A Voice of the Fan post by Mike Walsh
It had been 18 years since my last visit to St. Vincent College for training camp. Before Steelers Nation Unite, there was the Steelers Fan Club. For joining a certain promotion you would be given access to field level passes at a training camp practice of your choice. Unfortunately this club disbanded shortly thereafter. Over the years I decided not to go since how can any experience compare to field level access.
In 2014 the Steelers held a joint practice with the Buffalo Bills at training camp in St. Vincent. In 2015, the Steelers were to return the favor. The Bills training camp is held at St. John Fisher College, located in the Rochester suburb of Pittsford, NY. It has been the summer home of the Bills since 2000 and is regarded as one of the top training camp sites in the NFL. Christina and I have friends in Rochester and we had been looking for a reason to visit…and this was it. I waited for the 2015 Steelers training camp schedule to come out. However, to my dismay, the Steelers wound up getting an extra preseason game. With the Hall of Fame game added to their schedule the Steelers scrapped their travel plans to Pittsford…and so did we.
In 2016 it was announced that the Steelers would host the Lions in a joint practice at St. Vincent. This time I would not miss it. One thing that would alter the plans was the weather, so I kept a watchful eye as far out as I could. I had not been to Steelers training camp in years, so I posted on a Steelers board that I frequent to see if anyone had any suggestions on how to attend. I was put in contact with someone who works for the college, and low and behold, I would be on the field level once again. Luckily weather would not be an issue.
We arrived on campus around noon that Tuesday. We were graciously invited to lunch at the college’s cafeteria. Our host led us over and as we entered the building two younger gentleman passed us. Christina was impressed that students would adorn their Steelers garb in support of training camp. That is when I informed her that they were ACTUALLY Steelers. Sean Davis, sporting his #28 Steelers sweatshirt helped me identify him. Next to him was Artie Burns. He was easily recognizable from having his first round face plastered on most Steelers sites.
During lunch our host discovered Christina was a guidance counselor. This would lead to an in-depth tour to the delight of Christina and our host. Our host mentioned when she added “Mike Walsh” to the guest list, she received several calls. Apparently there was a pretty well liked “Mike Walsh” who was an Alum of the college and staff wanted to know if that was he. Well, no, just me.
And, as almost on cue, a gentleman approached us calling…”Mike Walsh”. I responded, sorry…I am not “THE Mike Walsh”. It was the President of St. Vincent’s College. We were introduced to Brother Norman Hipps. He regaled us of stories about the old time Steelers when they were on campus. He spoke of how Mean Joe and Swanny would wait around and make sure that everyone who wanted an autograph received one.
The lovely Mrs. Walsh
We parted ways with the President. We soon found ourselves between Rooney Hall (where the players stay) and the gym (where they dress for practice).
No sooner did I look up the sloped path towards the hall when approaching us was David DeCastro. Our host looked at me and panicked a bit. We were told not to bother the players. I had no intention of, but I think she got a bit worried. I just nodded to him as he went by.
Just as he passed us, here came Cam Heyward. He had his headphones on and an extremely intense and focused look. This was in stark contrast to the next player who approached, Bud Dupree. His smile actually dwarfs that of Antonio Brown. To Cam’s business like demeanor, Bud was all smiles. He waved to the crowd who, unlike us, had to stay behind the security ropes. He looked like a star in the making. He seemed to be enjoying every minute of it. I hope he breaks out this year and stays a long time Steeler. I will be rooting a little extra for him.
Suddenly a car, resembling a limo, drove past us. It seemed WAY out of place. But then it all made sense. As it pulled up in front of the gym out stepped James Harrison. Deebo don’t walk down no hill…
The tour ended back at our car. We were given the field passes and said goodbye to our more than gracious host. She summoned a cart to take us down to the field level entrance. Not bad. After the players had taken the field, we were allowed to do the same. We had to stay behind a red painted line that semi circled the first field from goal post to goal post, but were still very close as my pictures will show.
The offensive line broke off in one of the end zones. I decided to head over to watch since this was the closest access… also there was less of a crowd. It was awesome watching an intense Mike Munchak instruct his students every step of the way. Hand placement, foot placement, picking up stunts. You can easily see his coaching makes a huge difference. A former Steeler player is assisting Munchak… and I easily recognize him even though others don’t. I explain to the small crowd near me that this coach is Alan Faneca. I was surprised to learn not many fans knew Faneca had dropped a significant amount of weight after retiring. I kept telling the group, that it was indeed Faneca. They didn’t believe me and I elicited responses of, “Are you sure”? A few moments later I was finally vindicated when Faneca himself turned around on a players water break, smiled and said, “Listen to the man…”
Off to my left on the middle field, Steeler players were running gunner drills for punt returns. One Steeler would line up and get jammed by two Lion players. After several practices against your own, this was an opportunity to hit, and hit hard. Pads popped. One player stood out. It was Shamarko. His speed, his violence and his passion were on display. Too bad it hasn’t come together for him “above the neck” to play on defense. Coates was another gunner that looked good. His strength was evident but I’d rather save him for the offense. Ross Ventrone looked like someone invited their kid brother to play. He gave it his all but he was pin-balled around, well, like a kid brother. Another notable was #18, Levi Norwood. He never got up field at all. The two Lion players easily pushed him back out of bounds. I think they are still pushing him around St. Vincent’s campus today.
I went back to middle of the sidelines on the first field to watch the one on one, Steeler WR v Lions CB. It was the AB show, even with his franchise QB sitting out this practice. His body control, ball awareness, hands, route running… wow, with all the Steelers rich history in receivers, I think we are seeing the best. He just abused the Lion’s CB’s.
Wheaton was nursing an injury so he did not practice. DHB looked good, but as we know, catching is not his thing… you just don’t ever feel comfortable as the ball approaches him. And maybe he doesn’t either… his body language is so different from that of AB. Coates looked good but they sent him mostly on underneath routes. He was strong to the ball with tight hand catches. Not sure what happened to him in the preseason game.
Eli Rogers looked good but I am not as sold on him as everyone else. I think Ayers may wind up better overall. Rogers however has the inside track but I did not really see anything that would distinguish him from the pack. I thought of Chris Rainey.
Ok, don’t bite my head off. Rainey looked good in preseason too. I just see them trying to force the ball to Rogers on 2 yd routes so he can run with the ball. All I see is Rogers getting killed. There was no “WOW” factor with him in practice. You could see who the pros were and who the camp fodder was. He seemed to be in the latter group. Prove me wrong Eli. Hopefully we find a way to keep Ayers.
Next up were the 11 on 11. Bell is back baby. He cut, and cut. And ran, and ran. And he never stopped running even when the whistle blew. He drifted out on a pass pattern one play and his legs got tangled with a Lion LB and he fell to the ground. The crowd got eerily quite. Bell did get up, but there was an “uh-oh” moment. Sign Bell, keep Bell. He is special. Running backs are a dime a dozen. Superstars are not.
DWill, well, was DWill.
Toussaint broke off a long sideline run when someone from the crowd yelled out, “Now hold onto the ball” which brought a muffled laugh and thoughts of what might have been.
On the pass plays they threw to Rogers…again and again and again. Coates was routinely beating his man, badly. The ball never came his way and I could sense his frustration. Every so often they throw deep to AB. Touchdown.
Bleachers where almost all fans and bloggers watch from,…. be they crowdfunding financed or driving to and from home each day on their own dime.
During all of this I was fiddling with my camera and iPhone. Several times AB and Bell were close enough to shake hands but I was looking down at my electronics. My wife kept telling me to just enjoy the moment and watch. Smart woman. I also took the opportunity to look around for spots to go the following day, when we would not have field access. Up in the stands I spotted where the shade would reside most of the day and that would be a prime spot for home base. I also saw that the fan area jutted out right behind the middle practice field. This was where the defense practiced against the Lions offense. I would set up our chairs there to have a secondary spot to go.
Near the end of practice we were escorted off the field. We returned our passes at the gate and once again we received a cart ride, this time back to the car. Our car was parked facing the road that led up to the gym. Christina left me for a few minutes and once again I was fiddling with my camera, looking at the bounty of photos I obtained. As Christina came back she said, didn’t you just see AB and Coates go right by you on the cart. Um, well, no…. It seems the veteran and star players avoid the long autograph line up to the gym and take the same carts we had just used.
Next Bell and DWill went by us. A few moments later here came the D. First it was Heyward and Tuitt. Then came the cart loaded with linebackers. Harrison, Timmons, Shazier and a few others. A young fan had tossed a football to Harrison to sign as the cart went by. The cart never slowed down. He made the fan run and catch up. He held the ball out from the back of the cart shouting, “If you want it, you got to come get it”. The fan got there after a full out effort. The linebackers cheered him. Nice moment.
Finally Tomlin went by in the last cart. My wife yelled something positive to him, I forgot what. I guess hearing a female voice he turned and just gave that Tomlin smile.
With the parade of carts over it was time to go. We had tickets to the Altoona Curve. Not sure why my Steelers fan buddies thought the distance to drive was too far. What else were we going to do in Western PA?
Day 2 was hotter than Day 1. Great. Also thunderstorms were in the area. I might have welcomed the rain, but the practice would not have. We entered through the main fan area. We quickly found a spot in the stands and I went to place our chairs in the area behind field 2. I was set.
They went through the same warm up drills as the day before. Eventually I made it to the offensive line group again. I am a little higher up than the day before, but it gives me a new perspective. Pouncey is sitting this day out, but he acts very much the coach.
I didn’t stay too long as I wanted to see the defense. It was almost impossible for me to see them on the middle field from field level the day before.
As I settle into my spot, I realize I had nailed it. The D is practicing against the Lions offense from the 40 yd line, progressing down to the endzone I was behind. First up are the Lions WR’s vs Steelers CB’s.
The one who stood out was Ross Cockrell. He blanketed receiver after receiver. He was physical with great hand fighting. I guess he got the memo he needs to be tougher. He did abuse a receiver all the way downfield and received a flag from the watching official. I am a big fan of Cockrell and he did not disappoint.
Sean Davis looks lost at CB. He easily got turned around and would lose receivers in their routes. I am not sold on him as a nickel corner. He comes up gimpy and his day is over. He sits with an ice pack on and watches intently.
Willie Gay is Willie Gay. The veteran looks just like that. However he gives up too much space and passes are easily completed. When did Gay become labeled as our best cornerback? This frightens me.
The 11 on 11 is next. Wow, Tuitt is a big man. It’s hard to judge the front 7 since after their initial bursts they need to dial it down as to not kill the opposing QB. Tuitt is routinely in the backfield, and it doesn’t look like he is even breaking a sweat. I expect big things from him. Cam was Cam. It appears Cam and Tuitt are becoming fast friends.
It was hard to see the push and first step from Hargrave that everyone is talking about. However what a height difference between him and Shade Tree. Speaking of McCullers… I wish someone could light a fire under his ass. He should be playing like Richard Kiel in The Longest Yard.
The outside linebackers rush, but again, they have to pull up at a certain point so it was hard to judge. Also the inside linebackers cannot tackle the running backs. This left me watching the CB’s again.
Play after play the fans saw #40 cover tightly and bat balls down. He is playing with the first team defense. The one catch on him was highly contested. You could see his disappointment the ball was caught. I did not remember who that was, so I texted my wife who was still up in the stands… she had the player program. Montell Garner was texted back. I had heard he was having a good camp, and now I saw it first hand. The drill ends with Willie Gay getting beat on a corner route by Golden Tate. Where have you gone Artie Burns.
Will Gay giving up the TD the author details above
As I mentioned before, Sean Davis watched and looked like he was going through mental reps. He couldn’t participate but it was obvious he wanted to. He was as close to the action as he could get though. It even got a young fan to point out, “Daddy, #28 doesn’t have a helmet on, he’s gonna get hurt.”
In stark contrast was Jarvis Jones. He was not practicing for some reason, He looked like he wanted to be somewhere else. He had no interest in anything. He was off to the side sitting on the water cooler (as my Mother would say, “like a lump on a log”) and barely interacted. His body language was terrible. If at all possible I expect even less from him this year.
Dupree was not practicing either, however he was his usual jovial self and frequently spoke with the players coming on and off the field. Overall I am impressed with the defense.
Our D-Line could be dominant but I worry about our OLB’s. Who is going to step up? Dupree, Chickillo, Moats? I know it won’t be Jarvis. Maybe Deebo continues to beat Father Time. Soon this part of practice was over and I headed back to the stands to watch the offense.
I caught the tail end of the 7 on 7. Grimble dropped a pass from Ben. Ben was not happy. He hits AB and DHB for touchdowns. He pulls it down and runs on the last play, almost laughing as he did so. No O or D line to get in his way.
It is now 11 on 11. First pass play Jesse James is late off the line into his pattern. Ben throws to the spot he should already be. He is not there. The pass is intercepted. Ben was not happy. The next play Ben voices displeasure with his TE’s… the fans agree.
A few run plays later Ben goes for the home run ball to AB. AB is abused all the way downfield. He somehow catches it and is ruled out of the endzone, no catch. AB loses it. I guess after being interfered with, and then making a great catch and ruled incomplete he has had it with the ref. He tortures him all the way up the sidelines back to the huddle. I yell out to the crowds delight, “I see the Refs are in midseason form”. (EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the highly publicized incident where the official told AB he would have been ejected had it been a game.)
After that almost every pass is underneath to Eli Rogers. I see this as a bad omen. I will say it again, Chris Rainey. Everybody loved Chris Rainey in camp. Then everyone loved him in the preseason games. Then he faced REAL NFL players in the regular season. We know how that went. Maybe as a receiver Rogers will thrive as a smaller player, but remember they wanted to play Rainey in the slot too. Don’t get me wrong, I am pulling for Eli. I pulled for Rainey too.
Landry now replaces Ben… I lose interest. Fastball pitcher was just replaced with a junk ball pitcher. Then Vaughn comes in, it is the JV team. We are in trouble if Ben goes down. I prepare to get autographs.
I can sense the end of practice coming so I head to the autograph line. I was given a 16×20 inch printed logo the Steelers will now use for training camp going forward. I tape cardboard to the back so it is easy for the players to sign. The players start to trickle off the field. I know from the previous day we will not being seeing the stars. That’s ok. This is the training camp logo, anyone who attends I wanted to sign.
I see the first player to come over, it’s Mike Mitchell. He interacts with the crowd, taking his time to sign for what seemed like everyone. He is in no rush, he is enjoying the fans. I get his autograph, he seems to be settled in as a Steeler. Good for him.
I moved down towards another player, it is the Gravedigger, Javon Hargrave. He is conversing with a family and signing autographs. Someone mentions he is being compared to Aaron Donald, I said hopefully soon Aaron Donald will be compared to him. I patiently and quietly wait my turn. I guess I waited to long. I go to hand him my print, but he steps back. He is done. I said, “Just one more?” He smiles and shakes his head no. I’ll forgive him.
Next player I won’t be so shy. Sure enough, like the day before, here comes DeCastro. He is not coming over. I shout out, “David how about an autograph?” He looks over at me, same garb as yesterday, and I wonder if he didn’t recognize me as the “VIP” from the other day. He comes right over and signs. I wish him good luck this coming season. He signs a few more before he is off. He doesn’t smile, he looks angry. He seems to always look angry. Even Deebo smiles once in a while. Well, I guess that’s a good attitude to have if you are in the trenches.
Anthony Chickillo goes by, I call out, as do a few fans. No response. Feeney and Dirty Red go by but they are lugging some veteran’s shoulder pads. No reason to bother them.
Then my favorite, Jordan Zumwalt, goes by. I call out to him, he looks up and grins as if to say “who the heck wants MY autograph”. He comes over and signs for me. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Did you get him to sign it, “From the Money Pit, Jordan Zumwalt”, Walsh?)
The kids are delighted any player comes over. Jordan settles in and signs for a while.
Ray Vinopal is seen in the distance. Now you have to realize that the players no longer have their jerseys on, so this is done by face recognition. I yell out Ray. He looks over like what the hell, I’ll sign. He didn’t sign for anyone else and he was off.
I then head up to the top of the hill where the steps to the upper level are. Hey, it’s Artie Burns. I recognize him from yesterday. He didn’t practice so he took his time with all the fans. I filed in behind the roped line of autograph seekers. The lady at the end was only taking a photo, so I asked if I could get in there. She looked pissed and said she was taking a photo. I was like lady, he is 2 feet away, how much closer does he needs to get for a picture. She doesn’t answer, snaps the photo, I step in front of her.
The guy next to me says to Artie, I have you down for 6 picks this year. Artie chuckles and says, I wish! I say, how about a few pick 6’s instead. He signs for me, we make small talk about camp but other fans await. I wish him luck and he is off to the other side of the walkway.
I didn’t like the pick of Burns, however with this interaction he is now a favorite. Players need to realize these simple exchanges and access to talk create greater fans… of which I am now one.
On the other side are Landry Jones, Daryl Richardson and Chris Boswell. Coming down our side is Xavier Grimble and Issac Blakeney. I did not recognize them until I looked at their autographs. I was shocked it was Grimble, I thought these guys were both WR’s. Grimble is small, no wonder he can’t block. I weep for our TE’s.
I review the signatures I collected. Mike Mitchell, David DeCastro, Artie Burns, Xavier Grimble, Jordan Zumwalt, Ray Vinopal, Issac Blakeney. Not a bad haul.
My day was done. I rolled up my print and placed it in my tube. As I arrive back at the stands my wife let me know Wheaton and Coates signed by the stands. Oh well, maybe next time!
Here is a quick line or two about players:
Ben Roethlisberger – It is obviously his team now. Looked healthy and younger.
Le’veon Bell – Hard worker. I can see why his teammates love him. Star.
Antonio Brown – Intense as he is fun loving. One minute jumping jacks and smiling to the crowd, the next berating an official in a training camp practice.
David DeCastro – Smile please, maybe he will at the HOF podium
Marcus Wheaton – Please sign him to an extension. He was glued to Mann’s hip both practices. When not playing he was learning.
Maurkice Pouncey – Leader. If he keeps getting hurt will coaching be that far away?
Marcus Gilbert – Ripped. Where did the baby fat go? Good technician.
Ryan Harris – Insurance, very good insurance.
Sammie Coates – Not Martavis Bryant. Hangs around with AB, good sign. Worked the jugs machine. Needs to be coached up a bit more.
Eli Rogers – Everybody’s camp darling, not mine. Chris Rainey.
Jesse James – Too big
Xavier Grimble – Too small
David Johnson – Is he really back?
Roosevelt Nix – Got dinged. Usually the dinger…
Cam Heyward – This is his defense now.
Stephon Tuitt – Man among boys. Plenty of effort yet looks effortless.
Ryan Shazier – Right behind Heyward as a leader. Iced shoulder.
Javon Hargrave – Can his hips and thighs get any wider…no wondering where the push comes from.
Daniel McCullers – As dossal as a shady tree, I’ll bring the pitcher of lemonade. Did play some end with Hargrave in the middle.
Bud Dupree – Might beat Hines Ward in a smile competition. His interaction with teammates makes him look like the Le’veon of the defense. Now if he can play that way.
Jarvis Jones – Can we cut him already?
Arthur Moats – Vanilla
Jordan Zumwalt – Plays too high and stiff now unlike in college. Injury has changed him.
Ross Cockrell – Skinniest legs winner. Hope he can run support.
Robert Golden – Another leader. Can see why he was voted a captain.
Montell Garner – He is still following around Lion’s WR’s. Maybe this year’s Cockrell?
Sean Davis – A for effort. C for results.
Vince Williams – Would be starting for a lot of other teams. Maybe next year here.
Anthony Chickillo – Looks like a great OLB, now can he play like one?
Ross Ventrone – Rudy, Rudy, Rudy…
Shamarko Thomas – Can we put Ross Ventrone’s head on his body? Looks like a stud in practice…we know what happens in games.
Jordan Berry – Did somebody inflate his balls?
Chris Boswell – Effortless, in a very good way.
Artie Burns – Looks taller than advertised…that’s a switch.
Ray Vinopal – Thanks for the autograph
Isaac Blakeney – You too!
Cobi Hamilton – Some very nice catches and concentration. Is he practice squad eligible?
Demarcus Ayers – Better than Rogers. Don’t shoot the messenger.
Doran Grant – Hung with the starters. Practiced like he should be. Big college presence showed. What happened last year?
Levi Norwood – Last seen being assaulted by two Lion’s players.
Brandon Brown-Dukes – Slot him in on the practice squad.
Will Monday – I’ll gladly cut you Tuesday for another punter today.
Landry Jones – He looks like the kid in high school who always wanted to play QB but you never let him.
Dustin Vaughan – He throws a nice ball…to no one in particular.
Bruce Gradkowski – I saw him play live for Toldeo against Minnesota in 2004. He lost 63-7. That’s all I got.
Marcus Tucker – Last time I was at camp I watched #15 with huge interest. That player was Hines Ward. This player will be cut #1.
William Gay – I still can’t believe he is our #1 corner. Tate toast.
Mike Mitchell – Up, up and away. Only better this year.
Fitzgerald Toussaint – Practiced like he wants us to forget the fumble. See previous sentence.
Cameron Stingily/Donald Washington – Both wore #30.
DeAngelo Williams – Happy Birthday! Again. It’s getting as old as him.
Daryl Richardson – Gimme head with hair, long beautiful hair…shining, gleaming, steaming, flaxen, waxen.
Travis Feeney – Don’t hurt yourself carrying the veteran’s pads….oh wait…
Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort, Mike Reilly – They were present.
Jacob Hagen, Al-Hajj Shabazz and Jodran Dangerfield – Were also present.
Ricardo Matthews – Got first team reps. No second coming of Cam Thomas please…
B.J. Finney – Looks like a guard. But will it be in the NFL or Miller’s Tool and Die?
Jerald Hawkins – They are right, he looks like a left tackle.
Cody Wallace – Looked right back at home while Pouncey sat out.
Ramon Foster – He drank A LOT of water.
Cole Manhart and Matt Feiler – Bueller, Bueller, Bueller…
Brian Mihalik – Is taller than…
Alejandro Villanueva – Who is very tall
Steven Johnson – Not much from our big FA signing but more than…
Ladarius Green – He’s the real nowhere man
James Harrison – I’d test him for PED’s too. By mail, from another country…anonymously.
LT Walton and Caushaud Lyons – #96 and #99 in your program. I think that was the only time I saw them.
Chris Hubbard – Jack of all trades, horrible at all…
Lavon Hooks, Johnny Maxey, Giorgio Newberry – I think I accidently got a picture of them.
Greg Warren – Best job in the game. Walked around carrying a football all day.
Photo Credit: Mike & Christina Walsh
Editor’s note: During review, images that included the author at training camp may have been found to have not met SCB’s “aesthetic standards” and may have been omitted/deleted…… allegedly. Also, anything in this article written in plain italics is an editor’s note.