I am just going throw this out there and be as blunt as possible. If your a Steeler transplant fan (like me) you owe it to yourself to go to training camp. There is nothing else out there, Steelers related, that comes even close to the satisfying experience of going to training camp. Living outside Pittsburgh (northern Virginia in case my monicker didn't give it away) there aren't a lot of times when you can get your "fan" on. Sure there are a plethora of Steeler themed sports bars where you can throw on your jersey and suck down some Iron City, but as far as the day to day, I gotta say, you Pittsburgers are spoiled. You get non stop coverage on the radio, and TV. You get guys like Dejan Kovacevic and Mark Madden.....nevermind. Anyway, in the same vein as Anthony Defeo's piece on why we transplants are such die hard Steeler fans, I thought I'd share this piece from my childhood that really cemented me in my fandom.
I grew up almost entirely in Arlington. My dad, however, was a big time yinzer who loved the Steelers and Pirates. He didn't really understand Hockey, but I guess he would still call himself a Pens fan. Living in the DC area, it is very easy to get sick of the Redskins pretty dang quick. Especially back in the early 90's when they were actually, ya know, good. One of my earliest memories was actually rooting for the Buffalo Bills in their superbowl against the skins. This is probably why I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the Bills. Plus my dad really liked Jim Kelly being as he is from Pittsburgh and still spoke with a thick yinzer accent. Growing up, I always cheered for the Steelers with my dad when they were on TV, but they never really felt like MY team. I guess you could say that MY team was the Packers. I really loved Brett Favre (hell, I STILL love Brett, dick pics or no dick pics) and Reggie White (RIP) and they were getting very good right around the same time kids start to pick their favorite teams. In Super Bowl XXX, I watched in horror as my Packers got bounced from the playoffs but hey, the Steelers were still in so I cheered like hell with my dad. Side Bar: Before the game, when we made our weekly grocery store run, he actually let me and my brother run down the snack isle and pick out ANY one bag of snacks for the big game (I went with Sun Chips). My dad has never done this. Never. And since the Steelers lost to the most hated Cowboys, I never saw Sun Chips again. The Super Bowl was great, regardless of the outcome. I got to cheer alongside my dad, brother, and even my mom who had adopted my dad's hometahn team. The next year in XXI, of course my Packers won and I was giddy as a 12 year old school girl. In response to a growing green and gold cheese threat from the north to my destined Steeler fandom, my dad decided that he was going to take us to training camp in LaTrobe. I didn't know anything about training camp. Had no idea what would happen. Obviously, the idea of just watching a team play....itself for several days sounded really boring. But at least Kordell Stewart would be there. As much as I loved Brett Favre, Kordell was every bit "my boy". My brother put on his Jerome Bettis jersey which I don't think he took off the entire trip and I even convinced him to let me borrow his Kordell jersey as I figured wearing my Reggie White jersey wouldn't be proper.
Once we got to St. Vincent's, the first thing I remember doing was begging my dad to buy a sharpie. Side Bar: For christmas that year, I got a real deal official leather NFL game day football. This thing was my pride and joy. Knowing that I got to hold the same football that my heroes got to play with was something that was just so.....cool. So naturally, when I heard we were going to be able to get right close to the players, I thought immediately: AUTOGRAPHS!!! After my dad acquiesced and got me a sharpie, we made our way down to the field to see the boys practice. It was fun, but I couldn't tell who was who, only that I remember being very impressed by #15's effort. I had no idea who that was, so I don't remember much of the practices themselves. One thing I do remember vividly is that they had a mock locker room set up that kids could go through and try on the various gear the pros wore. There is still a pic of me as a kid wearing Levon Kirklands helmet and shoulder pads that probably reminded people of the football scene from "Lucas". Ya know, the scene wear poor little Lucas joins the football team and gets demolished. After the practices and the pad wearing was done, my dad ushered us back to the practice field to try to get autographs.
With my football in one hand and my sharpie in the other, I immediately started scanning the field for #10. No luck there, but lo and behold there was Jerome Frickin Bettis!! The Bus!! I couldn't believe that he was there signing autographs in front of a big throng of fans. My brother and me sprinted down to get in line, my brother wanting his jersey signed and me, my football. Side Bar: I have no shortage of disdain for professional autograph seekers. And by that I mean, usually middle aged men who bring a slew of cards, footballs and such and hunt down athletes to get them to sign it so they can sell it to sports memorabilia stores. There were so many of them surrounding Bettis, that it was very difficult for me and my brother to get close enough to try and get our stuff signed that we most CERTAINLY were never going to sell. My brother seemed to resign himself to his fate, but me? I have no shame. I sharpened up my elbows and started plowing my way through the mass of humanity. I was the only kid there, so nobody really raised too much of a stink. Slowly but surely, I got closer and closer to Jerome. I was NOT going to get this friggin close and not get my damn ball signed! When I finally got near the rope line, I desperately stuck out my arm holding my football. Sure enough, I felt it get plucked from my grasp and a few seconds later, placed right back in my hand. I made my way out of the mosh pit and back to my brother where we both fawned over the newly signed Jerome Bettis #36 autograph.
My dad, of course, was beaming the whole time we re told the story. He was so proud, he said he was going to take us for frozen yogurt (which we liked to call frogurt). The next day, I had no expectations. I really REALLY wanted Kordell's autograph, but shit, I just got The Bus on my football, so I was gooood. After another day or so of practice, we made our way to the rope line again to see who was signing. Side Bar: My brother never swayed from his Steeler fandom. There was no Packer nonsense or anything, he was pure Steeler all the way so he knew our roster inside and out. I relied on him to call out who was who to see if it was worth another foray to get them to sign. Nobody really tickled our fancy, so we decided to make our way back to our dad and conclude another successful day of training camp. All of the sudden, my brother grabbed my arm and started pointing frantically at a rather large black man walking down the sidewalk. I had no earthly idea who it was but my brother kept saying "DIRT!" over and over again. He finally explained that this was Dermonti Dawson one of the best centers in the league. Now, my brother is older than me so he can really appreciate the nuances of football such as having a great offensive line. Me? I just saw that there was no crowd in front of him, so I figured "what the hell, why not?" We walked right up to him, shook his hand (which completely enveloped mine) and asked for his autograph. Now, I'm pretty sure he was trying to slip out unnoticed, but he wasn't going to turn down 2 kids who just want their football signed. He quickly affixed his signature, we said thanks, and he moved on.
The next day, I again had no expectations, but I really wanted Kordell's friggin autograph! We walked around, saw some practices and then my dad had a great idea. We should stand near the rope line from the locker room the players parking lot. Instead of trying to bug them when they're all sweaty and gross, get em when they've had a chance to clean themselves up a bit. We got there early enough to where I didn't have to throw any 'bows to get to the front of the line. I was there front and center waiting for Kordell. One by one they slowly trickled out of the locker room and either went straight to their cars, or, made a quick pass by the rope line. One by one, until, finally, I spotted Kordell! This was my lucky trip, as everything had broken my way autograph wise so there was no WAY he was going to NOT sign my ball. He turned towards the crowd (good he notices us), flashed a big smile (yes! He likes fans), waived his hand and said "thanks for comin out!" and walked to his car. WHAT?!? Dammit! No Kordell. I was feeling a little bit dejected and kept holding my ball out in desperation for a few seconds after it became obvious Kordell wasn't going to sign it. Oh well, I still had two fantastic autographs from two high level players at their position. My ball was going to be the envy of all my friends back home. However, I was so focused on getting Kordell to sign that I didn't even notice another skinny guy snag the football from my hands and sign it. I was a little shocked. Who the hell was this jag off and what did he just do to my ball? He handed it back to me and I quickly said "Ummmm, who are you?" He flashed the biggest smile I have ever seen in my life and said "I'm Hines Ward, I'm a wide receiver." I said "well, I hope you're good." And I honestly did. I mean, come on, I've got Dirt Dawson and the friggin Bus on this football. He chuckled a bit and said "Ya, me too." As I relayed this to my dad, we looked at the training camp roster and realized that there was indeed a rookie WR named Hines Ward who wore #15 (hey, the good effort guy!). His famous words to me were "Well, son, we'll have to keep an eye on him." And we sure did for 14 great seasons there after.
When we got back to DC, I found myself getting really excited for the start of the Steelers season. It wasn't a dramatic "and then he forsook all his Packer gear and donned the black and gold" moment, but that was definitely the spark that truly ignited my fandom for the Steelers. I found myself reading books about the Steelers from the '70s, watching NFL Films videos about those same teams. I did a book report on a biography of Franco Harris and even got my own Steeler jersey. As each year went on, I cheered harder and harder for the Steelers and less and less for the Packers. Since I figured this was too big to be put in a comment for Defeo's article, I figured I would put in a fan post and invite others to share their training camp stories. Or really, any stories that cemented their Steeler fandom.
As we get closer and closer to Training Camp in wonderful LaTrobe, PA, I get more and more antsy to get back there and experience it all again. The ball is all signed up and resting in my man cave where Hine's #15 signature faces forward above all others. I posted an earlier fan post with pictures of the ball if anyone is curious. I'm getting married to a good ol' Pittsburgh girl this fall and I often think it would be pretty cool to take her and our future kids someday to give them the same experience. Even though it was 15 years ago, I still remember just about every detail as vividly as if it just happened yesterday. This is all assuming, of course, they turn out to be as much of a sports nut as their old man, which would give my future wife fits.