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February 1, 2019

Wheels: Steelers-themed van attracts its own fans

Photos/Toby Weir-Jones
Shawn Cooper and his children (from left), Peyton, Ashlyn and Colin with the Pittsburgh Steelers van that lives in their Bealeton home’s garage when not on the road to Pittsburgh or the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Contributed Photo
Jerome Bettis autographs the van four years ago in Canton, Ohio.
The van’s back door pays tribute to a Steeler fan tradition that started in the 1970s.
The Coopers have logged about 17,000 miles in the van since May 2012.
The custom headliner in team colors reflects the craftsmanship that has gone into the vehicle since Shawn Cooper bought it from a daycare center for $1,000.
I’ve always been a Steelers fan. I felt a passion for the team, which I wanted my own family to share. My hope is my great-grandchildren will still be following the Steelers and using the van.
— Shawn Cooper
By Toby Weir-Jones
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

For the biggest fans, it’s never just about the game.

Shawn Cooper’s family moved from Pittsburgh when he was 10. He grew up in Virginia and graduated from Fauquier High School in 1991. But, Pittsburgh’s NFL team remained an anchor for the Coopers. His father and uncles worked in the steel mills, and the Steelers served as a focal point for family events during the season.

Along the way, as Shawn’s “6 TYMES” license plate reminds us, the team picked up a half-dozen Super Bowl trophies.

“I’ve always been a Steelers fan,” says the 45-year-old. “I felt a passion for the team, which I wanted my own family to share. My hope is my great-grandchildren will still be following the Steelers and using the van.”

The 1999 Dodge 1500 originally carried 15 passengers for a daycare center in Haymarket. It fell into disrepair and, with paint peeling and deferred maintenance, required towing when Shawn bought it for an even $1,000 in 2011. But, the van had only 70,000 miles on the odometer and remained in pretty good shape overall.

“My wife (Amanda) works at Mastercraft Auto Body in Manassas Park,” says Shawn, who runs Wee Bounce Party Rentals, the family business. “The van spent a year there, getting slotted in for odd jobs when the schedule was a little light. We brought it home in May 2012.”

The professional quality of the work shows. This is not a typical homemade garage special. The clean paint work shows no obvious overspray. The interior work, including new upholstery on all the seats, new side panels and a yellow-studded black headliner, was done by specialists. Shawn and his family designed the vinyl graphics on exterior. Because of copyright law, he specifically cannot use the van to generate any kind of revenue.

Shawn doesn’t seek handouts from the team or the league, but some good fortune still comes his way.

“We do get a little bit of special treatment when we show up for home games. They’ll arrange for us to get better parking and that sort of thing, to avoid door dings and let the fans enjoy it.”

The real stars of the show — and 14-year-old daughter Ashlyn’s favorite features — are the player signatures. There are six, all captured live at Steelers training camps and at the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Each got a protective layer of clear coat when the van came home.

“We were caught up in a storm after we got one of them,” says Shawn, laughing at the thought of how difficult it would have been to replace the signature. “We ended up covering it with grocery bags and painter’s tape in order to get it home.”

A big Steelers-gold van covered in team graphics attracts a fair amount of attention. Fortunately, it’s almost all positive, even from fans of rival teams. Shawn is careful not to take the van, which has 87,000 miles on its odometer, where it might be at risk for vandalism — no visits to FedEx Feld or Baltimore’s lnner Harbor — and the reaction in general always has been good-natured.

“We get a lot of honking horns once we’re west of Breezeway (Pa.), when we’re heading to Pittsburgh,” says Shawn. “We generally go to one or two home games each season, in addition to the longer trips.”

The family plans to next visit the Hall of Fame in 2020, when they expect Troy Polamalu to be inducted. They’ll hope to add his signature, displayed alongside that of Jerome Bettis, whom they snagged at the team hotel shortly before his own induction ceremony in 2015.

The very first autograph they got on the van came from U.Va. graduate Heath Miller, when the tight end helped at a youth football camp in early July 2012. From there, after a quick trip home, they went back to training camp in Latrobe, Pa., later that same month. The whole family goes on all the trips.

I asked the Coopers about how they feel the league treats core fans, since arguably they are the lifeblood for so many rivalries and player legacies. They were reluctant to criticize some of the league’s decisions but cited the National Hockey League as making much better use of social media and an overall public relations strategy.

“Some of the [football] players could be a better example for kids,” Shawn said. “Every team has its bad eggs; the league should be doing more to deal with those situations.”

In spite of that, the family enjoys the van rides and share Shawn’s devotion to the team. His wife Amanda grew up in Virginia and was nominally a Redskins fan, but has since been caught up in Steelers mania. Eldest child Peyton, 17, appreciates all the design details, and middle son Colin, 16, favors the interior work. All three children attend Liberty High School in Bealeton and expect the van to make an appearance at the athletic boosters’ car show May 11.

It’s already been to Homecoming.

“It’s way cooler than a limo,” Shawn insists.

Click here for more information about the Black and Gold Express.

Toby Weir-Jones writes the Fauquier Wheels column about local people and their vehicles. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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steelrain6 · February 2, 2019 at 9:40 am
Let's go Ravens!
workhardgetahead · February 2, 2019 at 6:09 am
Many Steeler fans in the area. Nice to see. I'll be on the lookout. Black and Gold!!!!
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