UNITY TWP., Pa. — Nearly every day during Steelers training camp at St. Vincent College, just outside Latrobe, Pa., fans line up early in the morning for the opportunity to catch a glimpse of their favorite football team at work.
Early in the afternoon, the gates open, and they stream into the stands on the west side of Chuck Noll Field and spill out onto the surrounding lawns and hillsides.
Among those fans, particularly on the weekends, there are many, many young boys — and hopefully, a few girls — that hope to be Steelers themselves one day.
They come from all over Western Pennsylvania to watch, cheer, and maybe grab an autograph or a photo with a favorite player.
As youngsters, Western Pa. natives and current Steelers Dravon Askew-Henry and Kevin Rader certainly had thoughts of one day stepping onto the field as members of the Black and Gold.
Rader, a Pine-Richland and Youngstown State graduate, camped with Green Bay last year, but the young tight end saw no regular-season action. Askew-Henry is a former Aliquippa and WVU safety that signed with the Steelers this spring as an undrafted free agent.
But they never made it to St. Vincent College as youngsters. Instead, they’re getting their first Steelers training camp experience as members of the roster.
In fact, the first time either had ever even been to the campus was when Rader pulled his pickup truck into the driveway on move-in day.
“I’ve never been here and I’ve lived here my whole life,” he said. “It’s kind of funny.”
“I never came here, but I always heard and knew about it and watched it on TV to see the highlights and everything,” Askew-Henry said.”
Of course, the fans are a big part of what makes the Steelers training camp experience a special one, and it’s hard not to notice them from the minute the team descends the hill onto the playing field.
“It’s different,” Askew-Henry said. “It brings that game atmosphere type of feeling.”
The other thing that stands out about Steelers camp to those that grew up idolizing the team is the history of the place. Heinz Field and the Steelers’ South Side practice facility haven’t even been around for 20 years now.
But they’ve been coming to training camp near Latrobe for 54 years. That means that greats like Joe Greene, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann all made their Steelers debuts in exactly the same setting as Askew-Henry and Rader.
“It’s definitely a special place that all the guys and players that you think about have been playing and staying here for camp,” Rader said.
Of course, at 24 and 25, they youngest Steelers’ memories are a bit more current.
“The history here runs a long way, way before my time,” Askew-Henry said. “I’ve been watching this team since I was a kid. One of my favorite players ever was Troy Polamalu, so I mean. This history goes way back.”
The other thing being at St. Vincent College means for players like Askew-Henry and Rader is that it’s close enough to drive home on an off day, go back to get something they forgot, or have friends and family visit practice.
“I’m an hour up the road. I’m pretty sure they’ll be here,” Askew-Henry said, squinting while looking toward the bleachers. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some here today.”