As the sweltering late-summer sun beats down on the town of Latrobe, many residents seek air-conditioned sanctuaries. The local news gives a heat advisory, warning us to stay inside, wear light, loose-fitting clothing, drink only water, and look after the elderly, children and pets. It’s as if someone were planning to put on dark, tight-fitting clothing and cool off in the attic with a bottle of gin while inviting an old man and a toddler to join him. Nevertheless, the white-hot heat and caloric waves emanating from the pavement do not deter the annual pilgrimage of Steelers Nation.
Every year, thousands of fanatics layer on heavy, black Steelers jerseys in unforgiving 90-degree heat. What’s more, once camp opens, they sprint toward Chuck Noll Field to get the best seats for practice. Some wait in line for hours in the intense heat just for a chance to see players run through tires, play catch, and stretch their hammies, pecs and groins. Some people might think this ritual sounds crazy, but for Pittsburgh fans it’s as big a part of summer as Ocean City or Lake Erie.
The town of Latrobe has contributed Arnold Palmer, Fred Rogers and the banana split. Not too shabby for a Westmoreland County town of 8,000. St. Vincent College hosts every year; it’s an odd combination of pro football and monks. That’s the way we like it. Plus the monks are very quiet so as not to disturb the offense. For diehards, the opening day of camp is akin to Christmas morning.
Six months without football is a long time for people with an addiction. The part of the calendar from February to late July is agonizing in its dearth of Steelers football. Those months contain only the draft, optional practices and the occasional court hearing — hardly enough action to placate the pigskin junkies. Other cities love their teams too, but we are like stalkers.
Steelers fans will fight off heat exhaustion and dehydration just to get a glimpse of their favorite players. Or even to pick out a late-round draftee or free-agent signee who might go on to make the team. Maybe Allen Iverson derided practice, but in Latrobe it’s taken very seriously. Even with no names on the practice jerseys, fans know who they are, where they went to college, what round they were drafted, the time it takes them to run 40 yards, and their favorite movie.
If the practices were televised, people would cut their vacations short to come home and watch. Fans will watch the Steelers play basketball for charity in the offseason, just to see them play some kind of sport. Fans will even show up en masse to watch a player shave his beard. There’s no way to explain it unless you’re from or live around here.
Almost 100 players enter camp, including players who were stars in college and probably some who were the best players their high schools have ever seen. Those guys are competing for a handful of roster spots. Just to get here, you must have incredible talent. Yet 40 or so spots will go to veterans, leaving maybe 10 for the other 60 to compete over. One bad practice or an injury can move a player to the back of the line. Those NFL dreams can be crushed in an afternoon.
The best part about Steelers camp, though, is that all the seats are cheap. I could never understand why people pay full price to watch preseason games. Training camp doesn’t cost a thing except devotion, sunburn and perhaps heat stroke. If you’re a Steelers fan, you know all about this. If you’re a casual fan, you have to check it out. Maybe wear the white away jersey because it doesn’t absorb the heat as much. But everybody knows that real men wear black.