Mike Beck, left, Wallace and the rest of the drum line warmed up the crowd before the game. (Photo by Keith Boyer)
Alumni Have ‘Best of Both Worlds’—Football and Music—on Steelers’ Drum Line
He can’t throw a football 60 yards with pinpoint accuracy, but just like Ben Roethlisberger, Vince Wallace quarterbacks his team at Heinz Field.
Wallace, who earned a music education degree from IUP in 2009, moonlights as owner and director of the Pittsburgh Steeline, the official drum line of the Steelers and a fixture on the North Shore during football season. His 25-member group features seven former and current IUP students. Six others with ties to the university performed with the Steeline in years past.
“We have a long tradition of IUP alumni in the Steeline,” said Wallace, a Pitcairn resident who teaches instrumental music at Propel Charter Schools in suburban Pittsburgh and operates the Monroeville Music Lesson Center. “It’s really awesome to have people from my college—from a place that was so important to me, so unbelievably instrumental in giving me the skills I needed—be part of the group with me.”
The men and women of the Steeline play crash cymbals, tenor drums (six flat, interconnected, multi-tuned drums, like tom-toms), snare drums, bass drums, and boom drums (bass drums turned sideways and played flat). Clad in Steelers black and gold, they perform for tailgaters in the parking lots at Heinz Field for approximately two hours prior to every home game before heading inside. After forming the human tunnel through which the players run onto the field when they’re introduced, Steeline members take their positions in a roped-off section near the end zone stands. They play for short periods at appropriate times during games, their rhythms amplified through the stadium’s sound system. If the Steelers prevail, the Steeline follows with a spirited postgame show outside.
Vince Wallace, right, owner and director of the Steeline, joined in the cheers as the Steelers came onto the field before their October 9 game against the Jets. (Photo by Keith Boyer)
“That really is our favorite part of the day,” Wallace said, “because when the Steelers win, the fans are really excited, they’re pumped up, they’re ready to cheer and celebrate. They get to see us up close, get to talk to us and take pictures. It’s really cool, because as a musician, that’s what it’s all about—connecting with your audience.”
Connecting with the Steelers was a bonus. Back when Wallace and several others first formed the percussion group, their aim was to enhance the fans’ game-day experience at Heinz Field. In their more wildly optimistic moments, they dared dream even bigger, of securing an actual affiliation with the team founded by Indiana Normal School alumnus Art Rooney.
“We had a bunch of like-minded individuals who wanted to start an official drum line for the Steelers—we wanted to work directly with the team,” said Wallace, who plays snare drum with the Steeline, just as he did with IUP’s marching band for four years. “That was a concept that a lot of other NFL teams had tried and found success with. We had friends in different ones—mainly the Philadelphia Eagles’ drum line, which has a few IUP alumni. I went to graduate school in Missouri, and I had some friends in the [then-St. Louis] Rams’ and Kansas City Chiefs’ drum lines. So when I moved back to Pittsburgh after graduate school in 2011, we slowly started to bring this idea to fruition, and we had it ready for the 2012 football season.”
The Pittsburgh Steeline played for fans in a parking lot near Heinz Field before the October 9 Steelers game. (Photo by Keith Boyer)
They launched with little fanfare. Members would pay to park in the Heinz lots, pull out their instruments, and begin playing for tailgaters before games. They adjourned to nearby restaurants or bars while the game was in progress, then returned to the lots after the final gun and played some more. Crowds drawn by their infectious rhythms and energy invariably gathered.
The Steelers took notice. Team representatives invited the Steeline to perform both outside and inside Heinz Field, as their special guests, for a preseason game, then requested an encore appearance at the regular-season finale. In the spring of 2013, the Steelers at last asked the question Wallace had longed to hear: Would the Steeline like to become the team’s official drum line?
It was, he recalls, a heady moment. One of the most prominent sports franchises on the planet was offering his group not only its stamp of approval, but pay for its efforts. Wallace felt euphoria at first. Then he felt…fear.
Olivia Sieff on crash cymbals in the Steeline’s sectioned-off area near the end zone stands at Heinz Field (Photo by Keith Boyer)
“We realized we now had an official relationship with one of the most beloved institutions in the city of Pittsburgh, and that was a little bit scary,” he said. “There was a lot of pressure. We’re what the fans think of when they think of music and the Steelers. It’s a responsibility we take seriously, to be great role models, to promote ourselves in the right way, and to always give the best performance possible. We have a lot of respect for the Steelers organization and what it means to so many people.”
To be sure, the Steeline’s reach extends far beyond Steelers games. The group’s 2016 schedule lists more than 40 gigs at sites other than Heinz Field. The Steeline has entertained at training camp in Latrobe, pep rallies, band festivals, corporate functions, community events, and even the Penguins’ Stanley Cup victory parade in June. The Steelers brought the Steeline to Canton, Ohio, to play at the Pro Football Hall of Fame game between Pittsburgh and Minnesota in 2015, when Jerome Bettis was inducted. The Steeline even performed at a birthday party for Roethlisberger’s son Ben Jr. last year when he turned three.
“Ben and his wife, Ashley, were extremely kind and gracious,” Wallace said. “We had a chance to meet [now-retired Steelers] Brett Keisel and Heath Miller and their families at the party, and they all really loved the show.”
Is it any wonder Wallace sometimes has to pinch himself? The drummer who once marched at Miller Stadium on Saturdays now plays at Heinz Field on Sundays, before crowds 20 times as large. He’s living a dream, blending his devotion to music with his devotion to the Steelers, hammering out beats that appeal to fans of both.
“This really is the best of both worlds,” Wallace said. “As musicians, we love performing, and with few exceptions, most of us in the group grew up as Steelers fans. Now we get to combine those two things. And that’s just really, really special.”
IUP alumni and current students on the Steeline, from left: Mike Beck, Charlie Houck ’13, Olivia Sieff, Vince Wallace ’09, Ryan Swaney ’16, and Michael Garbett. Charles Rosier ’12 is not pictured.(Photo by Keith Boyer)
An IUP Tradition
- Mark Surovchak ’02
- Scott Kemerer ’05
- Domenic Sorace ’06
- Christopher (CJ) Lyons ’09, M’16
- Elizabeth Mahovsky ’10
- Pat McAlister
- Andrew Moffatt ’02
- Brian Smith ’04
- Zach Larimer ’05
- Ryan Donnelly ’07