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Generations of Steelers fans flock to practice on Unity campus

| Saturday, July 26, 2014, 10:30 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers fans fill Chuck Noll Field during practice on Saturday, July 26, 2014, at St. Vincent College in Unity.

Stan Gibson was invited to a family cookout Saturday afternoon, but he didn't make it.

Instead, the 66-year-old Monroeville resident sat in a lawn chair atop a hill at St. Vincent College and watched the Steelers practice, something Gibson has been doing since 1970.

“Football has been stopped since February,” Gibson said. “And I couldn't wait to get back.”

The Steelers returned to Latrobe on Saturday, a date that around here rivals Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Gibson's holiday began with a stop at DeLallo's Italian Marketplace on Route 30 for his two favorites: seafood salad and cold cuts. He filled his cylindrical Steelers cooler with ice and beverages.

“All legal stuff,” Gibson joked.

Seated next to Gibson was his longtime friend, Ben Williams, 61 and also of Monroeville, with whom Gibson used to coach youth football.

For these two longtime pals, Steelers training camp means not only hope but an opportunity to reconnect with their roots.

Even if it forced Gibson's wife of 44 years, Doris, to fly solo.

The Steelers have held training camp at St. Vincent since 1967, making this the 49th edition. But across the NFL, more and more teams are moving camps to practice facilities or stadiums.

No surprise, the more than 6,600 fans in attendance on a sunny Saturday would not be in favor of the Steelers following suit.

“What's great about here, as opposed to having it in the city, is that everybody seems to get along out here,” said Barb Fletcher, 38, of Homer City. “It's a great environment.”

This year marks the Steelers' first camp since former coach Chuck Noll's death.

For 55-year-old Don Shaffer, who traveled to Latrobe from Johnstown with 18 family members, continued visits to St. Vincent — a tenet of Noll's tenure — are a must.

“He spent many years preserving the tradition,” Shaffer said. “I think it should stay the same.”

“If we had to go into Pittsburgh, we wouldn't come, because this is so accessible,” said Lynn Kreider, 67, who along with her husband, Don, 71, made the trip from Lancaster.

Kathy Gray, 36, of Butler brought her 11-year-old son, Ashton, who snagged autographs from his favorite Steelers: tight end Heath Miller and safety Troy Polamalu.

“The Steelers are very fan-oriented,” Gray said. “I think they'll stick it out here as long as possible.”

Chris Bell, 47 of Uptown, sure hopes so.

Too many teams are pricing themselves out of the market and driving away fans, he said.

“Everybody wants to go big-time and stay away from everybody,” Bell said. “When they get so far out of touch with who supports them, and start going toward the corporations, that's when they start to lose their fan base.”

Maybe the most interesting perspective Saturday came from Ken Fuirst, a 50-year-old from Chappaqua, N.Y., who's riding his bike across the country — he started in Seattle six weeks ago and is riding home — and stopped for a couple of hours to watch practice.

“It's like a large family,” Fuirst said. “You can see multiple generations walking through here. It's pretty cool.”

The first day of football camp has a certain, upbeat feel, said former Steelers player and current radio analyst Tunch Ilkin, even though the Steelers are coming off back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

“No one ever yawns about the upcoming football season,” said Ilkin, who started his 35th camp. “Everyone is excited.”

Fans looking for a diversion from autograph seeking could take part in a series of stations at the team's Fan Zone.

Some slid into a pair of Polamalu pads and posed for pictures. Others stood behind a gigantic statue of Ben Roethlisberger, posing as the Steelers' quarterback.

Chris Curler, an 11-year-old Baltimore native whose father — also named Chris — grew up in Turtle Creek, took a handoff and went running through a black and gold gauntlet.

“Pretty cool,” Curler exclaimed.

Landon Moore, 8, of Youngstown, Ohio, drew signs with Sharpie markers to try and net autographs. One example asked players to take a selfie with him.

“I like coming out here to have fun and get autographs and stuff,” Landon said.

Alyssa Johnson, 26 of Hyndman, Pa., brought her 8-month-old son, Easton, who (Alyssa said) hoped to get an autograph from Antonio Brown.

“My husband and I are diehard Steelers fans,” Johnson said. “I just want him to have the same experience that I had growing up, of coming here. He has no choice but to be a Steelers fan.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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