I grew up three miles outside of Stahlstown, PA. The “town” label is a gross exaggeration but, then again, “Stahlscrossroads” doesn’t have much of a ring to it. Eight miles further down the road is Ligonier, Pa., a real town where we bought our groceries, did our banking and went to the movies. Twenty minutes over the ridge in the other direction, however, is Latrobe. We didn’t head over there very often when I was a boy — except during Steelers training camp. That Saint Vincent was actually a college and was quite busy every semester meant nothing to me — a mere afterthought to the glorious truth that it was home to training camp.
It was probably 45 years ago that I first went there. Lots of young players along with veterans like Andy Russell, Ray Mansfield and Bobby Walden sprinkled throughout. They were among the few that were surviving what shouldn’t have properly been called a “rebuild.” It was more of a “build.” The story is told that, at his first camp as the team’s new head coach, the Emperor Chaz gathered the players and said words to this effect: “I’ve been studying film during the offseason and believe I know the reason you’ve been losing so much. I also have the solution. The problem is that most of you aren’t very good at playing football. The solution is that most of you will not be here much longer.”
There were no numbers on practice jerseys and, absent social media or multiple 24/7 sports channels, it was tough to pick out particular players while they practiced. We had little idea who we were watching. The truth is it didn’t matter much. All my little boy mind knew was all my little boy heart cared about — I was watching my Steelers.
It wasn’t until I grew older and began to travel the country that I discovered something unique about Steelers nation. I met people who cheered for the Cowboys, the Bills, even the Bengals. When they’d ask, come Monday morning, how the Steelers had done, I usually replied, “We won.” Their reaction? “We? Did you get drafted and not tell us? Is your family kin to the Rooneys?” Others teams might have people who cheer for them, but Steelers Nation has citizens who feel true ownership of their favorite team, forming a huge roster numbering in the millions.
I took my first-born son to his first training camp about a dozen years ago, but it wasn’t only twenty minutes over the mountain, but eight hours across Virginia and up through West Virginia. My, how things had changed. Practices open to the public were rare. The crowds were huge. The then-five Lombardi trophies were on display. Autographs were no longer just keepsakes for kids but were now potential investments for future collectors. Camp had almost become a show, something to be marketed.
But only almost. Because the central issue was still true. My son and I, like my dad and I decades before, were watching our team practice. My son and I, like my dad and I, were speculating about the prospects of the upcoming season. And like my dad and I had done before, my son and I were talking about my experiences as a boy cheering on our team. When I was a boy, my dad, a professional theologian, when asked about perhaps the deepest philosophical conundrum — “Where does evil come from?” — always had the ready answer: “Oakland.” And I taught my son, “We hate the Ravens for two reasons. First, because they are the Ravens. Second, because they used to be the Browns.”
No moral boundaries delineate which team a fan must root for. I try to give credit where credit is due to loyal fans, whatever team they might support. Because the real virtue is in the loyalty. As our current window of opportunity begins its slow descent in the coming years, we would be wise to remember that we love our Steelers, not because they always win, but because they’re our Steelers, and always will be.