UNITY TWP., Pa. — Tonight, the Steelers are throwing things back, in more ways than one.
The team’s annual Friday Night Lights practice, to be held at Latrobe Memorial Stadium in downtown Latrobe, is a throwback for the players to their high school days of riding a school bus to the stadium in their cleats and pads and going all out in front of a packed house full of passionate fans on a Friday night.
It’s usually one of the more physical practice sessions of the summer, with players eager to stand out in front of the crowd and head coach Mike Tomlin cognizant of putting on a show for the city that helps host the team’s annual training camp.
“We have been coming here a long time organizationally,” Tomlin said on Thursday. “Shoot, man, I have been coming up here personally 13 years. It’s a cool thing. Familiar faces and relationships. It is good to be able to ante up and kick in and help them in some way.”
The Steelers’ regular practices at St. Vincent College are, of course, open to the public, and many take advantage of that. But the 2:55 p.m. start time during the week is unkind to those with 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. jobs.
That itself is sort of a throwback, as well. Latrobe is still very much a blue-collar, nine-to-five kind of place. It’s a place that frankly, needs the boost that the Steelers can provide throughout the summer in general and especially on an otherwise quiet Friday night in August.
Steelers offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva probably said it best before practice on Thursday.
“It is cool to sort of drive around when you’re in the buses and you load up,” he said “You get to the stadium. You see the houses. You see how much they love the Steelers.”
“To me personally, it goes back to Pittsburgh, to how it became the city that it was, with steel companies and as a manufacturing city with all the immigrants, the Hunkies,” Villanueva continued. “We practice on the South Side. We know what Carson Street used to look like back in the day.
“We know how that’s changing now. Pittsburgh has reinvented itself and reinvested in technology and education. Some of these cities that are on the perimeter of Pittsburgh are sort of being a little bit forgotten and you can talk about the opiate epidemic and some of the issues that are facing them.
“It’s good that at least as a Pittsburgh Steeler, I can make their day a little bit better by going out on Friday Night Lights, practicing, signing some autographs and saying hi to the community.”
So, in many ways, the Steelers’ Friday Night Lights tradition is just football practice, one of many throughout training camp. But it also something more, and that’s why they make sure to put on a show.
“It is a very painful practice,” Villanueva said. “The next day, you feel it.”