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Jack Alpers plans to keep things simple today. He will only have his family and a few close friends over to watch Super Bowl XL at his Ellsworth home.

"It will be safer that way," said Alpers.

Most Central Illinois sports fans won't lose sleep tonight after watching the big game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks. Then there are those like Alpers, who probably bleed black and gold (the Steelers' colors for those who don't know) and have been waiting for this moment since Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene and Franco Harris ran roughshod over the NFL while winning four titles in the 1970s.

The Steeler Nation is alive and strong in Central Illinois. You might have to look awhile to find a Seahawk fan - yes, there are a few - but the Steelers' faithful are out in force wearing their jackets and shirts, waving the "Terrible Towel," flying the team flag at their homes and ready to toast Big Ben, The Bus and Coach Cowher.

"I won't be nervous, but I'll be pretty loud," said Jack Dehart of Danvers, a loyal Steeler fan since 1969. "I get into the game pretty good."

It's easy to spot Dehart's home. It's the one with a "Steeler Dr." street sign- in black and gold, of course - located at the end of his driveway.

Dehart will have his annual Super Bowl party for about 40 (hot wings, a chili cheese dip and pizza are just part of the menu) in his heated garage, which doubles as a Steelers' shrine. There are Jerome Bettis and Bradshaw jerseys, plaques and autographed pictures, just to name a bit of his Pittsburgh paraphernalia.

Life didn't start this way for the 56-year-old Dehart, who is a laborer foreman for Rowe Construction. He was a loyal Baltimore Colts' fan until Super Bowl III when Joe Namath destroyed that allegiance.

"I knew Johnny Unitas was on the way out," said Dehart. "I was so upset by the Colts - Chuck Noll was going to the Steelers, and I knew about him. I was only 20 years old. I picked the Steelers and stuck by them."

He has stuck with them ever since, making Steeler diehards out of his wife, Dixie, and their two sons, Rod and Dan. They ventured out in a motor home to watch the Steelers play the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener a couple years ago at Pittsburgh and never miss a game, thanks to the "Sunday Ticket" on Direct TV. He even watches the replays constantly thanks to TiVo.

Alpers has watched the Steelers up close and personal for the last seven or eight years. It started when his son, Luke, won a contest to spend a day on the practice field at the team's training camp in Latrobe, Pa.

While Luke was there, Donna Alpers struck up a conversation with a woman who is a writer and editor for Steelers Digest, the team's official fan magazine/newspaper.

"A friendship developed," said Jack Alpers.

Soon thereafter, the Alpers clan - including daughters Jenny and Danielle - were asked to help out at a couple Steelers' functions each year such as autograph and kids' days at training camp and charity events. The Alperses got to know the players and team officials, including owner Dan Rooney.

"We're very fortunate and lucky how this happened," said Jack Alpers, a 45-year-old who works for the Illinois State University Campus Services/Grounds department and also farms.

From autographed pictures of their family with Steeler players to hats signed by Joe Greene and an old Bradshaw jersey, Alpers might own every piece of Steeler memorabilia on the market. His Steeler entourage now includes his son-in-law, Jesse Crank, and 4-year-old grandson, Carter Crank.

Dustin Smith of Normal will watch the game away from his family. He'll be at Ford Field in Detroit, although Smith is not sure if his seat will be in Michigan or Canada.

Smith and his sister-in-law Cindy Greskiwcz's boyfriend, Jason Hartzler, decided to try and get Super Bowl tickets after attending last year's AFC championship game, which the Steelers lost to the New England Patriots. Hartzler went to the Steelers' first-round playoff game at Cincinnati, but Smith decided to wait it out and save his money for a Super Bowl trip.

While the Steelers were pounding the Denver Broncos two weeks ago, Smith got on the Internet to see what Super Bowl tickets were available. He found a broker.

"I didn't pay face value," said the 34-year-old ISU academic advisor. "I probably could have gotten a big-screen TV out of it."

The annual Smith Super Bowl party will go on despite the absence of the top two Steeler fans. Lisa Smith plans to have about 40 friends and family over to their home. She'll continue to have her Super Bowl trivia contest and paper football field goal challenge at halftime.

"We'll be doing live updates," said Dustin Smith.

Jason Main of Gibson City said he races to his computer every morning to check for his latest Steeler updates. His first Steeler memory was of the 1978 Super Bowl champions.

"I went with a winner. Ever since it's been nothing but Pittsburgh," he said. "Before that my uncle tried to make me a Packers fan, but that was no good."

Main said he has loaned out a bunch of his Steelers' shirts for the Super Bowl, including two to his nieces who wore them to school on Friday. He'll have all his other Steeler stuff - including cups, pennants, jerseys and towels - present at a party at his mother's house today.

Eric Kelley of Pontiac has been a Seahawk fan since Seattle joined the NFL in 1976 when he was a sixth grader at St. Mary's School in Bloomington.

"The Seahawks and Buccaneers came into the league at the same time. I didn't know much about football and wanted to pick one of the new teams," he said. "Some of my friends picked the Buccaneers and back then it was all Dolphins. The very next day I opened a box of Pop-Tarts and there was a Seahawks' helmet in it.

"In sixth grade, that was very influential. I stuck with them and 30 years later they finally made it to the Super Bowl."

Against the Steelers - the favorite team of Kelley's sister, Tanya Alexander of Bloomington, and mother, Connie. Tanya is such a devout Steelers' fans she named her daughter, now 11, Steely. Connie Kelley has various Steeler yard ornaments.

"We don't root against each other," said Eric Kelley. "Last week I called my sister and she said, 'What are you doing for the Super Bowl?' I said I'm staying at my house. I make chili for every week of the NFL season. I make 17 different kinds of chili, and for the Super Bowl I save a little of every chili and combine it."


Another Central Illinois Seahawk fan is Jim Reckard, an art teacher at Central Catholic High School. His father was a Bears' fan, but when Reckard was younger he decided he wanted a team to call his own.

"I saw the Seahawks had some good-looking cheerleaders, so I was turned on to them," said the 39-year-old Reckard.

Reckard has been wearing his Seahawks' clothing the last two weeks to school. That's not a pretty sight for Randy Huberman, a music teacher at Central Catholic and the school's resident Steeler fanatic.

"We're pretty civil about it," said Reckard. "We don't see a lot of each other during the day. We're both very happy our teams are going. But one of us will be the loser and get picked on by the other."


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