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Power of The Beard

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At Diesel Club Lounge, black-and-gold clad clubbers scarf Pierogies, sip Bacardi’s and stand on tippy-toes to get a clear view of the dimly lit stage. TVs in the sky boxes above show The Beatles swaying to "All My Loving," 48 years after the Fab Four captured America's consciousness on The Ed Sullivan Show.

These South Side revelers were sending all their loving not toward The Beatles, but rather toward “Da Beard.” With the Steelers vanquished from the playoffs, it's time for veteran Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel to become reacquainted with his chin. It's time to Shear Da Beard.

To see Keisel's dirty-blonde facial fur, spawned in Wyoming's wilderness, is to witness follicle perfection. Part Santa Claus, Zeus and Chewbacca, Keisel's beard could house John, Paul, George, Ringo AND their Yellow Submarine. It inspires Twitter accounts (@LegendaryScruff: "People are saying I'm taking beard-enhancing drugs, but I'm not"), spicy Giant Eagle condiments ("Fear Da Beard, Love the Salsa") and shampoo commercials (a shifty-eyed Keisel swipes Troy Polamalu's Head & Shoulders). It even fights cancer: The "Shear Da Beard" event at Diesel, held the past two offseasons, benefits Children's Hospital.

As the Mountain Man emerges to Sullivan-esque screams to get a close shave from Steelers personnel James Harrison, Mike Tomlin, Art Rooney II and others, WDVE's Randy Baumann plays a ballad to Da Beard:

He stands about seven feet, wingspan like a plane

He racked up sacks, scared quarterbacks, got two rings to his name

Yet all this time he's traveled stealth, and snuck up on his prey

But now he's found he's known world 'round for the hair fallin' from his face

A seventh-rounder who once sweated out roster cuts, Keisel is now a Pro Bowler. But the playoff beard, symbolizing strength, solidarity and superstition and shared instantly online, makes him and other athletes rock stars.

“You wouldn’t go to too many cities and say, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ ‘Oh, I’m going to watch a guy shave his beard,’” Keisel says. “That’s what makes Pittsburgh special. If the fans didn’t respond like this, I wouldn’t do it.”

The New York Islanders are considered playoff beard pioneers. The Isles, led by scruffy stars like Butch Goring, Ken Morrow and John Tonelli, won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980-1983. As the W's piled up, going all caveman caught on in the locker room.

"The playoff beards sort of evolved as we went deeper in the playoffs," says Morrow, a former defenseman and current pro scouting director for the Islanders. “It’s definitely cool that we started something that has become a part of hockey lore.”

Not just hockey lore. The Islanders' disdain for razors spread to college hockey, the NBA and MLB. Seemingly every athlete on a championship quest now gives the playoff beard a go, whether the results are Norse-like (Keisel's) or a scribbled-on Crayola mess (Sidney Crosby's).

"Playoff beards show you and your team are preparing for battle," says Allan Peterkin, a psychologist and author of "1,000 Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair." "You've literally changed your public face to let the world know."

While the Islanders were the first sports team to collectively change their public face, beards have long played a part in times of conflict. Beards can signify power and togetherness, and maybe even bring about good luck.

From Egypt to East Carson
Keisel's wooly look wouldn't have endeared him to Alexander the Great, who required his men to be clean-cut for conquests to look different from their Persian foes and avoid beard-yanking in battle. The Egyptians shaved their body hair. But Egyptians also wore fake beards, called postiches, for special occasions. And other groups would have welcomed today's hairy warriors.

"The ancient Greeks, including the Spartans, loved their beards and also grew their hair long while at war," says Christopher Oldstone-Moore, a Wright State University history professor and beard aficionado. "The barbarian Germans who destroyed the Roman Empire were bearded or mustached, and medieval knights were typically bearded as well."

People rate bearded faces as more masculine and aggressive, Oldstone-Moore notes. Comparing the beard to a “threat device” like horns and manes on animals, he says “beards still work as they were intended to by nature – to intimidate.”

Morrow, who had multiple surgeries and fluid drained from his knees during those Stanley Cup years, says the beard indicated the Islanders meant business.

“I think the beards helped with the ‘tough’ mentality, a symbol of the grind and two month battle that is the Stanley Cup playoffs," Morrow says. "A 'look tough and play tough' mentality that guys rally around."

Beards also bond, says Dr. Paul Friday, a clinical psychologist at UPMC Shadyside.

“Group dynamics is a complex dance,” Friday says. “Beards can be integrated into this dance with the ever-present and magical elixir—testosterone—oozing all over locker rooms. This builds into a crescendo in the playoff beard. By then, beards are so entrenched in the mythology of team bonding that if Mr. Gillette should stumble into the locker room frenzy…well, it won’t be pretty.”

When winning, avoiding Mr. Gillette becomes an important ritual.

"I had my superstitions," Morrow says, "and this became one more because when you have success, you don't want to change things. It's more about the frame of mind it puts yourself and your team in, something else that bonds the team during a playoff run."

Big Beard, Big Q Rating
While Spartans dug their beards, they couldn’t Tweet about them or star in viral videos. Today, facial hair is a cornerstone of playoff conversation – and a clever marketing tool.

Keisel’s beard has a Facebook page with enough “Likes” to fill most of Heinz Field. He’s got Da Beard gear on his website, from hoodies to drink Koozies (Get Your Beer’d On). His mane was the main attraction when he attended Super Bowl Media Day for Head & Shoulders. 

“Athletes are role models in today’s society and any fashion statement they make can become a huge trend,” says Audrey Guskey, a Duquesne University marketing professor. “Marketers see the following of fans and want to capitalize on that.”

photo by Rob ShenkOthers get the beard bump, too. San Francisco Giants closer and Blackbeard doppelganger Brian Wilson became famous while winning the 2010 World Series. He now stars in Taco Bell and ESPN commercials. Fans can explore the mysteries of Wilson’s beard at MLBalwaysepic.com. Spoiler alert: there’s a lost Giants fan, dancing Irish dames and nun chuck-wielding ninjas.

Too baby-faced to grow a full beard, Texas Rangers pitcher Derek Holland’s “Dutchstache” rose to prominence during the 2011 postseason. His Twitter page, @Dutch_Oven45, has 50,000 followers, and a YouTube video of him channeling Harry Caray during a weather forecast on a local news station (“Gonna get like six feet of rain! Gosh!”) has 37,000 views.

“The media tends to hype the beard thing and fans encourage this chatter in social and traditional media,” Guskey says. “It allows us to get more involved with the players.”

“This is group ownership that has been going on since the coliseum days when everybody wanted their hero to survive the contest,” Friday says. “Slide in our new cultural obsession, instant communication about all things personal, and Walla! The heroes are now in every bedroom in America. Then, the losers died and were carried out on their shields. Now, the golf cart extracts our bearded heroes so they can have their ACLs stitched together for another season.”

Keisel, healing from groin and knee injuries, vows Da Beard will return.

“I might even take a straight razor to this bad boy,” Keisel says.  “I’m gonna enjoy this fresh, young face and eventually we’ll cover it with hair again.”

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