It is the Ingathering of Steeler Nation - a football tradition like none other.
Homer’s first was in 1973, when everyone was raving about that year’s camp phenom - linebacker Loren Toews. An eighth round draft choice who not only made the team that year but played 11 seasons and managed to pick up four Super Bowl rings.
Homer’s most recent was 2019, when he and fellow Steeler fan and former Pittsburgher Ivan Cole met up in the Montgomery Mall outside DC and drove up to Latrobe. There, they joined with longtime BTSC friend Rebecca Rollett and other friends for Friday Night Lights and for a Saturday practice.
Lunch at Eat ‘n Park on Route 30, where everyone met up, then heading down to the High School, where Rebecca and Steeler legend Jon Kolb got into a discussion of choral music and opera, with Jon confessing that he couldn’t sing a note -- and that he played a sheep in his grade school Christmas pageant because his singing voice was so awful.
It was seeing and saying hello to Hilly and Tunch and other folks who you would see year after year.
Latrobe, as you know, was the hometown of both Fred Rogers and Arnold Palmer. They went to Latrobe High School and graduated a year apart.
"Your home town isn’t just where you’re from," Arnie told his 50th high school reunion. "It’s who you are."
And Latrobe is a big part of who the Steelers are, and who we are as Steeler fans.
The essence of that 1973 camp remains unchanged. We’ve had two coaches retire over half a century, and one Rooney step down to be replaced by another Rooney. The spires of St Vincent still overlook the field, which is now named for the coach of that 1973 team. And some of the players on that 1973 team will stop by at practice, or will talk opera at Friday Night Lights.
Tradition is what binds the Steelers and Steeler Nation and gives us a sense of who we are. It is passed down from generation to generation of Steeler fans and Steeler players and members of what the Chief called "our organization." This year’s rookies will get to know Franco and Mean Joe and the Bus, just like rookies a decade from now will get know Cam. And Cam is passing the torch of that tradition to Najee.
It’s still a family run business, and we all seem to imagine ourselves part of that extended family. Latrobe is where the family gets back together each summer. It’s where you see old friends and meet new ones. It’s the one place where politics, race, religion and all the things that divide us as a nation simply don’t matter.
We all have our annual routine - maybe stopping for a Vinnie Pie, or going into the ‘burgh for hotcakes at Pamela’s, or at any number of places in Latrobe. Over the years, they became part of the rhythm of our lives. So when the Dirty O closes in Oakland or Pam and Gail close their place on Murray Avenue, your world takes a little hit and you move on. Change is never easy when everything seems so perfect. Hunt’s Ketchup? Never say never, but never.
This will be a particularly difficult year for Homer. He and Ivan did the trip year after year. In 2019, they paid a visit to Fred Rogers’ gravesite in Unity Cemetery. It’s only a couple minutes away from St Vincent, and they decided before the Saturday practice to visit the final resting place of the man who had taught them so much since they were kids. After paying respects, it was time to head over to Saturday afternoon practice.
"You know," said Ivan as we sat in the stands, baking in the summer sun, looking down at the field and then looking at the mountains in the distance, "this is perfect."
Every year is someone’s first Steeler camp, and someone’s last. And 2019 was Ivan’s last.
He suffered a fall that winter. He broke a bone at the base of his spine. Infection set in. Ivan passed away in April, 2020.
To say that it will be difficult or emotional to drive up to Latrobe without Ivan would be an understatement.
But, like church bells on a Sunday morning, Latrobe is calling Steeler Nation.
It’s three hours: up Interstates 270 and 70, and then up Route 30. Parking is free. You gotta get a ticket this year to get in, but it’s free. Then there’s the pro shop and all that other stuff before you get to the stands overlooking the field. You stop and get a coke and maybe a hot dog before you find a seat in the stands.
The kids will be down by the field, hoping to get autographs. The players will come down the path from the dorms. The horn will sound. Practice begins. Hopefully you manage to snag a place to sit with a bit of shadow from the press box.
You look down onto the field where the players and coaches are beginning practice. In front of you, beyond the field and just to your right, is St Vincent Basilica. Beyond that, the tranquil green hills of Westmoreland County and, in the distance, the Allegheny Mountains.
A soft breeze offers comfort from the summer sun, and someone blows a whistle as the players begin another drill.
God’s in his heaven. All’s right with the world
And you hear Ivan’s voice. "You know," he says, "this is perfect."