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|08-09-2009, 04:54 AM||#1|
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Steelers take to field with cast of characters
Steelers take to field with cast of characters
By Scott Brown, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, August 9, 2009
The Steelers opened training camp July 31 at St. Vincent College, and they did so without a familiar face.
Dan Rooney, who had been at every training camp dating back to the 1940s when he served as a ball boy, is in Ireland working as an ambassador for the United States.
"It was always nice to see him," veteran defensive tackle Chris Hoke said of Rooney, who is now a chairman emeritus of the Steelers. "He always came around and shook your hand and asked how you were doing. It is a little different not having him around."
Yes, but as they say, the show must go on, and to say that it has might be an understatement.
With the Steelers coming off a record sixth-Super Bowl victory, fans appear to be as starved as ever to get the up-close look at the team that training camp allows.
St. Vincent officials said attendance through the first week of camp was up considerably from a year ago. No attendance figures are kept since admission is free. But to get an idea of how many people showed up for the first practice last Saturday, consider the following:
Parkhurst, which runs concessions at the practices, sold 2,100 bottles of water and Gatorade combined, 1,300 hot dogs, 725 pieces of ice cream and 400 servings of nachos, said George Koscho, assistant director of retail.
With practice in full swing, the Tribune-Review took a look at the cast of characters, if you will, that helps make training camp what it is.
"Mean" Joe Greene got inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame before Steelers rookie defensive end Ziggy Hood celebrated his first birthday.
Even though he missed Greene's playing days, Hood nevertheless reacted the way a lot of older fans do when they see the one-time anchor of the Steel Curtain defense at training camp.
"I'm out on the field," Hood, 22, said of meeting Greene following a recent practice, "and I'm walking, and I'm like: 'That can't be him.' Then I'm like: 'Yeah, it is. Man, a living legend standing right there.' I had to introduce myself."
The man who needs no introduction to even the most casual of football fans spent the first week in camp before hitting the road to fulfill the duties that come with his job as a special assistant for pro and college personnel for the Steelers.
Before leaving Latrobe, Greene watched afternoon practices outside of a dormitory that overlooks the football fields. Among those joining him under a tent were Bill Nunn, who scouted Greene for the Steelers when the latter starred at North Texas State.
"Camps were longer when I played, and we probably were in pads more," recalled Greene, who played for the Steelers from 1969-81 and got the call to the Hall in 1987. "I enjoy coming back. I can reminisce."
Greene, the first draft pick of the Chuck Noll era, provided Steelers fans with plenty of blissful memories. His stature is still such that Hood resisted the urge to use a certain moniker while talking to Greene.
"I addressed him as Mr. Joe Greene," said Hood, the Steelers' first-round pick this year, "but I wanted to call him Mean Joe Greene."
The Higher Power
The Steelers wear white (offense) and yellow (defense) jerseys during practice. That makes Father Paul R. Taylor among the few people dressed in black during afternoon drills.
Cloaked in the traditional robe that Benedictine monks wear, Taylor has been a consistent presence at Steelers training camp since 1987, when he graduated from St. Vincent College and entered the monastery.
He may not exactly dress for the occasion, particularly when the humidity is thicker than one of James Harrison's arms, but Taylor doesn't complain.
"They are working a lot harder than I am," the 44-year-old St. Mary's native said of the players, "and they are sweating a lot more than I am. I figure if they can do it, I can do it."
Monks watching practice — there are around 180 of them in the monastery at St. Vincent — is one of the unique facets of Steelers training camp. The same goes for continuity.
Only one other NFL team, Green Bay, has been at the same location longer than the Steelers, who have been training in the shadow of the Laurel Mountains since 1967.
Taylor, who gives a tour of the campus to rookies prior to the start of training camp, said it is only natural that St. Vincent embraced the Steelers more than 40 years ago.
"St. Benedict, 1,500 years ago when he wrote his rules for monks, wrote in chapter 53 that all guests should be welcomed as Christ himself," Taylor said. "St. Benedict believed that hospitality was one of the key components of what it meant to be a monastery. He even went as far to say that monasteries aren't doing their job well unless there are guests."
Do the Steelers still qualify as guests?
"Because this is their home, they're hardly guests anymore, so we and they together seek to welcome people to campus," Taylor said. "Dan and his son, Art (II), have both articulated to me the importance of hospitality to all the visitors who come because it's the fans who make football."
Kraig Urbik could have used a couch last Saturday, and not just so the 6-5, 323-pound guard could rest following the first two practices of training camp.
It may have helped if Urbik could have talked to somebody after a rough day at the office, especially in the pass rush/pass block drills.
"The second practice — when we started doing one-on-ones — that was a huge, rude awakening," said Urbik, one of three third-round picks the Steelers made in the NFL draft at the end of April. "You have to have perfect technique every time.
"I did bad on it, so it's really an eye-opener that you really have to hone your technique."
As Urbik — and undoubtedly the rest of the players in a promising rookie class — quickly found out, the intensity is ratcheted up when training camp starts. Players are fighting for roster spots, and coaches that were more understanding of mistakes during offseason practices aren't nearly as tolerant with the regular season approaching.
As for the rough indoctrination to life in the NFL that most rookies receive — and specifically the yelling to which they are subjected during camp — Pro Bowl linebacker James Farrior said: "It's funny to me. We all were rookies once. You're just glad it's not you and glad you got yours over with."
That is not to say the veterans watch and laugh at the youngster.
"I know it can get bad for some of the rookies, and they need a little talking to sometimes," said Farrior, a 13-year veteran. "If we feel like they're really down on themselves or in the tank, we'll go talk to them and let them know that everybody's been there before."
That is at least one thing Urbik quickly grasped at camp.
"I know I'm going to get yelled at, I know I'm going to get screamed at," the former Wisconsin standout said. "But I've just got to keep improving."
|08-09-2009, 04:59 AM||#2|
Join Date: May 2006
Member Number: 2363
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Re: Steelers take to field with cast of characters
If the days blend together at training camp, that is because there is not a whole lot of variation in them.
"You wake up in the morning, and from the time you go to bed, you've got football," defensive end Aaron Smith said. "You're inundated with football."
That is the point of training camp — and especially going away for it as the Steelers have done before every season dating back to 1938.
The drudgery is more pronounced for players like Smith because they simply don't need training camp as much as the youngsters.
Smith, who is entering his 11th NFL season, has learned a thing or two about making camp more bearable. That is why he always rents a bed for camp, something he didn't do the first time he stayed at St. Vincent.
"I slept in a dorm bed and it was absolutely miserable," said the 6-5, 298-pound Smith. "Rookie mistake."
Camp does offer a few perks for established veterans such as Smith. He gets the occasional practice off, and Ziggy Hood has to carry his pads from the practice fields to the locker room as part of the latter's rookie initiation.
And, Smith concedes, training camp is an important part of the team-building process.
The days and nights spent with his teammates, however, means time spent away from his family.
That has been particularly hard this season for Smith.
His 5-year-old son, Elijah is undergoing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is cancer of the white blood cells.
Elijah Smith, who was diagnosed with the disease last October, has made remarkable progress, and his father said: "We've been very blessed."
Smith had lunch with Elijah and the rest of his family last Wednesday, though their visit proved to be too short for him.
"You try to make the most of what you have," Smith said. "It's hard to relax and enjoy your family because you know you still have practice hanging over your head."
Talk about a difference of opinion.
Hines Ward: "I hate training camp."
Mike Tomlin: "I'd do this 12 months a year if they let me."
Tomlin has to settle for roughly three weeks of putting his players through the paces and laying the foundation for the 2009 season.
In 2007, Tomlin, then a rookie coach, ran a rigorous camp that may have left the Steelers with tired legs at the end of the season. But there was a method to the perceived madness as camp allowed Tomlin to show the players that the Steelers were clearly his team.
Tomlin, who last February became the youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl, has eased up a bit — as even Ward can attest.
The wide receiver hardly practiced the first week of camp as Tomlin rested him and various other veterans, allowing younger players could get more work.
That is not to say Tomlin, 37, has gone soft.
He usually wears long-sleeved shirts and jogging pants during practices — a subtle reminder to his players that weathering the extreme heat usually associated with training camp is a case of mind over matter.
The weather through the first week of camp hadn't been nearly as unrelenting as in past years. Tomlin, who likes to see how his players respond to adverse conditions, said: "I would like it hot, nasty and muggy."
Twelve months a year, no doubt.
It's not like the odds of Brandon Williams making the Steelers are astronomical, especially since the wide receiver/kick returner was a third-round draft pick as recently as 2006.
But Williams is on the outside looking in with the Steelers likely to keep no more than five wide receivers when the 53-man roster for the regular season is set.
Two of those spots belong to Super Bowl MVPs Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. Limas Sweed, who is having a strong camp, and rookie Mike Wallace are near locks to make the team.
That leaves Williams battling a host of players, including Shaun McDonald, who is two years removed from a near 1,000-yard receiving season, for that final spot.
Williams left Wisconsin as the school's all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, eclipsing Lee Evans, now a standout wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills. He did not, however, catch a pass in the parts of three seasons he spent with the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams.
Williams compares himself to Denver's Eddie Royal and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, each of whom thrived as slot receivers during their rookie season in 2008.
"That's what I was three years ago," Williams said. "They got an opportunity. For whatever reason, I didn't get the opportunity to make as many plays."
Williams signed with the Steelers less than two weeks after they won the Super Bowl, and the 5-11, 170-pounder is intent on doing everything he can to stick with the team.
That explains why Williams, a candidate to return kicks, has also been getting some snaps at gunner on the punt-coverage teams.
Williams is trying make it as difficult as possible for the Steelers not to keep him.
"Here I really feel like they're going to give me the opportunity to do something," Williams said. "Making plays every day is going to be real important."
Roughly 90 minutes before the start of afternoon practices, fans race up Skyline Drive, some while lugging coolers, and scramble for prime autograph spots along the narrow corridor through which the players pass on their way to the fields.
For Gary Baumgarten, that used to mean getting to St. Vincent by five in the morning so he could be one of the first ones at the gate that separates fans from the area known as "Autograph Alley."
St. Vincent now encourages fans to come later. That, however, didn't stop Baumgarten, 24, from being the first one in the main parking lot the three days he spent at camp last week.
The Gaithersburg, Md., resident makes what he sees as an annual pilgrimage to camp in part because he inherited his love for the Steelers from his paternal grandparents.
"There's nothing else," Baumgarten said last Wednesday afternoon while standing by the steps that lead to the fields. "In the summer, full focus on the Steelers."
It seems more like full focus in the summer, winter, spring and especially the fall.
Baumgarten drives a yellow Hummer that is a mobile monument to his love for the Steelers. And, said his mother, Gina Beckmann, with a laugh: "His (bed)room is ridiculous."
That doesn't make Baumgarten unlike a lot of fans that come from all over the country to pack the bleachers at Chuck Noll Field and dot the hills that overlook the football fields.
It is not uncommon for a "Here we go Steelers, here we go!" chant to break out in the middle of practice. Nor is it out of the ordinary for fans to start cheering for the offense or defense, which elicits puzzled grins from the players since they are all on the same team.
"We love it," veteran cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "It's amazing how the fans take a couple of days off to come see us practice. It just shows the true love affair the fans have with the Steelers."
The Behind-The-Scenes Player
Larry Hendrick, the facilities director at St. Vincent, has a simple goal for his staff during training camp.
"We like to be under the radar, so they can do their business," said Hendrick, who has been at St. Vincent since 1982. "It's an NFL training camp, so our job is to let them do what they need to do."
Hendrick has been the liaison between the college and the Steelers for the past 10 years, and his top priority is to make sure the campus is ready for the swarm of fans every day practice is open.
That means some mornings may be spent fixing areas of the fence that separate fan areas from the field — folks can get a little overzealous when trying to get autographs — while making sure the campus is clean and as free as possible of bumblebees.
"Sometimes we're attacking nests here and there so the fans don't get stung," Henrick said.
Hendrick estimated that the average crowd through the first week of camp was 5,000 fans, which he said is a considerable jump from the 3,500 fans the team averaged last year.
The spike can be attributed to the Steelers winning the Super Bowl, and St. Vincent added roughly 300 spots in one of the grassy parking lots on campus to accommodate the extra fans.
Hendrick said the college has never turned away a fan for training camp since he has been at St. Vincent. Catering to their needs as well as the Steelers means Hendrick works two weeks straight once training camp begins.
A grind? Yes.
But, said Hendrick: "I love it. It gives us a little different angle to the college."
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