Nearly squished and baking in oppressive heat, a die-hard autograph hound pursues Steelers’ signatures at training camp.
By: Josh Rizzo
Pinned against a fence, almost unable to breathe and managing to somehow enjoy the experience is not something you hear about every day. But when you are an autograph seeker at St. Vincent College, stand only 5’7” and weigh only 140 pounds, it comes with the territory.
The Latrobe, PA college hosts the Pittsburgh Steelers’ training camp every summer. However, this year the crowds have been especially big due to the fact the Steelers are the defending Super Bowl champs. When I arrived on campus at noon, an hour before fans are allowed in, I was not surprised to see an enormous sea of black and gold jerseys waiting at the security gate.
At one o’clock all of those people would sprint up the hill into the team’s arranged ‘autograph area’. I always get a kick of watching middle aged men run like their lives were in danger and the only thing which would let them live would be their favorite player’s signature on a card, ball or helmet.
Yet every year I join in the running of the bulls, attempting to expand on my
massive collection of Steelers autographs. This year was no different as I had already made a list of primary targets:
Omar Jacobs– Rookie quarterback from Bowling Green who threw 41 touchdown passes his sophomore year in college and was the Steelers’ fifth round draft choice.
Santonio Holmes– First round draft pick from Ohio State. A wide
receiver who was drafted to replace Antwaan Randle El at wide receiver.
Nate Washington- The Steelers coaching staff is expecting a lot from the second year wide receiver from Tiffin, who may end up being the team’s no. 3 receiver.
Hines Ward- A possible future Hall-of-Famer and no.1 receiver. Any opportunity to score his autograph could make some big bucks down the road.
Alan Faneca– A future Hall-of-Famer at left guard and one of the best offensive lineman in team history.
Joey Porter– The always controversial linebacker had the most sacks of any
linebacker in the NFL last season with 10.5.
Casey Hampton– My favorite player who is one of the league’s best nose guards and is developing into a perennial Pro Bowl selection.
When I made my way up to the autograph area I managed to obtain a spot right up against the fence. This was a blessing and a curse as I have previously mentioned. Then the players started to come out of the locker room and the fun started.
The first three players who were kind enough to sign for me were Jeff Reed, Chris Gardocki and Gregg Warren.
Reed was the nicest of the three he signed both of my 2003 Upper Deck MVP cards and joked around the most with other fans. Not only did he joke around, but always smiled when he was in pictures with people and flirted with some of the female fans.
Gardocki, while he signed my 1991 Wild Card, seemed annoyed by the large crowd. He limited everyone to one autograph a piece and refused to sign autographs for anyone who handed him more than one item. Gardocki also seemed disinterested when fans talked to him and just wanted to sign autographs and move on.
Warren seemed excited when any of the fans know who he was and was happy to sign anything they had brought with them.
The next group of players drew a bigger reaction with the crowd because all of them were marquee names. Super Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, already a Pittsburgh icon, backup QB Charlie Batch and running back Willie Parker were the next to emerge.
Batch and Parker breezed by the crowd and said they would sign after practice. Roethlisberger, surprisingly enough, had a Sharpie on him and was signing one autograph per person. When Big Ben made it over to where I was standing a few of the fans in the back of the line bum rushed the fence. The fans who charged pushed everyone forward which pinned me up against the fence. I was up being pressed up against the fence so hard that I could barely breathe and was not able to obtain Roethlisberger’s autograph.
After he continued to move down the line, the people began to move back and I was allowed to breathe again. Then some more undrafted free agents began to pour out of the locker room and headed down to practice. A few stopped to sign, including Jonathon Dekker a tight end from Princeton, but none came into the general vicinity of where I was standing.
The last player out of the locker room was Pittsburgh native Mike Logan who is a backup safety. The oft injured Logan was great with the fans as he seemed to sign forever. Luckily, he came by me and was able to have him sign my 2004 Topps Total dual card he shares with Troy Polamalu. The West Virginia grad also commented on my University of Pittsburgh hat, by pointing out WVU had destroyed Pitt last season.
After Logan descended down onto the field for practice, all of the players were now on the field. Many of the fans who had been trying to grab some autographs headed down to the practice field to watch practice.
However, I stayed in my spot, knowing if I moved, I would never be able to get back to my spot right behind the fence. I stood in the same spot in the ninety degree heat and waited for three hours for their practice to end. Fortunately, there were some people I had met at camp in years past nearby and we passed the time chatting which is one of the best parts about going to the Steelers training camp. If you’re there often enough, you will meet other people who are dedicated to autograph collecting.
One gentlemen from Ohio told me he has every Pro Football Hall of Famer’s autograph except that of Al Davis. He is also an avid Steelers fan who attends camp every year to add to his ever-expanding autograph collection.
Finally, the horn sounded which meant practice was over for the day and the players would be coming back to the locker rooms. Many fans who had gone to watch practice came back up to the autograph area and were even further back then they had been before.
My first autograph after practice was one of my original targets, Alan Faneca. He signed an Upper Deck Super Bowl XL collector’s card. It was incredible to watch Faneca sign the card because he face was bright red and he was dripping with sweat. Someone asked Faneca how hot it was on the field and he said around 103 degrees. Faneca then added he was ready to get an ice cold shower and headed towards the locker room.
Rookie wide receiver Santonio Holmes signed on the opposite side of the area from where I was standing. Holmes did not seem happy and was not
smiling for pictures or responding to fans when spoken to, perhaps because many fans have trashed him on sports talk radio due to his two arrests in the off season.
Next came more offensive lineman. Kendall Simmons, Marvel Smith and Trai Essex signed on the other side; two time Pro Bowl Center Jeff Hartings managed to wonder over to where I was standing. Hartings was handing out cards he had already signed, but had run out by the time he made it to me. I wasn’t disappointed since I had my 1997 Pacific Crown Collection ready for him to sign and he signed it. However, when he took the card from my hands he grabbed it with so much force so that his thumb completely
crushed the corner of my card. While the card was damaged severely, I thanked Hartings anyway and he continued on his way.
Hampton, Jacobs and Haynes did not sign any autographs because they looked like they had bad practices, especially Jacobs, who had a look of frustration on his face and did not even acknowledge those waiting. Some players like Parker, Batch and Joey Porter snuck around the fans and did not
sign any autographs. The move was out of character for Batch and Porter who normally enjoy revving up the crowd and signing autographs.
Parker has never been good about signing for fans, even when no one knew who he was. Now that he has had a 1,000 yard season, expect Fast Willie to sign even less than he already does.
The last autograph I obtained on the day was Ward who now limits his autographs to one per person, likely because of the number of autograph seekers who want him to sign. Ward penned his name on a 1999 Upper Deck card, with him wearing a number 15 jersey. He added his uniform number, which is now 86. Ward was probably the best player when dealing with fans because of the way he responded to the comments yelled at him. One girl yelled ‘I love you’ at him and he put his fingers to mouth and ears and said ‘call me’. He was full of short quips and had a witty comment for almost every fan.
For the number of people at camp on a warm August afternoon, I had done well. However, I had obtained only two of my eight original targets and now only have three days left to try and get them. Can I accomplish my goal or will I have to wait another year?
Josh Rizzo is a 17 year-old autograph collector, specializing in NFL players. He’s an aspiring journalist who lives in Pennsylvania, smack dab in the middle of Steeler country.