I'm not sure exactly when the tradition started, but for at least the past 30 years, rookies wearing the black-and-gold at Steelers training camp in Latrobe have been at the mercy of veterans not just on the practice field, but also after practice has ended and it's time to wind down over food and much-needed relaxation.
Imagine finishing up a long, grueling day of practice in the intense summer heat of late August, quickly showering and then heading to the dining hall at St. Vincent's College for a much-needed dinner. After inhaling thousands of calories, you're ready to head back to the dorms for some video games and some studying of the playbook. But wait, where you think you're going rookie? The veterans need some post-meal entertainment. That's where you come in. Time to sing.
Former offensive lineman Craig Wolfley wrote about this tradition in his outstanding article for this year's Maple Street Press Steelers Annual -- which is, by the way, now available for purchase online and on its way to newsstands and bookstores in the western PA region this coming week. Writing about his rookie season in 1980, Wolfley shared a story about the tradition and how hard he tried to avoid being called up on stage:
Yet the one thing I came to dread the most in camp wasn't the two-a-day practices, the gladiator-inspired Oklahoma drill, or the lung-searing conditioning run at the end of practice that made your heart want to jump out of your chest. No, it was the singing. Yeah, this was way before American Idol or America's Got Talent.
In the dining hall almost every night the vets would have the rookies entertain them while they ate. They had us get up on a chair in the middle of the room, handed us a microphone (actually a spoon, which made you feel even more ridiculous), and expected us to bellow out our school fight song, or any particular number that one of the vets wanted to hear.
The vets would always wait until the dining hall filled up, and then call out different rooks. Once called upon, you didn't have the option of turning down the "opportunity." You had to do it or you wouldn't get out of the hall intact. There a tremendous amount of peer pressure going on. It wasn't just fellow players in attendance, there were also the front office people taking in a day at camp, the scouts, and the coaching staff, of course. Occasionally the Chief himself or Dan Rooney would be in attendance.
The vets didn't jeer on a curve--they were equal opportunity booers. After taking the stage and getting "miked up," you had to crank it out and perform to the best of your ability. But more often than not the heckling would begin early on, especially if you didn't attack the song with the necessary "gusto" that was expected.
Occasionally you would catch some real talent, but, generally speaking, Simon Cowell would've had a field day. I myself was one of those gifted with a singing voice that more resembled what a T-Rex must of sounded like while wallowing in the La Brea Tar Pits before going under. So I did everything I could to avoid getting "up on stage."
My strategy consisted of taking advantage of the fact that the vets were slow to get to the dining hall after the afternoon practice. Under Chuck Noll's instructions to "replenish the fluids," some would even head off to the infamous 19th Hole bar before going to dinner. However, I don't think Coach Noll was recommending "root beer with a foamy head on it" to replace those vital body liquids we tapped out on a daily basis.
After practice I would hustle back to the locker room, take a quick shower, then hike it over to the dining hall and wolf down whatever I could in 10 minutes or so. Then I'd go out the back way and skedaddle off to the dorm before the evening meeting. Until midway through the second week of the vets being in camp, I was doing brilliantly. Then I had one of those low-energy days where I was a little slow in my daily routine.
"Hey, you rook," said Joe Greene as he turned around in his chair and faced me while I was busy trying to look invisible. "Have you sung yet?"
Oh, what a dilemma I found myself in! The greatest known offensive lineman killer to wear a black-and-gold jersey was asking me a direct question. There was no fudge room here. I could try to lie my way out of this, but how do you lie to a legend? Especially a legend who could tear you up on the field with head-butts like you crack walnuts at your grandma's house on Christmas Eve.
"Uhh...ye...no, I haven't, Joe," I managed to stammer as if I was suddenly struck with a speech impediment.
"Do you want to sing?" Joe asked in an obviously sarcastic tone that I knew was not going to get me any relief.
"Do I have a choice?" I pleaded with a look on my face that a brook trout has after getting hooked. If only I hadn't been so slow getting off the field!
"Move it, rook," Joe growled with a tone that let me know he wasn't into negotiating.
In panic mode, with my mind racing, I lurched forward on unsteady legs to the "stage," which in reality was just a common chair that I wasn't sure would even hold my weight. As I unsteadily took the stage a spoon/microphone came from an outstretched hand somewhere.
Now, I had never bothered in my time at Syracuse University to learn the entire SU fight song. And in my sudden attack of stage fright, my mind locked up. I prayed for an epiphany to strike me, or at the very least a thunderbolt to end my misery. Hear me now and believe me later, at this particular moment, any words to any song that might come to mind would have been greatly appreciated.
Bupkus, nada, nothing flowed through. I just stood there frozen, sweating like I just came in from a rainstorm.
Shapeless faces surrounded me; I felt dizzy and began licking my dry lips. I found myself stammering unintelligible, incoherent apologies over not knowing the words to the Syracuse fight song. One of the vets, irritated by the lack of action, yelled at me to get on with it. A chorus of players began a low boo, and others joined in.
In a rush of frenzied thoughts that cascaded like a lightning bolt into my noggin, I began to spit out the first words that came to mind. Unfortunately for me, it was an old TV tune to a western show, the song "Rawhide."
"Rollin,' rollin,' rollin,' keep them doggies rollin,' rawhide!" I bellowed into the spoon. The booing began to swell, then crest like an ocean wave coming into shore. I doggedly pushed on, repeating broken phrases of the parts that I could remember. Somehow, snippets of other show tunes or commercials began to find their way into my jambalaya of song. I was transformed into a brawny, bearded, shaggy-headed Barry Manilow bellowing a medley of his greatest commercial jingles.
It was pitiful. What a disaster. I was so bad that I was booed off the stage in about a minute and a half, though it seemed like an eternity. A roaring crescendo followed me back to my seat. I had never felt such a rush of relief as when I made my way to the back of the cafeteria and sat down, attempting to resume invisibility.
A searing reprimand from a scowling Simon Cowell would have been more generous than the abuse I took from teammates over the next few days. Whenever I see one of those talent shows on TV, and hear the criticisms some of the performers take, I'm always thrown back to a moment in time with a chair, a spoon and a hostile audience.
Hilarious stuff from Wolfley. He would tell me via email that he and his best buddy Tunch Ilkin, also a rookie, were summoned to sing a duet on at least one occassion. Perhaps we'll get him to share that story formally sometime soon.
Anyway, the tradition sounded like a great one, albeit one that perhaps died out over time as cellphones and video games provided entertainment options not available in the '70s and '80s.
I was relieved though to see that the tradition is alive and well after reading one of Baron Batch's first posts from training camp. I imagine a number of you have been keeping tabs on what he's been writing on his blog at Latrobe, but in this particular post, he listed ten things that he'll never forget from his first training camp in the NFL:
1.) Putting on an NFL helmet for the first time
2.) The night before the first day of camp not being able to sleep because I was too excited.
3.) Signing my contract and thinking "this is a big step to a bigger dream" and yes I kept the pen I signed with.
4.) Not being unemployed anymore
5.) Realizing I have to pay taxes now (bummer)
6.) Learning how much certain fines are and thinking "holy cow that's more than what my scholarship checks were each month in college"
7.) Getting my playbook and thinking "this is bigger than any textbook I had in college"
8.) Being super lost the first day of practice
9.) Having to sing in front of the team at dinner after practice (yes I busted out the Temptations, specifically the song Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)
10.) Studying more now than I did when I was in High School and College combined. Making tiny notecards of everything like when I was in Elementary School learning my times tables
Excellent! I mentioned last week that I was super impressed by Kevin Colbert after listening to him in a recent interview on The Fan. I loved how he wanted to make sure that the Steelers carried on the tradition of conducting training camp in Latrobe even though it was more of a challenge logistically to do so this year. I have no idea who is most responsible for making sure the tradition of rookies signing at the dinner hall is continued. It doesn't really matter who deserves the credit, only that this and other team and family-building vestiges of the past are carried on.
Sing it with me: Here We Go Steelers, Here We Go!!