Training camp is Kirby Wilson's favorite time of the year, and the Steelers running backs coach is thankful to have the opportunity to experience it once again with his fellow coaches and teammates at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
Wilson, severely burned in a January fire at his Seven Fields home, spoke with reporters Thursday after the morning practice.
"It's great to be back," Wilson said. "It's my most rewarding camp ever."
Wilson was burned on 45 percent of his body Jan. 6, two days before the Steelers lost to the Denver Broncos in an AFC playoff game. Wilson, who spent two months in the hospital recovering from his injuries, returned to some limited coaching duties this spring during organized team activities and minicamp. For those practices, he spent most of his time in golf cart parked on the sideline, taking notes and yelling instructions to his players from afar.
Wilson has progressed to the point now where he is jogging again, and he plans to spend time with the players on the field in camp.
"No doubt ever came in my mind that I would not be here," said Wilson, entering his sixth season with the Steelers. "It was just what condition would I be in when I got here? That was the goal in the OTAs and minicamp -- to be smart, pace myself, learn what bothers me and what doesn't bother me and just fix that when we got to training camp. I'm pretty much 100 percent right now. I got a little bit more, but I'm happy where I'm at."
Wilson must be cautious during camp. He has to apply plenty of sun block because he said he burns easier now. He also will take some breaks in the shade during practice and could return to the cart if he is tired. Otherwise, he is looking forward to getting back to work.
"I'll take my breaks because I want to be smart. My goal is to leave camp in the same condition that I came here -- and that's upright," he said, laughing. "Hopefully, by being smart and taking breaks here and there, it will be no problem for me."
Coach Mike Tomlin and the players were happy to see Wilson back in his usual role.
"It was so awesome today," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "I saw him jog. I said, 'Kirby, I see you running.' He started doing some backpedalling. You don't know how much it means to us. It's a neat thing, but for us players who know Kirby it is truly special. We're so used to seeing him riding in a golf cart. To see him out there and get a little jog in, it almost brought a tear to my eye."
"If you spent any length of time with him at Mercy Hospital you realize today is a blessing to have him back," Tomlin said. "We all love Kirb. It's bigger than the game of football. He's a dear friend to most of us. It's a beautiful thing, man. It provides some perspective for those of us who need it."
The Steelers media relations department told reporters before the interview that Wilson would not discuss the circumstances around the fire.
Wilson will be busy at amp with a stable of young backs that lack NFL experience. Starter Rashard Mendenhall is on the physically-unable-to-perform list after offseason knee surgery. Isaac Redman, in his third season, will be the starter while Mendenhall is out. With 162 carries in 33 career games, he is the most experienced back on the active roster.
After Redman, Jonathan Dwyer (third year), John Clay (second year), Baron Batch (second year) and Chris Rainey (rookie) are battling for roster spots.
"It's heated," Wilson said of the competition at running back. "That's the best way to describe it. We have one guy on PUP. We have Isaac Redman and a bunch of young guys who really have ability, but haven't done it over the long haul. They're all trying to find their niche. I've told those guys it's going to come on special teams. They have to be standout, studs, top-five special teams players.
"The running back reps will come. Their competition is not in my room. It's in the defensive backs room and linebackers room. They understand that. I've made that clear to them, and we'll see how they handle that through training camp."
Like Tomlin, Wilson is optimistic Mendenhall will be able to come off the PUP list at some point and contribute to the team.
"He thinks he's ahead of the curve," Wilson said. "Coach Tomlin has told myself and Rashard that we're going to be smart and don't rush back. When he's 100 percent, we'll see him on the field."
Wilson said he has experience coaching running backs coming back after ACL surgery.
"Typically, they're nervous," Wilson said. "Their apprehension is about coming back and reinjuring it. I know one thing about Rashard. He is a warrior, and he wants to be back and help this organization win football games. I expect him back soon."
Linebacker James Harrison is joining Mendenhall on the PUP list with a knee injury. Just what type of knee injury remains a mystery. Harrison sat out OTAs and minicamp with the same injury. He said he did not have surgery, but he declined to provide specifics.
"It's just something," he said. "It's day by day. I'll see how it goes. Hopefully, in a little while I'll be able to get out there."
Harrison had two back surgeries after the 2010 season that did not allow him to prepare the way he would have liked for last season. His workouts were curtailed again this summer in preparation for this camp, but he said he is in much better shape this time around.
The first two players the Steelers drafted in April were not among the starters for the first practice Thursday. Guard David DeCastro, the first-round choice from Stanford, and tackle Mike Adams from Ohio State lined up with the second-team offense.
Ramon Foster and Trai Essex lined up with the starters. Foster was the right guard and Essex the left tackle. Tomlin said the rookies will get plenty of opportunities to prove themselves in camp and in preseason games.
"We're going to put them in obscure positions, some with the first group, some with the second group," Tomlin said. "More than anything, it's about making sure they're ready to go from an assignment standpoint. We acknowledge they missed some time because of the universities they went to. We're not going to allow that to be an excuse. They're not, either.
"We'll get them acclimated and put them in some situations and get to know them. But, obviously, a big part of their evaluation is what happens inside these preseason stadiums. That's what's awesome about preseason football."
Tight end Heath Miller left practice with what Tomlin called a minor ankle injury. Nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu has a foot injury that also is not considered serious.