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It's OK to be a fan and ask for autographs

| Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008

"Autographs," I said to myself, "are ridiculous."

I was sitting on the bleachers at Steelers' training camp in Latrobe, watching the black and gold men do their thing down on the field. The rain, which had threatened all day, was holding off as if waiting for practice to be over.

I have a somewhat eclectic collection of Steelers' autographs -- Hines Ward and Jeff Reed on an "I love New York" T-shirt; Troy Polamalu on a "Handel's Messiah" program (he didn't look too happy when I asked him to sign it on our way out of Heinz Hall); and the gloves of Antwaan Randle El, given to me as he ran off to catch a departing golf cart during 2005 training camp.

I love my autographs dearly, but as I watched the boys out there, I felt myself recoil from the thought of standing in a crowd of adoring people waiting for another autograph.

After all, I thought, aren't they just like everyone else• What is it that makes us all so quick to hero worship• It's fun to watch football, but why do I -- and the rest of Pittsburgh -- idolize these men who all probably have egos the size of the U.S. Steel building• What makes them so much better than everyone else?

It was with these thoughts that I watched the bleachers empty out as people hurried over to the sidewalk to lie in wait for the players. I stood irresolutely, not sure quite what to do as the sky rumbled ominously. I'd never even get close to pushing my way through that crowd, assuming I even wanted to be a fan.

It was as I stood there, watching the crowd disperse, that I saw Ben Roethlisberger come jogging over to the fence at my feet. My mother prodded me: "Go get his autograph," she said. I made my way down.

As I pressed through the crowd, waiting for Ben to get to me -- and again later, when I got an autograph from a beaming Willie Parker -- my opinion changed.

Part of me had revolted at the idea of glorifying someone to the level of crowding around to get his autograph, but as I watched Ben smile at the crowd and remind them "don't push, guys -- there's little kids in here," my true fan spirit crept out. There was something genuine about the experience, something wholesome. If Ben Roethlisberger can live the life he does and still take the time to respect his fans, I have to admit to myself that I really did want that autograph.

Of course, when he agreed to take a picture with my sister and me, all my reservations left me and I leaned in close. "I have my arm around Ben Reothlisberger," I thought. "Unbelievable." I suppose I am a true fan.

In any case, something about the fans' enthusiasm and respect for the players, reciprocated by the players' willingness to stick around and sign every little kid's shirt, was refreshing.

When Ben began walking across the field and a little boy stuck his football over the fence yelling, "Big Ben! Big Ben! Big Ben!" and Ben turned around, dropped his gear and ran back to sign the football, there was a certain Coca-Cola commercial quality to the moment. It's good to have heroes, the moment said. It's good to respect people with talent.

As the rain began to come down, finally, and Willie Parker turned to join Ben in retreating from the downpour, I found my faith restored -- faith in respectfulness and integrity, faith in the ability to have role models.

Being a fan, I decided, can have its ups.

Ruth Snoke, 19, completed her first year at Wheaton College in Chicago.

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