The Pittsburgh Steelers will descend on St. Vincent College for training camp for the first time in three years on Tuesday, after the team’s 2020 and 2021 camps were moved to Heinz Field because of pandemic-related restrictions.
Camp is always a place where new players get their introduction to the team and its history, but the hiatus has meant that Tuesday will be the first St. Vincent experience for the vast majority of the team’s 90-man offseason roster.
Of the players that will move into Rooney Hall on Tuesday, only quarterback Mason Rudolph, running backs Benny Snell and Trey Edmunds, wide receiver Diontae Johnson, tight ends Zach Gentry and Kevin Rader, tackle Chuks Okorafor, center J.C. Hassenauer, defensive linemen Tyson Alualu, Cam Heyward and Henry Mondeaux, outside linebacker T.J. Watt, inside linebackers Marcus Allen, Devin Bush, Ulysees Gilbert III and Robert Spillane, safety Terrell Edmunds, cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Justin Layne and kicker Chris Boswell have spent a full summer at the school.
Even the Steelers coaching staff, long noted for its consistency, has few holdouts from the 2019 camp, just head coach Mike Tomlin, John Mitchell, Teryl Austin, Danny Smith, Karl Dunbar, Eddie Faulkner and Jerry Olsavsky remain among the primary staff.
So the 2022 camp will be the introduction to a big part of Steelers history for a lot of the team. For the 70 that haven’t been to a practice at Chuck Noll Field, it will be learning experience.
“Not a lot of people have been there because of the last two years,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said, and he admitted he’s asked around about what to expect. Not too many NFL teams still go away for training camp, and fewer still are continuing the practice after the pandemic took it away.
“They just said get ready,” Trubisky said. “They said it’s kind of in a little pit, so it gets nice and hot down in there. And then we’re back living in dorm rooms, so it’s like we’re back to freshman year in college. So I’ll be looking forward to that.”
The dorm life might be the most-maligned part of the camp experience for players, especially those used to a certain amount of creature comforts. The dorms have improved a lot since the Steelers first started going to St. Vincent in 1966.
Late Steelers tackle and broadcaster Tunch Ilkin used to malign the current players’ luxurious dorm life of cable television and air conditioning, things the setup lacked during his playing days in the 1980s. Even though campus life has improved somewhat from what it was, things are still spartan compared to the standard of living of most NFL players.
But Trubisky isn’t the only one that said he’s looking forward to being in some close quarters with his teammates.
Wide receiver Chase Claypool said. Claypool is entering his third season with the Steelers, but will be in his first training camp near Latrobe, and he’s looking forward to getting closer to teammates, especially with a lot of turnover in the wide receivers room.
“I think it’s a good opportunity to bond with our teammates,” Claypool said. “I was in the dorms for three years at Notre Dame. That was kind of my thing. … I’ll be in a quad. My roommates are Gunner [Olszewski], Miles [Boykin] and … who’s our other roommate, Gunner?”
From across the room, Olszewski chimed in to remind Claypool that Cody White is the fourth member of the quad. If they are already finishing one another’s sentences, imagine how close they’ll be when camp breaks.
That is, of course, the point of hauling 90 players, two dozen coaches, and untold numbers of support staff to the Laurel Highlands for the better part of a month. Practice can be had anywhere, but team-building and practice are not the same thing, and that’s one of the reasons Tomlin advocated for a return to Latrobe.
“I’m a lover of camp,” Tomlin said. “I like the opportunities to work on the intangible quality that good teams have. The informal time up there, to me, is as significant as the formal time. Guys sitting out on the stoop at night outside the dormitory getting to know one another, talking about life and football. I just find value in that, and I’m really excited about that.”
For the Steelers as a franchise, training camp at St. Vincent means more than just getting Tomlin’s team more closely bonded together. The team performs publicly just 20 times a season, and only 10 of those occur at the team’s North Shore home in Pittsburgh.
With personal seat licenses at Acrisure Stadium going from $800 to $50,000 and most single-game tickets over $100, seeing the Steelers live and in-person is an expensive proposition. At St. Vincent, the parking is free, the tickets are free, and the players aren’t tiny ants from the 500 level of a stadium. They’re up-close and personal. You can watch Cam Heyward giving a teammate the business for a substandard rep or hear Tomlin deliver one of his trademarked lines. If you’re willing to push to the front of the ropes, you can probably come away with an autograph.
“It’s been a great set up, mostly for our fans,” president Art Rooney II said. “They love it up there. So we’re anxious to get back up there and give our fans the chance to get up close and personal with our players and team. That’s always been the best part about it.”
With most NFL teams locked away and out of site, it’s one of the things that make the Steelers the Steelers. The team’s national fanbase overflows stadiums around the country, and many come to Latrobe from far and wide every summer. It’s a rare experience for fans and players alike. Trubisky, in his seventh season, will be experiencing it for the first time.
“The cool thing is that a bunch of the fans will be able to be out there for practices,” Trubisky said. “I always look forward to that, being around the fans. They get an up-close look at us. I know it means a lot to them. It means a lot to us, too.”
There are plenty of reasons for the Steelers to get back to Latrobe, from team-bonding to connecting the fanbase to teh team and more. But good, old-fashioned tradition isn’t a bad reason, either. After all, the Steelers have trained at St. Vincent before each of their six Super Bowl titles.
“We’ve had a pretty good track record going up there,” Rooney said. “So that doesn’t hurt.”