If you took a quick look at the practice fields at St. Vincent College on a recent Saturday morning, you might have thought the Steelers were getting an early jump on training camp. Coaches were conducting drills, players were running around and it seemed like business as usual.
But a closer look would let you know that wasn't the case. Those out there trying to catch passes and do blocking drills weren't the players who take the field on Sunday afternoons in the fall. Instead they were 300 men taking part in the team's 10th Annual Men's Fantasy Camp.
"This is great," said former Steelers defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen, who served as one of the coaches. "This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, coach, so it's good experience. A lot of these guys know a lot about football. There are some athletes out here. I finally realize what real fans are and we owe this to them. They are committed, they are excited.
"I am excited too. I was like a kid seeing the former players. It brings back a lot of memories. Staying in the dorm, I never thought I would stay in there again. This has been great."
The three-day fantasy camp began with a welcome reception and an opportunity for the campers to see friends they have made throughout the years, as well as interact with some of the former players who coached them throughout the weekend.
"It's great to see all of the alumni who have come here," said Tom Pisano, who has come from Orlando, Florida for all 10 fantasy camps. "Over the years I have seen Franco Harris, Mel Blount, and Hines Ward. The Steelers Nation loves to come back to Pittsburgh.
"It's all about having fun. You get autographs. The alumni are great, they love the fans. Their camp stories are great. Plus you learn how things work in the organization. We hear different things every year. It's interesting. It's things people don't always hear about."
The next morning it was time to hit the field for drills, and it appeared everyone enjoyed the intensity former linebacker Greg Lloyd brought to it.
"These people are great," said Lloyd. "You have older father and sons here, people from everywhere. Steelers fans are everywhere. You come out here and you see people wearing your jersey. It makes you feel good.
"It's good to see everyone. It's good to be back out here. Thank God it's called fantasy camp. It's always good to come back, but honestly, who likes coming to training camp. It's fun, but it wasn't fun when I came. I loved practicing, but hated coming to camp."
In addition to drills, a skills competitions and an awards ceremony also took place, but a highlight was definitely the presence of former Steelers Jack Butler and Dermontti Dawson, who will both be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August. The two held a Q&A session with the campers, and Dawson also spoke with them about his NFL experience.
"When you first come in to the league all you are trying to do is make the club," said Dawson. "The Hall of Fame is the furthest thing from your thought process. Once you get a few years in and start having some success, make the Pro Bowl, you don't even think about it. It's kind of surreal."
Butler was asked about what it was like playing for the Steelers before they reached their glory years, as well as numerous questions about his playing days and his upcoming induction into the Hall of Fame.
"To be truthful, it hasn't really even sunk in," said Butler. "We still have two months. I think the closer it gets the more it will sink in. I have gotten an awful lot of attention and I love it too. I am enjoying it. I am looking forward to August."
Butler also shared what his greatest memory was of his playing days. It wasn't a particular interception or win, but simply making it after coming to the team from St. Bonaventure.
"The best thing that ever happened to me was when they didn't cut me my first year," said Butler. "I never thought I would make it. I was a receiver at St. Bonaventure. The best thing that happened was Coach (John) Michelosen moved me over to defensive back. If it wasn't for him, who knows?
"Deep down I never believed my fantasies would ever come true, but here I am and in August I will be in Canton, Ohio so I guess some fantasies do come true."