Steelers fans descend on St. Vincent College for training camp, relish return to normalcy

Jason Mackey

If George Muentzer felt rusty after a few years away, nobody could have blamed him. COVID-19 had robbed the 70-year-old Jeannette native of his favorite part of the year, a holiday for him that may be bigger than Thanksgiving or Christmas: the first practice of Steelers training camp. The wait ... well, it really had been the hardest part.

After a couple of years away, Muentzer’s routine remains intact. Tuesday night, in anticipation of a 3 a.m. wake-up, Muentzer set out his entire outfit like an 8-year-old gearing up for the first day of school: Steelers hat, socks, shoes and shorts; multiple Terrible Towels; black-and-gold beads; and a shirt commemorating his 50th drive to Saint Vincent College to watch his favorite team officially lift the lid on its season.

“Man,” Muentzer said while gazing out at the lush, sprawling campus on a drizzly Wednesday morning, “it feels good to be back.”

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Muentzer wasn’t alone. Although he arrived at 5 a.m. and thus occupied the first spot in line, Kenny Mullin, 31, of North Versailles, soon followed.

Joined by his younger brother and best friend, Mullin parked his gigantic red truck opposite Muentzer and waited for the gates to open. His group arrived around 7:30 a.m. They threw a football in the middle of Brouwers Road to kill time, dissecting the Steelers draft and trying to anticipate what the team might look like this year.

“My buddy brought me up here one year, I saw how into the Steelers he was and I thought, ‘I could do this.’ “ Mullin said. “We’ve been doing it ever since.”

Collecting autographs: Like many who will arrive here over the next few weeks, Mullin comes armed with a routine, a goal. Collecting autographs has become a favorite pastime, and Mullin makes sure to purchase college mini-helmets for his favorite players, believing they’re more likely to get signed.

In the back of his truck sat Pitt for Kenny Pickett, UCLA for Myles Jack, Michigan State for Connor Heyward.

“I’ve never had one player who hasn’t been excited to sign their college mini-helmet,” Mullin said.

Pittsburgh Steelers fans fill the grandstand at Chuck Noll Field as they come to watch practice Wednesday at the Steelers NFL football training camp facility at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.

Not to be outdone, Muentzer was also toting mementos. After he finished telling me stories about shaking hands with the Steel Curtain, accidentally bumping into Chuck Noll and nearly getting steamrolled by a receiver — the name escaped him — during one of his first camps, Muentzer reached into his car to pull out a couple of pictures.

One with him and Art Rooney II. Another with Myron Cope. A third with Bill Priatko, accompanied with a personal letter.

“I’ve had some good memories, some good times,” Muentzer said. “It’s a lot of fun up here.”

Converts: Rich and Cabrina Caruso, of Old Bridge, New Jersey, are learning about that fun. They grew up in Brooklyn, New York, as Giants fans. Their kids converted them a couple of years ago, when they became obsessed with Ben Roethlisberger and others.

“The black and gold in our house is strong now,” said Rich, whose kids actually went to the same elementary school (Southwood) as Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, center, walks through the team as they warm up Wednesday during the NFL football team’s training camp in Latrobe.

Wanting to experience this for the first time, the Carusos drove in Tuesday. They toured campus. They scoped out Latrobe. They arrived early Wednesday thanks to advice they received from friends and at their hotel — better to get a good seat and position themselves well for player interactions.

“This is unbelievable,” Rich said.

A few cars behind the Carusos sat George and Calvin Lewis, who drove here from Hanover, Virginia. This isn’t their first time; George estimated it’s somewhere around No. 10. But it does carry some special significance to them.

The first time back after COVID, sure, but also the last before Calvin heads off to school at Virginia Tech.

“We love this,” George said. “Just feels right to finally be back.”