Steelers fantasy camp an extension of family

Some came alone, some came because they've been coming since the first one and one man even came despite the fact he is battling cancer.

Attendants showed up from Mexico and Canada to attend the Steelers 12th annual men's fantasy camp, which was held Friday-Sunday in Latrobe.

"I've been out here four times, and I love it," Glenn Bager said. "Someone said something that it's like a big bachelor party for Steelers fans. We just love it.

"You get away from your family for a few days, and it's a little sad, but for the most part, this is family, too. This is your outside family."

Bager, from New Jersey, said he has been a Steelers fan his entire life. He said some of the best memories of being a fan include going to his first game as a 21-year-old when he got chills in his spine coming off the turnpike and seeing signs that read "Pittsburgh" and when the Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl X.

Bager can make a case as one of the most diehard Steelers fans as he was given a week off from his cancer treatments by his doctor in order to attend the camp.

He said he has adenoid cystic carcinoma, which is a type of oral cancer. He had a tumor removed and has gone through about half of his 33 treatments. He chose this week to escape the treatments and enjoy what he calls being around a "Fraternity of Steelers fans."

While Bager may be in his fourth year of attendance, he managed to convince one of his friends, Paulo Tereso, to attend for the first time.

Sports fans would do unspeakable things just to see their favorite team win one title. Even though the Steelers have spoiled their following with six Super Bowl titles, 15 AFC championship appearances and 22 Hall of Famers inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tereso said attending fantasy camp has been his favorite memory as a fan.

"I mean, this has just been unbelievable," he said. "This is a real person-to-person experience. We just had lunch with Bubby [Brister] and heard some good stories about the old NFL days. When it comes from the source, I mean, how much better does it get than that?"

The festivities this year included Steelers alumni Brister, John Banaszak,Jason Gildon, Jeff Hartings, Tunch Ilkin, Jeff Reed, J.T. Thomas, Craig Wolfley, Gerry "Moon" Mullins, Mike Wagner and Donnie Shell.

The 200 attendants from 41 states paid $699 to have the opportunity to speak to the players, partake in on-field practices and receive a customized jersey with whichever number and name they wanted.

Sal Giorno chose the number 10 and the inscription "MYTENTHYEAR" for his jersey.

"I'm a diehard Steelers fan," he said. "I love the Steelers, and it's not because of the Super Bowls or anything like that. Growing up through the good and the bad, I just always stuck with them. I couldn't go through that many years of misery liking another team."

Giorno also came from New Jersey. He said the enjoyment, laughter and meeting new friends are the reasons he keeps coming back year after year. He said some attendants aren't even Steelers fans but come because of the bonds they have formed over the years.

Coming for the camaraderie is no more evident than in the case of Will Smith. Smith lives in Los Angeles. His wife bought him a spot in the second camp as a gift. Since then, he said, he has tried to make it to every camp.

Smith doesn't mind the fact he travels to Latrobe alone because he has been seeing the same faces in attendance since the first one. He tried to recruit his brother, who lives in Texas, to come with him this year.

The motley crew of characters took a break Saturday from the drills and blue skies to listen to Mullins, Wagner and Thomas recall memories from their playing days, answer questions from fans and deliberate on some of the biggest differences between the game today and that of years past.

"The person who I spoke to years ago who said he could play with us was Hines Ward," said Wagner, a four-time Super Bowl champion safety.

"He is the full package, OK. We had receivers who would catch deep-in routes, and what that means is they're getting pounded. Pounded. Hines Ward would not only have fit in well, he would have loved it.

"Now, I would have liked to taken a couple shots at him."

Mullins, who played in 124 games for the Steelers, recalled a time before the 1974 season when he and fellow players were on strike. Mullins said Art Rooney Sr. pulled up to the striking players on the side of the road and handed each a six pack of beer. Mullins stopped striking shortly after.

While the fans may relish at the opportunity to relive their favorite Steelers memories with the players who partook in those memories, some alumni enjoy the experience just as much.

"Obviously, Steelers fans are Steelers fans," former kicker Jeff Reed said. "It's hard to describe them. They're a blast. I mean, I was talking to the groups over there and it's like they'd rather come to Latrobe and do these athletic drills then go on a cruise or the Bahamas or something. So, they're dedicated, they're fun."

One of the fans who said he loved being able to get on the field with former players was Craig Coleman. He first heard about the camp when his nephew went on the Steelers Cruise -- another event former players partake in -- and talked to former defensive lineman Chris Hoke about the camp.

Coleman's nephew racked up enough Steelers fantasy points to partake in the camp and bring a guest.

If he did happen to spend $700 on a Steelers camp, he may not have been married for much longer.

"If it came down to asking my wife to do this, there would have been no way ... she would have let me," he said. "All my chores had to be done before I was able to leave town, so I had to take care of all that first."

RJ Schaffer:, Twitter @rjschaffer.

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