Fans, players enjoy preseason bonding time

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In the midst of a blocking drill Thursday at Steelers training camp, rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt broke away from an offensive lineman and rushed right for a team manager, who was acting as quarterback and scrambling at half-speed in the pocket. Instead of lightly touching the manager as instructed, the 300-pound lineman let instinct take over, reached out and flattened the manager.

"I love you, Stephon!" one Steelers fan yelled from the grassy hill overlooking the field.

Tuitt was too busy apologizing and helping the manager to his feet to hear the fan, but he, like the rest of the Steelers, take note of the fans, who come out every day to watch the Steelers train. Between a 90-minute walk-through each morning and an afternoon practice in pads that usually lasts more than two hours, camp can be a drag for players. The fans help ease their long days.

"The fans give you more motivation," Tuitt said. "We are all sore and just to see the smile on their faces, just to see that they're happy to see us gives us more motivation to push through practice and finish strong."

It gives many players additional incentive to compete at their highest level.

"It's exciting," linebacker Terrence Garvin said. "It gives you a little something extra, like, let me go ahead and turn up and do something good."

"Great aura around. The fans make you feel uplifted somehow," veteran Lawrence Timmons said. "You want to make them happy. You hear the cheers and the oohs and aahs. That's what it's all about."

Thursday, fans hollered, clapped, bellowed "Heath" whenever veteran tight end Heath Miller caught a pass -- and even laughed when 250-pound linebacker Arthur Moats accidentally knocked over Shaun Suisham running onto the field for a simulated last-second field goal attempt.

Thousands of fans enjoy the close access to players at an affordable price (free). Among them were Mike and Tracy DeHaven and their son, Alex, who have been coming to training camp since 2006 after the Steelers won Super Bowl XL.

"We were so jacked up from the Super Bowl win," Mike explained. "It was a great time -- we didn't think it was going to be that great because I went to [Baltimore] Ravens training camp [years ago], and it was a dump. It stunk. So, I said, 'What's the big deal about training camp?' And then I came here and I was like, 'This is what training camp is supposed to be like.' This is a lot different than other training camps."

Every year, they take a vacation and trek from Frederick, Md. This year, they watched the Steelers practice Thursday and Friday.

"Seeing the players up close is the best part. You see them on TV every day and now you get to see them in real life," Alex, 17, said.

Getting close to the players is a draw for many fans, such as the kindergarten-aged Luke Hartman and Andrew Merchant, who were brought to camp by Luke's father, Dr. Matthew Hartman, of Squirrel Hill.

Dr. Hartman enjoys the fact that everything is free and organized in a kid-friendly way, while the boys love seeking autographs and pictures with the players.

"You don't need to get their autograph, you could just see them," Merchant said. "It's really cool to do that."

Jack Goettman, 54, and his mother Dorothy, 84, came for the first time in a decade to see wide receiver Derek Moye, who is from their hometown of Rochester. As lifelong Steelers fans, they enjoyed the proximity to the players, which is sometimes extreme.

At one point, Antonio Brown caught a pass barely inbounds and headed straight for a line of fans standing by the field. They were too busy grinning at his catch to dodge the speeding receiver as he stopped just inches from several spectators.

But, overall, a day watching the Steelers at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe is very serene.

"I don't remember the last time we were here it being as beautiful as it is," Dorothy said.

Andy Zurchin of McKees Rocks also loves the view. He's been going to training camp for 15 years to enjoy the beautiful landscape that sitting on the hill overlooking the field provides. Beyond the practice fields, willows rise over the players and, in the distance, mountains peek over the horizon. The experience is much more relaxing than spending a Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

"It's more like a little vacation. It's out in the country. It's nice out here," he said.

Some fans prefer camp to the excitement of Sunday afternoons in the fall and winter, but for the ones that don't, camp, which Timmons called a "watered down version" of a game, is the closest diehards can get to the real thing.

"I can't wait until the season starts. I live for when the Steelers start to play," Dorothy Goettman said.

Hayes Gardner: and Twitter @HayesGardner.

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