LATROBE -- The first year Tom Pisano went to Steelers Fantasy Football Camp at St. Vincent College, it was a birthday gift from his wife.
Every camp since has been a gift from himself.
"I've met a lot of good people here. One year it was Franco [Harris]. This year it was Hines Ward. I really like the interaction with the Steeler alumni," said Mr. Pisano, 50, originally from Beaver Falls and now living in Orlando, Fla. "And this year, we got to hold the Super Bowl trophy and get our picture taken with it. That's once in a lifetime. I mean, how many times am I going to hold the Super Bowl trophy?"
Now in its seventh off-season, the weekend-long Steelers Fantasy Camp gave 300 men from 38 states and two Canadian provinces an opportunity to experience camaraderie, competition and compression bandages on the same practice fields where the Super Bowl champion Steelers will begin real practices in less than two months.
For $599, this year's fantasy campers received gold Steelers Fantasy Camp football jerseys with their names on the back, a DVD of camp drills and highlights and were visited and coached on the field Saturday by former and current Steelers, including Dermontti Dawson, Delton Hall, Tunch Ilkin, Louis Lipps, Jerry Olsavsky, Edmund Nelson, Frank Pollard, Daniel Sepulveda, Greg Warren and Craig Wolfley. On Saturday evening, they listened to football stories from many of those same players and heard from Mr. Ward as guest speaker.
Mr. Wolfley, a Steelers offensive lineman during the 1980s and now a broadcaster, has attended all seven of the fantasy camps and said they're all about the love affair between the fans and their team.
"These guys are out here going through what the players experience on the same fields, in the same dining halls. It's the coolest. You can't get this anywhere else in America," he said. "If you dig football and love the Steelers, this is a great place to experience that up close and personal."
It was a sentiment echoed by many in this Steelers Nation cross-section, which seemed to include a disproportionately high percentage of Wolfleyesque, offensive-lineman body types.
"It's an amazing experience," said Steve York, 45, an engineering manager for the U.S. Defense Department and Baltimore resident attending his first camp. "The connections formed with the players are the most amazing thing, but I'm also surprised at how physically demanding it is. I pulled a hamstring reaching for a bad pass from Louie Lipps. Everyone wants to be competitive."
Yesterday morning, on the lushly green and manicured football fields, new spikes, knee braces and ice packs were almost as common as the gold football jerseys the campers wore as they competed in punting, passing and placekicking contests.
The Steelers' on-the-field trainers, student sports medicine interns Bonnie Virag of Duquesne University and Brandon Desantis of the University of Pittsburgh, said they'd treated only around 20 participants, mostly for leg strains, hamstring and groin pulls and sunburn.
"They're having such a good time they don't want to come off the field," said Ms. Virag.
"A lot of these guys are going full speed and they haven't maybe done that for a while," Mr. Desantis said. "And the coaches told them not to dive but ... ."
Nate Weems, 35, of Harrisburg, was at his first camp but already trying to figure out financing for next year's camp.
"Oh my gosh, this is wonderful," said Mr. Weems, who was taking it easy yesterday morning after "overdoing it too much" in the defensive back "slide drills" with Delton Hall on Saturday. "Talking to the former players is the best. There's no athlete attitude. After talking to Dermontti Dawson, it's impossible for him not to be my favorite Steeler."
David Dornack, 54, a retired auto dealer from Akron, Ohio, who hails from Uniontown, was attending his seventh camp and said he'd learned over the years not to take the drills too seriously after cracking his ribs the first and third year and pulling hamstrings the second and sixth year.
"Take it all in and enjoy yourself," he said, offering advice while showing off a wrapped thigh muscle and new pair of pass-catching gloves to a fellow camper. "There's so much to experience. It lets you experience what the players do, although on a more low-key basis.
"And it lets you know, too, that the real football season is right around the corner."
Don Hopey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1983.