originally known as the Pittsburgh Pirates) in 1933.
The MLB Pittsburgh Pirates switched from Black & Red to Black & Gold in 1948.
The NHL Pittsburgh Penguins changed their colors in the middle of the 1979-80 season to match the Steelers and Pirates.

The story behind the Steelers logo and the three hypocycloids is pretty cool.

Monday, November 12, 2012

How I Became A Pittsburgh Steelers Fan

I started watching NFL Football in 1978 when I was 9 years old.  At that age, my bedtime was 9pm.  We had two TVs in the house - the one in the front room (or as I always though it was called - "the French Room") that was connected to the antenna in the roof and a small TV on the back porch that was not connected and got bad reception.  My mom spent most of her time watching the TV on the back porch - usually ironing or sewing at the sewing machine or multitasking something else.  My dad, of course, was master of the front room TV. 

When dad watched football on Sundays, I generally was outside playing with friends.  But then there was Monday Night Football.  I distinctly remember lobbying my mom to stay up late on Mondays to watch the game.  Of course, I was usually doing something else during it - like sorting through baseball or football cards - but dad had my back and suggested I stay up way past 9.  So, I became a fan of football mostly as a way to stay up past my bedtime on Mondays.

A funny thing happened with the Superbowl that year - the Dallas Cowboys played the Pittsburgh Steelers, and my dad was rooting for the Steelers!  Rooting for a team other than the Bears was an odd concept to me at the time, but my dad talked about Terry Bradshaw and John Stallworth and Mean Joe Greene and how great they were.

By the time the 1979 season rolled around, I started to watch the Steelers when they were on.  Oh, sure, I was still a Bears fan - who would not be a Bears fan with players like Mike Phipps, Rickey Watts, Brian Baschnagel and Len Walterscheid on the team!
Oh, and also Sweetness.
The Steelers made it to their 4th Superbowl that year and it was the first year that I was REALLY excited for the game.

Of course, the hiring of Mike Ditka as Bears Head Coach starting with the 1982 season revitalized the team and turned my attention primarily on the Bears.  The 1980's Mark Malone-Bubby Brister era was a tough one for Steeler fans anyway.  1992 was the last season for Mike Ditka as head coach of the Bears but also the first for Bill Cowher as head coach of the Steelers.  When the villainous Mike McCaskey made the bad decision to fire Mike Ditka and hire the personality-challenged Dave Wannstedt, I turned my back on the Bears.  They lost their heart and soul (no, not Ditka) and felt soft.

Meanwhile, Bill Cowher's Steelers dominated from 1992-1997 with a smash-mouth style that Chicagoans love.  Sure, they continually fell short of the Superbowl, but Neil O'Donnell and this exciting new guy Kordell Stewart were fun to watch.  I became such a big Kordell fan that starting in 1999 until 2003 I made sure he was always on my Fantasy Football team - the Montana Lizard-Men.  Unfortunately, Kordell was exciting but just not good enough to captain the Steelers to the 'Bowl.  In 1999 Dick Jauron replaced Dave Wannstedt as Bears head coach.  While Wanny had no personality, Jauron sucked the life out of the room.  It was like painting a beige room over with another, more horrible, shade of beige.   Thank you, no. 

A couple of great things for the Bears and Steelers happened during the 2004 season - first, the Bears finally got a good head coach in Lovie Smith.  Now I could start to enjoy the team again.  For the Steelers, their rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger came off the bench for an injured Tommy Maddox and ripped off 14 straight wins until losing in the AFC Championship game.  I couldn't get a Big Ben Steelers jersey fast enough. 

The successful Cowher-era (Superbowl win in 2005) led right into the successful Mike Tomlin-era (Superbowl win in 2008) and even though Lovie Smith had the Bears playing "Bears football" again, it's the Steelers that have been #1 in my heart most of the time.  Sure, I could not sell my Big Ben jerseys fast enough a couple years ago after he failed to heed the phrase "No Means No", but just because I don't respect the QB doesn't mean I don't love the team.


Monday, November 5, 2012

What's In A Name: John Kuczaj & Atomic Shop

My last name is "Kuczaj".  It's Polish.  It's pronounced "KOOCH-eye".  It was the source of much grief when I was in High School.

One of the most celebrated traits of being an American is individuality.
One of the most lampooned traits of being an American is individuality.
Cynicism kicked in for me at a very young age once I started to realize that everyone is a hypocrite and most people just plain suck.

When I was a kid, going to St. Ferdinand grammar school on the Northwest side of Chicago, if there was a culture of teasing then I wasn't part of it.  By the time you were in the 8th grade, you'd spent 7-8 years growing up with your classmates, and by then it was as if we were a family or sorts - in it together.  I recall meeting some new kids in the neighborhood around 7th or 8th grade who thought my name to be funny and made fun of it.  My reaction was puzzlement and indifference.  I do recall thinking that they were strange and likely not too intelligent for thinking my name was a source of amusement.

Sadly, that entirely appropriate reaction and assessment would change over time.

High school for me was 4 years of hell.  I hated almost every minute of it from day 1.  At first I was excited to be going to St. Patrick High School - then the first day happened.  The first class I had was gym class, where one of the gym teachers / coaches proceeded to call out all the Freshmen and explain to them that they were no longer  "king of the hill" and were now at the bottom of the food chain.
No "Welcome to St. Pat's", instead we got "You are scum".

2nd thru 4th period wasn't any better for me as every teacher insisted on horribly mispronouncing my name to the amusement of everyone in the class and then they had trouble with it AFTER I told them how it was pronounced.  This was my lot for the next 4 years - constant ridicule of my name.  In the 4th period class I was so frustrated and bewildered by then that when I called out the correct pronunciation, I yelled the first part too loud.  The non-athlete bully of the Class of '87 seized upon that and decided that my name came from a Kung Fu movie sound effect.  For the next four years I would frequently be greeted by people who would over-pronounce my name and make karate chop moves.

Looking back on it, the verbal bullying was a defense mechanism and a way to curry favor with the majority of students.  While at St. Ferdinand there were Jocks and Brains and Popular people, none of the groups shunned the others (well...some of the popular kids preferred their own) and there was a mutual respect and sense of community.  At St. Pat's, the Freshman class was quickly beat down several pegs by the staff, so most felt the need to assert some kind of dominance over someone, hence the verbal bullying.

The afternoon classes had more of the same, hitting a crescendo in Pre-Honors English, where the teacher - Mr. Horan - joined in the ridicule.  It started out fine - when he got to my name he asked first.  Scott, the non-athlete bully piped in with his karate routine, much to everyone's amusement. When the laughter diminished, I piped in with "KOOCH-eye".  Horan then said "Oh, like, Koochy Kooch Eye?"
The class roared with laughter and began repeating it so much that the room sounded like the monkey cage at Lincoln Park Zoo.  Horan, to my disdain, looked fairly pleased with his brilliant quip and half-halfheartedly got the class to calm down. It is my sincere hope that Mr. Horan has suffered a very painful, slow death.

My lot was set for 4 years at St. Patrick. Constant put-down based on whatever new name variation anyone can come up with. Any adult looking at it now might say - so what?  It's stupid.  Ignore it.  Indeed, that was my original reaction a couple years prior. However, it was impossible to ignore because it was ubiquitous and it didn't REALLY matter WHAT was being ridiculed, did it?   The message was "I am picking on you because you are weak / different / inferior".  That message was received loud & clear.

I never experienced ridicule at Columbia College Chicago - not once.  The message going into the school was clear to everyone: you are an adult now, act like one.  Meantime, my goal was to break into the TV business and at Columbia that meant either doing technical things (editing, camera, control room) or being a reporter.  I  opted to try the reporting side. No instructor (most of them TV news professionals themselves) ever suggested I come up with a "viewer-friendly" name, but it was a thought I had. For about 10 seconds.

Despite having a hard-to-pronounce and hard-to-spell last name, it was mine.  It was my identity.  To give a fake name would be whoring myself out, and to operate as a journalist with a made-up stage name would undermine my credibility and worst of all - it would be a lie.
So, John Kuczaj it was.  Unique.  Weird.  Difficult to pronounce.  Me.

So, when I started to record songs that I had written with the ultimate goal of releasing the final recordings, I had a decision to make.  Would I release them as solo artist John Kuczaj, or with another name?  Well, since my ultimate goal was to be in a band rather than be a solo artist, I decided that a catchy band name would be the best option - perhaps at some point I could recruit some band members and play live shows under the moniker.  Also, it would be much easier for people to search the internet for info on a catchy band name than my name.  My choice of band name was never in doubt.  It was a name I had in the back of my mind for almost 20 years - but that is a story for another time.  Until then:

John Kuczaj IS Atomic Shop
Atomic Shop IS John Kuczaj