At age 3, Luke Serych already has learned an important lesson about life, loss, and football -- not even the replica jersey of your favorite Steelers player lasts forever.
"He grew out of his No. 7," said Melissa Serych of her son's Ben Roethlisberger shirt. Instead, Luke proudly wore a larger size No. 53 Maurkice Pouncey jersey during his Sunday afternoon visit to training camp.
It was the Serychs' first visit to Steelers camp in the setting of lush greenery and rolling hills at Saint Vincent College in Unity (although nearly everyone calls it Latrobe).
They quickly discovered that the trip from their Beaver County home to Westmoreland County was more than a walk in the park.
"This is our stay-cation, as we couldn't go anywhere because of the baby," said Mrs. Serych, 35, also the mother of 7-week-old Liliana.
The Beaver County family of four from Center was among thousands of fans last weekend who descended on the grounds surrounding Chuck Noll Field -- named for the Hall of Fame Steelers coach -- to watch their football heroes and perhaps snag an autograph or two at the 47th annual camp on the college campus off of Route 30.
The open practices that began Friday will be open most afternoons through Aug. 17. An evening open practice is scheduled for Friday at Latrobe Memorial Stadium to cap off the Latrobe Steelers Fest that opens at 11 a.m.
With free admission and parking, Steeler training camp is an ideal entertainment venue for families with stretched budgets.
"It is a beautiful day with low humidity, and we had nothing else to do, so why not?" said Kathy Tanner, 61, of Greensboro, Greene County, of the motivation for her first camp with husband Roy, 63.
For Hugh Gallagher, 29, it was an annual pilgrimage with his father, Philip Gallagher, that harkens back to the days when now-retired players Bubby Brister, Louis Lipps and Merril Hoge were tearing up the gridiron.
On Sunday, Hugh Gallagher and wife Elizabeth, 27, came to training camp with 6-month-old daughter, Susannah, in the hope of starting a new family tradition.
While the McCandless man, who wore a No. 58 Jack Lambert throwback jersey, is a die-hard member of Steelers Nation, he said the lessons of the camp for his daughter as she grows will transcend football.
"All this hard work they're putting out on a college campus to improve every day is something she can do as a student," he said.
Kim Paull, 47, of Uniontown, who used to come to watch Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann in the 1970s, is the catalyst for her family's devotion to the team, including nephew Brandon Chalmers, 15, of Atwater, Ohio.
A Steelers island in a sea of Browns fans at school, he nonetheless wears the black-and-gold proudly.
"It's pretty easy to deal with because the Steelers always beat them," he said.
While his friend, Carter Harring, 14, of Uniontown, is not a huge fan, he was drawn by the concession stands, the football-themed trailers, and the opportunity to spend time with his buddies.
Amber Noye, 26, and boyfriend Brandon Zitsch, 27, both of Altoona spent the afternoon soaking up the sun and the football atmosphere amid like-spirited fanatics.
"We can't go to the games, so this is the next best thing," said Ms. Noye who was wearing Steelers athletic top, cap, and dog tags.
Liz Enlow, 30, traveled a circuitous life journey to her first training camp: from her childhood in Arizona as a Steelers fan to California to her current residence in Philadelphia.
"We love the Steelers and wanted to experience being close to them," she said of herself and husband Julian, 35, who also grew up a Steelers fan in Arizona.
"An autograph would be nice, but I just wanted to see the team," he said.
Another long-distance visitor was Traz Matrazzo, 62, of Alexandria, Va., who was raised in Braddock and said he would not miss the training camp experience for the world -- and neither would family members from Ohio, Georgia and Maryland who gathered, reunion-style, at St. Vincent.
Since camp opened to the public, visitors clad in black-and-gold also have traveled from as far away as New York, Delaware, New Jersey, Florida and Iowa.
But few likely traveled farther to Pittsburgh than Martin Shields, 49, and Gerry Mulholland, 70, who helped lead 140 disadvantaged youth for eight days from Newry, Ireland, from which the Rooney family hails.
Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published August 2, 2012 4:00 AM