You first notice it when you get to Breezewood. There's this place that advertises Steelers and Penguin stuff. And then you see it right before you turn on to the entrance for the Pennsylvania Turnpike. How can you not see it? There are these two huge inflated balloon figures; one is a Steeler in the away white jersey flexing his muscles, the other is one in a three point stance in the home black. Then there is the banner; black with yellow lettering "You Are In Steeler Country". Given the fact that Breezewood is near the center of the state, it is noteworthy that there is no hint of a mention anywhere of the Eagles or the Flyers. I guess it's also fair to say they haven't caught up yet with the Pirates.
I said this last year and it bears repeating; as an ex-pat it is jarring, in a very nice way, the almost casual nature of the passion for Steelers football (if that's not too much of an apparent paradox) once you enter the homeland. My drive to Latrobe causes me, forces me, to confront my personal history in ways that I am normally not aware.
I arrived at Latrobe Stadium (Home of the Wildcats) later than I had planned but still early I thought, about 3pm. The parking lot near the stadium was already full. There was a kickoff event in full swing that had begun at Noon, complete with climbing walls, ice cream eating contests, live music and plenty of food. My original plan was to pick up my ticket ( the Friday night practice is the only event during training camp that charges admission), check into my hotel and write the Check Down piece as I waited for evening. Change of plans, and as it turns out a smart move. There were easily over 20,000 fans on hand in a facility that normally holds about 17,000. Most would arrive well over an hour before the players were scheduled to arrive.
A number of things struck me about the Steelers fans I saw last night; different even than what I would say is typical here at BTSC. In the Pittsburgh area folks don't choose to be Steelers fans any more than you would choose to root for your college team. You might decide to not be involved with following the team, but it would be strange, even bizarre for a student at, say, the University of Alabama to root for Auburn, or Florida, or any other program. Its inconceivable. So, if you are reading this and you are a Ravens or Browns fan, let me assure you that beyond the fact that your team represents a speed bump standing in the way of where the team wants to go, they don't care about you. I was speaking to a woman who lived just outside of Cleveland. I mentioned that she must receive a lot of grief for rooting for the Steelers. She shrugged good naturedly, as if to say 'What are you going to do'? It's not like you don't go to work just because there's a lot of traffic during rush hour.
The demographic composition of the fan base is also pretty amazing after I took some time to think about it. I realized late last night that throughout the entire evening I had heard no cursing or boorish behavior of any kind. This isn't necessarily because these are nicer people, but rather, the fact of the matter is that this was actually a family event. The young male demographic, though present, was in no way dominant. I was surrounded by multi-generational family units, young children being taught by their parents (female as well as male) how to follow what was happening on the field, the full range of ages, and women; lots of women. And I don't mean just 'Ooo he has a nice butt' type of women (though I'm sure they were well represented). I'm talking about 'Hey, you've got to hold on to the ball!' kind of women. And when you're around middle aged women (and men), teenage girls and young children it's unnatural to curse unless you're a real jagoff.
With Hines Ward retired the title for most people wearing your jersey has fallen to Troy Polamalu. There were lots of interesting Steelers gear that people were wearing. But my vote for the most impressive was that two people had Pro Bowl jerseys for James Harrison and Troy.
After a bit of rain (thunderstorms plague the area like clockwork around 5pm daily) some good live music to warm up the crowd, the long snappers and kickers arrived first. Nobody paid much attention. Then a caravan of school buses arrived with a police escort. The excitement building now. Bill Hargrove, the voice of the Steelers was the public address announcer. The organization was representing tonight.
Dressed somewhat uncharacteristically in an oversized gold sweat shirt, and a white cap, Tomlin was the first person introduced and walked out on to the field alone to a huge standing ovation. Make no mistake about it, Tomlin is a rock star with the fan base. He was then followed by the players and coaches who then fanned out in all directions to sign autographs. The players closest to me included Brett Keisel, Manny Sanders, Antonio Brown (another rock star), Jake Stoller and Cortez Allen.
After about twenty minutes of this Tomlin, along with Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert stand at mid field as the announcement is made that four Steelers would be retiring tonight. Having been disconnected all afternoon, this came as a complete surprise to me, and I would guess most of the people around me. They were all introduced one by one as they walked from the sideline to be greeted by Tomlin and Company while being flanked by the team, offense to the right, defense to the left. Marvel Smith and Willie Parker each received warm ovations. A bit more for Aaron Smith, and Joey Porter brought the house down as he waved a towel. I don't know about the people around me but my eyes certainly weren't dry.
After the formal ceremony practice resumed but a group of veterans blew off these first exercises and spent a good piece of time talking with their ex-teammates. On about the forty yard line Marvel Smith and Willie Parker stood hugging and talking to Ben and Max Starks. On the other side of the fifty Porter was holding court with Larry Foote, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, while Aaron Smith was chatting with Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and several of the other defensive linemen.
Field goal kicking was next. Shaun Suisham was accurate with his attempts, hitting a range of kicks up to 48 yards out. Daniel Hrapmann definitely had the stronger leg, nailing a 53 yarder with plenty to spare.
As Rebecca Rollett noted during her visit earlier in the week, watching practice is like being at a three ring circus, decisions have to be made as to what to focus upon. I know I missed a lot. But here is what I got.
Injuries. Heath Miller participated fully. Keisel and Manny Sanders were held out.
Size. Last year I was really struck with how big Cam Heyward is. So I was impressed with how much he is dwarfed by Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert and Leonard Pope. These are some large men. Much has been made of the relative lack of size of Sean Spence. This should not be an issue. Spence is clearly bigger than Larry Foote (in fact, I am amazed at how small Foote is compared to the other linebackers), and only slightly smaller than Stephenson Sylvester. When I watch him working next to Steve McLendon I can see why there would be some conversation about putting Ziggy Hood at nose tackle. He is really rather thick, powerfully built.
Fights. Only one of note. Heyward and, I believe, Ramon Foster got into it briefly with no decision. I was amused by the crowd reaction; pleased with the aggression, but a little torn over the fact that these 'brothers' would be abusive to each other. Save it for the Bengals.
I'm sure he was probably there but I didn't spot James Harrison. When the band was playing they would try to amp the crowd up be getting them to cheer at the mention of various Steelers by name. Based on that measure, Deebo is wildly popular. In fact, one thing about Steelers fans has not changed; as much as they like the various offensive players, their first love is defense. A band member stated that Harrison and Troy are "...the only two who still play this game the way it's supposed to be played. We don't care about the fines." That got a big ovation.
Quarterbacks. Ben was held out of the eleven on eleven segments but otherwise participated fully. Byron Leftwich seemed to take most of the snaps with the first unit, and didn't do badly. Jerrod Johnson is another really big guy who has an impressive arm, and this has emboldened some to suggest that this is indeed the last roundup for Charlie Batch. As the man says; not so fast my friend. While Leftwich looked good running the no huddle, Batch looked better, doing a fine job in finding the underneath receivers, and buying time, ala Ben with his mobility. He was consistently hitting the running backs and tight ends on short and medium patterns playing the part of the wiley veteran to perfection. It is also clear from crowd reaction that Charlie is also very popular. Representing the other side of the equation were a couple of 20 something young men who, while scanning a copy of the camp roster, stated that Batch was "87 years old." In a crowd favorite, the quarterbacks had a contest trying to lob passes into huge trash cans set up along the sidelines. Charlie and Ben were the winners of the competition.
Running backs. This was my first time seeing Baron Batch perform. Other than Redman he is the only back who does everything well. He is a much better blocker than Dwyer and, obviously, Rainey. He makes sharp cuts as a runner, and does not go down the first time he is hit. I don't see how you keep him off this team. Rainey is not as easy to tackle as you might imagine. He bounced outside well after absorbing some initial hits without going down. Dwyer ran well enough, but i think he gets Ben killed if they are relying upon him to block.
Wide receivers. Antonio Brown abused everyone matched up against him, including Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis. He seems to be at the point where he can pretty much do whatever he wants out there. Jerricho Cotchery burned Will Allen badly for a touchdown catch during a seven on seven drill. I saw none of the 'Sweed-like' difficulties allleged to Tony Clemons, or any of the other receivers for that matter. I thought Derrick Williams and David Gilreath had particularly strong showings.
Defensive backs. Keenan Lewis intercepted a pass by Byron intended for Cotchery during the two minute drill. He also defended successfully against Brown on a deep pattern in seven on sevens. Perhaps the most impressive individual performance was when Terrence Frederick blew up Weslye Saunders after he received a pass from Batch. Saunders was otherwise very impressive. Myron Rolle mugged Clemons on a play in order to break up a pass. Andre Freeman and to a lesser extent, Will Allen struggled.
Offensive lineman. Mike Adams ran with the first group today. Foster, Colon, Gilbert and Pouncey rounded out the group, but, frankly a lot of combinations were used during the evening. I think its premature to read anything into this at this stage of the game. Heyward got the better of Colon during a one on one match up. I didn't notice De Castro at all, for what it's worth.
Defensive lineman. Heyward was the most impressive of this group. Ta'amu took some snaps at end. McLendon looked good as well.
Stevenson Sylvester seemed to trample some folks in the backs (and tight ends) on backers drill. I watching that I missed the action that was going on with receivers and defensive backs. But I heard a lot of crowd reaction to what was transpiring there.
A long, over two and a half hours, practice ended around 9:30. After the player caravan left the premises, fans were presented with a truly impressive fireworks display, ending at a little past 10 pm. It was my first time at the night practice and I would highly recommend it if you are planning a trip for next year.