Part 1 ; Part 2On day three I started in the Steeler Merchandize tent checking out what was being offered these days in Steeler Wear. There was a lot of stuff available for all ages. In fact, sensitivity to the needs of the entire family, especially women and children was one of things that stood out about the training camp experience in general. But there was one shirt that really spoke to me; stripping away all the niceties and laying bare the essence of the Steelers and the Nation that supports it.
WE’RE TAKING OVER
One Stadium at a Time
Time to swing attention away from the observed to the observers; the thousands of people from far and wide who make this pilgrimage to Saint Vincent to pay homage to a football team. Given the lengths that some go to in order to be here (For example, I met several folks who drove hours from neighboring states) their goals are rather modest. At root they are here to observe practice (cue in Allen Iverson here), not the most scintillating activity in the world. Some, like me, were watching with laser like intensity seeking some nugget of value about this year’s team. Did the veteran players still have it? Was a reserve ready to step things up a notch and become a more significant contributor? What newcomers were going to fulfill the standard and become members of the family?
We hung on every block or tackle made or missed, every successful run, every pass caught, dropped or intercepted, the yells of the coaches, the nuances of body language; there was no telling what might be important. For others it was an opportunity to see and perhaps touch in some manner the hero/celebrities that they root for on Sunday afternoons. Hundreds of people passed on observing practice so they could be in a favorable position to get an autograph or a touch as the team entered and exited the practice fields. And then there were some whose ambitions weren’t even that high. For them Saint Vincent was just part of the local recreational round; someplace like Kennywood or the Zoo that you visited from time to time for a pleasant afternoon of family fun. Some would leave as early as an hour into an announced two hour practice in order to beat the traffic exiting campus or on Route 30. Others would linger long after the last of the players and coaches had retreated to the showers, soaking in the atmosphere, wringing every drop out of the experience. The amazing thing to me is that in three days I heard not one grumble or gripe about the weather, the players that would not stop to sign, and the general lack of excitement. Now if someone dropped a pass, that’s another matter altogether.
This was overwhelmingly a family enterprise. In some cases an extended range of family members were present; parents and grandparents, in-laws, children and grandchildren. What was instructive to me when I began to think about it is that in the area where I live to find several generations of a family in the same geographic vicinity is not that common an occurrence. Not that many adults originate from the DC Metro area. Parents and children might be together, but to access siblings, grandparents or grandchildren you’re going to have to travel a bit. The diversity is striking; infants and toddlers cheek by jowl with the elderly, teenagers, singles (young and otherwise) folks with special needs, different races, often traveling in mixed groups, lots of women absent any male presence (And you would be mistaken to think that the motivation is something other than football. Well, in the case of Heath, Hines and Troy, maybe). There is nothing here that feels remotely like tension. I am sure there are family reunions that are more contentious. If there is any conflict at all it the usual squabbles that occur within families; children that won’t listen, spouses and siblings that do or say stupid things. Actually, extended family reunion might be the apt metaphor for what these crowds represent.
A few comments about apparel. One of the great sports marketing success stories is the extent that fans have bought into investing in team gear. There are a good number of people who show up at Latrobe in ordinary street cloths, but they are probably in the minority. There are all kind of Steelers themed outfits on display, particularly on Sunday. An ongoing favorite of mine are the shirts that say "Got Rings?" The most extravagant was a woman in a yellow/gold themed ensemble featuring a yellow boa wrapped around her neck. However, the most common uniform of the day are the black home jerseys, white a somewhat distant second. The interesting thing here is that the jerseys are a visible referendum on the popularity of particular players. Hines Ward (#86) is the champ if the crowds are any indication with Troy Polamalu (#43) close behind. A second tier of roughly equal strength features Heath Miller (#83) who is particularly strong among young women, Rashard Mendenhall (#34) who shows good strength among boys and Ben (#7) who is popular across the whole spectrum. Of course I’m forced to wonder if Ben’s numbers would have been closer to that of Hines and Troy if he had not had the troubles of last year. Then there is James Harrison (#92) who shows surprising strong representation among women. Lamarr Woodley (#56) is showing some strength as well. But the two numbers that appear to really be on the rise are Mike Wallace’s # 17 and Maurkice Pouncey’s # 53. Those wearing Pouncey’s jersey have that kind of ‘first one on the block’ swagger. When they come on line, expect #33 and #84 to explode as well. After that its dribs and drabs; a Farrior here, a Foote there, even a Willie Colon. Then there are the Classic jerseys; Greene, Lambert, Ham, Bradshaw. Finally, something a little disturbing. At a distance I saw a pretty little dark haired girl wearing a black # 22. Somebody call Child Protective Services!! This girl is going to get her ass kicked when school begins. What kind of loving parent would dress their child in a William Gay jersey? Now, as it turned out when she turned around there was another name on the back. She was too far away for me to make out who it was, so this was probably a hand me down. But you get my point don’t you? No one’s going to check the name on the back of the jersey; they’re just going to attack. Might as well dress her in a Neil O’Donnell jersey and, for good measure, have her wear a Bruce Arians mask. I can see her being dragged down a street tied to back of some kid’s bicycle. I’m not saying that Gay isn’t deserving of fan support (I’m sure there will be some whom vehemently disagree), but have someone wear the jersey who can defend themselves.
Another thing that I noticed as an ex-pat visiting the old home land: the sporting passions in Pittsburgh have diversified. Football is still king, but I really notice that the normalcy of things seems to have muted the passion a bit. Let me explain. It feels like a long and still very successful marriage where a certain efficiency has set in. They still pay close attention to what is going on, they take the time to thoroughly indoctrinate their children to the game, the team and what the expectations are, all around. They will show up when and where they need to, but they will also pick their spots. At another time Thursday’s game may have sent the city into a bit of a frenzy. Today even the most casual fan realizes that virtually nothing matters until December, and that knowledge is evident in how they conduct themselves. It’s just preseason after all; a thousand things could go wrong between now and Indianapolis. On the other hand, it is clear that the ‘Burgh has become something of a hockey town. The relationship with the Pens is fresher, a generation at most at the championship level. I discover that some in attendance at camp have attended preseason camps for the Penguins and make points of comparison between the two. The Pirates are also rising from the dead in the hearts of the faithful. One family planned to leave camp and then drive directly to PNC Park to catch the game between the Bucs and the Cardinals. There is zero chance of the Pens or the Bucs displacing the Steelers in the hearts and minds of the Nation, but like a steak lover who discovers that lobster can be pretty good too, Pittsburgh sports fans are clearly expanding their palate.
I think the Eagles game validated what I and others have felt about this year’s team. Perhaps the really good news for those of us that get really nervous once it becomes obvious to us that this team has the potential for a championship ending is that once again we will fly under the radar for a while. This lack of respect will provide the necessary ‘chip’ this team needs in order to do its best work. There were two preseason games on Thursday night. New England torched Tampa Bay while Pittsburgh did the same to Philadelphia. The story lines on ESPN and the NFL Network were that the Patriots won and the Eagles lost. Get it?
Good news for us. Happy 2011 Season everyone.