Steelers training camp: A pilgrimage of sorts for the many 'black-and-gold' faithful

Doug Whaley’s roots are in Pittsburgh football. He won three titles at Upper St. Clair High School, where he played running back and linebacker. He then played defensive back for Pitt and, after a brief stint on Wall Street, took an entry-level position with the Steelers, with whom he would eventually spend 11 years in the front office as pro scouting coordinator.

So when Mr. Whaley, now the general manager of the Buffalo Bills, was approached by his head coach, Doug Marrone, with the idea of running joint practices at training camp, choosing a suitable partner was easy.

“He wanted to practice with a team that historically has been a tough team. So it popped in my head with the elements of what he wanted to accomplish,” Mr. Whaley said.

“We contacted the Steelers and floated it around and they were just as eager and willing to do it as we were.”

Joint practices with the Bills will be the newest feature at one of the league’s oldest training camp sites when the Steelers begin their 49th consecutive training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., today, with players due to report by 4 p.m.

With the coming of training camp also comes a pilgrimage of sorts for Steelers fans, who flock to watch their team practice with anticipation for the coming season high and aspirations for a seventh Super Bowl even higher. The first practice open to the public is at 2:55 p.m. Saturday.

For their part, the Steelers and Saint Vincent have ensured that training camp remains a welcoming attraction. There are activities for families, ample seating areas and – quite possibly the most attractive feature – free admission.

“Especially in our situation with training camp, it offers a lot of fans who can’t get tickets the opportunity to see players up close and personal,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said.

Fans certainly take advantage of that opportunity, and the effects can be seen in the community at Latrobe. Ron Auld has spent 14 years at Dino’s Sports Lounge, located just over two miles from Saint Vincent. Since before he began working there, he says, the restaurant has looked forward to two times of year: Christmas and Steelers training camp.

“Definitely our highlight of the summer and probably one of our big business points of the year,” Mr. Auld said. “Everybody that comes in here pretty much has their Steelers colors on.”

Tunch Ilkin has spent ample time at training camp, both as a player from 1980-1992 and as an analyst in years since. During his career, the Steelers held joint practices during training camp with the Washington Redskins, who at the time practiced at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

“[Fans] loved it,” Mr. Ilkin said of the joint practices. “To them, it was like watching a game. Every catch is applauded, every interception is applauded.”

But when the Bills travel to Latrobe for an afternoon practice on Aug. 13 and a night practice on Aug. 14, the practices will hold more on-field significance than off. The idea began with Mr. Marrone, who first experienced the benefits of joint practices while he was the offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints.

It took a year into his tenure as head coach in Buffalo for the Bills and Steelers to make it work, with their preseason game on Aug. 16 significantly helping the process, according to Mr. Colbert. By the time the joint practices are held, the Steelers will have already played one preseason game and will be on the back end of their training camp schedule, a time when players begin to get tired of the same routine.

“We’re doing it at the end of our training camp, which is usually when things start to drag,” Mr. Colbert said. “When you bring another team in, I think it will spike the tempo of our training camp up at a time when it’s necessary.”

Mr. Whaley and Mr. Ilkin agreed with Mr. Colbert regarding the monotony of training camp after playing in an actual game. But these practices are about more than just hitting someone else for a change – much like the fans, players treat the joint practices almost like a game as well.

The advantage offered by practicing with another team in comparison with a preseason game, however, is the opportunity to control situations that might not come about during an actual contest, especially with the limited playing time of first-team offenses and defenses during the preseason. Teams can simulate down and distance plays, red zone situations and having to come out of their own end all with the benefit of doing so against a real opponent.

The question becomes, then: Is there a greater risk of injury while practicing against another NFL team? Both general managers debunked that notion, stating their belief that injuries are a part of the game and could just as easily occur because of lack of preparation as they could from practicing too hard.

“I don’t remember anyone ever getting hurt,” Mr. Ilkin said of his practices against the Redskins. “If you’re going hard, the risk of injury is less than going half-speed. To me it’s all about going hard.”

The Steelers will host the Bills this year before visiting their training camp in Pittsford, N.Y., next August. The Bills have a similar training camp atmosphere, specifically in the category of fan involvement. What remains to be seen is how the Steelers players compare it with their own stomping ground at Saint Vincent. In the ’80s, Mr. Ilkin recalls, the atmosphere at Redskins camp didn’t quite cut it.

 “There was a huge difference,” he said. “You have to remember this: We have the greatest fans in the world.

RELATED ARTICLE Fans guide to Steelers training camp


Jourdon LaBarber: and Twitter @jourdonlabarber

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