It's a late-summer sports tradition in the United States: thousands of fans of American professional football make a pilgrimage of sorts to the small college towns that host the pre-season training camps for the 32 National Football League teams -- like the town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, practice site of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers
Every August, the Steelers draw some of the league's largest daily crowds to the team's practice site on the campus of St. Vincent College, outside the town of Latrobe. The crowds are loud, too. After watching a practice session, many of them call out for players' autographs.
"Ben! Ben!" one little boy yells at Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "Mr. 'Best quarterback in the NFL!' Ben! Me! Me!"
Forty-four year old Keith Glover from Pittsburgh is one of the longtime fans who take part in the helter-skelter screaming each August. He and his wife drove down for the day just be part of the excitement. "It's beautiful. Beautiful," Glover says. "This is what the game is about. Right here. It isn't about the players as much as it is about the fans and why these guys play so hard. This is stuff right here that makes them win Super Bowls because each year they can come back to this." He laughs, "Wouldn't you love people to call out your name? You know what I'm saying?"
At camp, the fans can watch the superstars run, catch and pass the ball -- up close and in person, rather than on TV or from distant, often-expensive stadium seats.
Longtime residents of the region says the Steelers' late-summer visit is steeped in local history, culture, and tradition -- starting with the camp's location, on the campus of St. Vincent College, a 150-year old Roman Catholic liberal arts college and monastery.
Brother Dominic Greco is one of the monks, who -- like many in the monastery and nearby town -- is pleased with all the visitors -- despite the excessive revelry. "This is their 40th year coming here," he notes. "It's not unusual for St. Vincent. We're a Benedictine monastery. One of the things we specialize is hospitality. So we're always accommodating of guests."
In town, Tracy Rosky just about gushes, "Everybody's a football fan in Latrobe!" The owner of Mosso's Pharmacy says it seems that all her customers talk about is the Steelers camp. "We love when they come every year. Everybody's excited - from the priests on down. I stay open at night, and we sell a lot of pop [soda] and ice - and stuff like that. People have come from Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia. And they want to know if we know any of them. You know that kind of stuff, like we're best friends with them."
At nearby Rusbosin's Furniture store, salesman Joe Ewing says his and other local businesses get a boost in sales when fans come to town. "We do get people who come in after having visited St. Vincent and that's always good for business. A lot of people who were born and raised here and moved away come back to see family and friends and try to plan it around this time of year so they can go down to St. Vincent's and watch practice. So that's another reason why people around here like to see them [the team] come back."
Latrobe once had other claims to fame -- it was the hometown of popular children's TV host Mr. Rogers --and the home of a popular beer brewery that was recently sold and moved. But they still have the Steelers - a team ironically named for the now-mostly-gone steel industry.
The Steelers embody an identity that goes way back -- to the eastern European immigrants who became farmers and coalminers here in the early 20th century. Some still do that physically-demanding kind of work. But in recent decades, most residents have had to adapt to the loss of factory jobs and start up or seek employment at small businesses.
Joe Ewing of Rusbosin's Furniture says what it comes down to is this: the people of Latrobe and the region see themselves in the tough Steelers team. "They don't give up," Ewing says about the Steelers. "That's what people like about them."
Ewing knows firsthand why that strikes a chord with his neighbors: "Economic conditions around here haven't been all that great, yet people find a way to keep going. That's what the Steelers do."
And that's what Steeler fans expect their team to do again, when they meet the Miami Dolphins in the opening game of the 2006 season, September 7th.