Every member of the Steeler Nation should take in the spectacle that is Steeler Training Camp at least once in their life. With all of the hate, division, and violence in today’s world, it’s a breath of fresh air to be a part of a crowd that is courteous to one another and respectful to all. Such is the effect of the love affair with the group that calls themselves Steeler Nation and their beloved Steelers.
It always starts innocently enough. People standing in line waiting to get in. Chatting with perfect strangers about their favorite players, who they most want to meet, the team’s chances this season, you know, the usual stuff. When it’s time to go in, there is no pushing or shoving, but some do run to capture their favorite spot. You can always tell the fans who make this trek on a regular basis. They are the ones that run straight for that prime real estate that has a great view of the field and provides shade to keep them out of the hot midday sun. These are usually the diehard fans who plan their summer vacations around training camp. The beauty of the experience is that even if you’re a first-timer with no clue, you can still find a good spot to see your favorite players up close. Not sure you know what you’re doing? Just ask anyone how things usually work, and they’re only too happy to share the wisdom of Steeler Nation.
It’s a bit of a thrill as they come out of the locker room to walk to the field. Even the most unknown of the rookies will draw a cheer, with fans of all ages lining the fence to shout to the players, most of the youngsters sticking their hands out to get a “high five” from a real, live professional football player. Even though the crowd gives a hearty cheer for every player, it’s easy to tell the fan favorites by the volume of the cheering. On most teams the quarterback is the most popular player and although there were lots of cheers for Ben Roethlisberger, there was one other player who clearly brought the loudest cheers from the crowd. At first, I thought Kiesel’s beard had gone to a whole new level, but then I saw Troy Polamalu behind him and I knew who the cheer was for.
Wandering through the crowd one can hear all kinds of conversations, but all are centered around the team. Some people talk of injuries to veterans, others the potential of the new group of rookies. The most touching of the conversations revolve around the parents passing the Steeler Nation torch on to their children, telling them stories of the legendary players, teaching them how to identify the players on the field, you know, all the things a typical Steeler fan needs to know. It almost rivals a religious experience. In fact, I’d be willing to bet it may be the biggest religious experience some of the people in the crowd will ever have.
Watching the players head to the showers is an experience all its’ own. Adoring fans lined up hoping to get an autograph from their favorite player. I always like watching the youngsters getting excited to collect those special autographs. They’re all primed to get their favorite player, but the guy that stops to give them a smile and an autograph instantly becomes they’re new favorite. I can’t lie, I always enjoy getting an autograph and giving a word of encouragement to the new guys myself. I was lucky enough to win a hat at the traveling “Great Hall” so I had the perfect thing to collect autographs on. No, the chances of any of the guys that signed it making it into the Hall of Fame aren’t aren’t a sure thing, but it will always serve as a reminder of a day spent among the faithful of Steeler Nation.
It’s amazing to consider that these guys were still happily signing so many autographs this late in camp, but such is the bond between the team and their fans. One of the most special scenes I’ve witnessed was presented by Ryan Clark, one of my own personal favorites. Mr. Clark came out….suddenly dropped to the ground, signed his shoes and gave each one to an excited youngster. Even more excited than one of the youngsters was the giddy father that got to hold the shoe himself afterward. I was standing next to him so I got to see it up close and got to hear the excitement in the father’s voice as I talked with him. Chris Rainey also tossed his sweat bands out into the crowd, something this talented young man may get to do for years to come.
Thus ended my day at Steeler training camp, always a special gathering for members of Steeler Nation. And thanks to Kyle Jolly, Ikponmwosa Igbinosun, Doug Legursky, Chris Carter, Chris Rainey, and Alameda Ta’Amu for signing my hat!