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Preparing Heinz Field for Training Camp
An inside look into how Heinz Field was made ready for camp in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic
By Teresa Varley Jul 28, 2020

The view is one you can't miss as you drive out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel and embark on the beauty that is Pittsburgh. All you have to do is glance slightly to your left and you see the sun reflecting off the golden seats inside Heinz Field to feel the energy.

That shine on Heinz Field is brighter than ever right now, as every bit of it has been cleaned up and down, time and time again, for training camp. That's right – training camp.

As the Steelers hit the practice field for the start of the 2020 edition of training camp, they're embarking on a whole new world.

And it won't just be that they are holding training camp at Heinz Field for the first time. They will be holding training camp during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"COVID-19 has changed a lot of things," said John Norwig, the Steelers head athletic trainer. "It's not normal. But we're going to make it work."

In an effort to "make it work," the Steelers have enlisted many different departments within the organization in an all-encompassing effort to make Heinz Field as convenient and safe as possible as it hosts training camp this summer. After the NFL mandated all teams hold their training camps at their own facilities this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Steelers chose Heinz Field over the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

"In May we started discussing sites and Heinz Field was on the list to see if it could be feasible to do camp there," said Jimmie Sacco, vice president of stadium operations and management. "We did a lot of planning. We inventoried the area to make sure we had enough space. Then we did a layout and a walk-through to make Coach Tomlin and Kevin Colbert feel comfortable. Then we started putting pencil to paper. Now it's all set up and ready to go."

As Sacco said, it's set up and ready to go. But that didn't happen overnight. It required a collaboration of the whole organization to get everything to where it is today.

"The staff has pulled off an unbelievable task, and I give them credit for what they've done," said Sacco. "We have hosted the NHL's Winter Classic and Stadium Series. We have done every big production in concerts. That is how we had the idea that Heinz Field could do this. We are following the template we use for other big events, the Winter Classic, Stadium Series, Rolling Stones, U2. Things other than games."

Fans watching videos or looking at photos from camp on the team's digital and social platforms will see the players and coaches on the field, similar to what they saw during a training camp at Saint Vincent College. What they won't see is how every area of Heinz Field is being utilized.

The PNC Champions Club will be a secure area where players and coaches will have their meals. The spacious West Club will be converted into team meeting space. The North Club, which fills one end zone area, will be broken up into smaller pods for position meeting rooms. And suites will be used by individual players to rest or study between practice and meetings.

The team will use its own locker room, the visiting NFL locker room, and the visiting college locker room to allow the players and coaches plenty of space to socially distance. The training and equipment staffs also have plenty of space, including a 64-foot trailer where players, coaches, and staff will be tested daily for COVID. The weight room will be an outdoor oasis in an area between the locker rooms and the dining area to allow for secure and healthier atmosphere. And every inch of space will be cleaned and sanitized to reduce risks for everyone.

"We have stepped up (the cleaning) since April," said Sacco. "We have added more crews and are doing more deep cleaning. We are taking all of the precautions and following all of the protocols set by the league and the government. We have made everything touchless from the time they walk into the building until they get to their given spaces."

The athletic training staff will be dealing with day-to-day player maintenance, and this summer that includes monitoring players for symptoms of coronavirus.

"We want to keep our players and coaches safe, and the NFL has put together an extensive protocol of cleaning, social distancing, and contact tracing," said Norwig. "It's about 42 pages of protocol. The cleaning is extensive. Touch surfaces are cleaned three times a day. There is a special protocol for the locker room, the training room, the weight room, the cafeteria. We believe this protocol and using common sense, social distancing, wearing a face mask, washing hands frequently, and not coming to work sick are the most important things we do in our daily lives to protect us from COVID-19."

The NFL has provided each team with contact tracing devices for players and staff to know who they were around while at team facilities.

"The players will wear a device where if anybody contacts them within six feet it will register who contacted them, for how long and how many times that day," said Norwig. "If we should have an issue where someone is COVID-19 positive, we can trace that individual.

"The cleaning is extensive. Touch surfaces are gone over three times a day. There is a special protocol for the locker room, training room, weight room, cafeteria.” John Nowig, Head Athletic Trainer

"When we compared Saint Vincent to what we have at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and the stadium, Heinz Field was the obvious choice for training camp," added Norwig. "Things are centrally located. The amount of space we have at Heinz Field is immense. We are using (multiple locker rooms) so there is an element of safety and distance for not just our athletes, but coaches and staff as well. Whether it's Saint Vincent College, the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, or Heinz Field as our training camp, the quality of our medical service should be unchanged."

Other than the playing field, one of the busiest places at any NFL facility is the weight room. It's a place where players often go in groups, working out at the same time while encouraging each other. It's a busy space, a closed indoor space, a loud space.

At Heinz Field, it's going to be a wide-open outdoor space that will change the atmosphere totally but in a manner that is all about safety. The weight room will be in an area convenient for the players.

"I am very comfortable that once we get started with training camp, we will have a really good space to prepare our football team," said conditioning coordinator Garrett Giemont about the weight room. "It is right behind the locker room area, in front of the cold tubs and hot tubs, and right behind the PNC Champions Club where the food service will be. It's an outdoor facility, and the NFL and NFLPA recommended teams do as many outdoor things as possible."

Having it outside means warm temperatures. Pittsburgh is having a hot summer.

"We did a few things to make sure we would have it at a proper temperature and with the proper lighting," said Giemont. "All of that is needed. We tarped some areas to create a coolness. We have five air conditioning units to create a welcoming temperature. We have space for social distancing. And it will be a limited number of players working out at once, around 15 players only. All of those things will help."

Before any equipment was put into place, the first thing Giemont focused on was laying down the floor, something that wasn't as easy as it might sound.

"The only thing that was incredibly difficult was getting that flooring laid down," said Giemont. "It was a massive undertaking and handled by a few people.

"After the flooring went in Torque Fitness provided some great equipment. They provided some racks and rack storage for us. Recker Transfer came in and brought everything else we needed into Heinz Field. Our setup at Heinz Field, because of sheer space, is really great. We have a tremendous weight room at Saint Vincent College that we love to use and is 3,000 square feet. We have 6,000 square feet at Heinz Field."

Like with every other aspect of camp, providing a clean weight room is definitely the top priority for Giemont and everyone else involved.

"We are going to have a whole lot of help with cleaning based on how many people are permitted," said Giemont. "We will have plenty of people to create the end result of keeping everyone safe as possible as we get through the process of getting everyone ready for the 2020 season."

For those whose washing machines have been working overtime during the pandemic, that's nothing compared to the task facing Adam Regan and the Steelers equipment staff. Imagine for a minute washing 1,000 towels a day. One thousand. Towels. Every day.

"Our washers and dryers will run from morning until night with towels, apparel, etc.," said Regan.

Regan is the team's equipment manager, the one responsible not just for overseeing every aspect of players getting their equipment, but also making sure every piece of that equipment is clean and sanitized, and that includes about 1,000 towels a day. The Steelers have three industrial sized washers and dryers at Heinz Field that came from the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex before the 2019 season because new ones were installed at the practice facility. The team uses soap with a disinfecting agent and the water temperature is high enough to sanitize anything thrown into the machine.

"One of the restrictions from the NFL is towels are one-time use before getting washed," said Regan. "They can't use it a second time, and players can't share them. Towels are 'one and done'. I anticipate about 500-600 towels during each practice. Then there are the ones we use throughout the building. Then each player has his own towel with his jersey number on it for after practice. With staff, towels will have with initials. Everyone has his own individual towel to use. It's just one extra measure to keep everyone safe."

Added Regan, "We already sanitized helmets and shoulder pads. That's nothing new. Now it's the field gear and the frequency of doing it. It's mandated that once practice is over, we assign guys and they get the buckets and rags and sanitize the equipment. You have footballs that are getting tossed all around, and we will be cleaning them. Wiping them down with Clorox wipes. If it helps us stay healthy and keeps us on the field, that's what it's all about. We are doing more cleaning than we normally would, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing."

For Regan and his staff, training camp at Heinz Field for training camp is actually easier than going to Saint Vincent College because the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex is close in case a trip there is necessary for something they need.

"Packing for camp is packing for camp, whether we are going to Latrobe or Heinz Field, we bring the same amount of stuff. We know what they have and what they need," said Regan. "As far as location, it doesn't change much other than we get to sleep in our own beds and we have the ability to get to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex quickly if we need something.

"I don't think of it as being how much stuff we take to camp; it's how much stuff we leave behind. When we travel for road games it's around 16,000 pounds of equipment. For training camp it's all of that and more, because we bring all of our field gear for practice. You have to have every style of cleat size, all of the apparel, helmets, tackling dummies, all of that stuff.

"And this year was different because we weren't able to see the guys during OTAs and minicamp to fit them for their helmets. In a normal year we would have all of that done early. We wouldn't have to guess and bring extra stuff. Guessing changes things. We'll bring more than a normal year to cover all of our bases. We have to have sizes and styles. We are outfit them top to bottom once we hit the ground running."

The helmets for new players, whether it be rookies or free agent signings, is one thing that Regan knows will need immediate attention when the team arrives at camp.

"What they are going to wear and how it's going to fit, that is the focus," said Regan. "With technology now, it's about personalizing that helmet for the player. We have companies like Riddell that do specific fitting, they have a 3D mechanism in their computer system that they basically fit the helmets like a glove. You can't do that unless you have hands-on with the players. For me that is one of the big things I am worried about, the timing in getting those helmets in."

There are other challenges as well. The number of staff is limited for the purpose of safety. The four full-time members of the equipment staff will be aided by two season-long interns, as well as a few camp interns.

"We just have to follow the restrictions given to us and maneuver through those," said Regan. "That is the only obstacle in our way. At the end of the day, it's uncommon territory for all of us. We have been doing this long enough. We have experience, and that's what is comforting to me. They know what to do. You just have to stay organized and on top of things. Whatever limitations there are, we adapt."

One thing that Regan will pack this year that he has never taken to camp before are face masks. And no, not the ones that go on the front of helmets, but ones that players will wear for safety.

"We worked closely with John Norwig and his staff getting masks," said Regan. "We have a local shop, Pro Knitwear, that does our jerseys. They are making us masks, as many as we want, whenever we want. They are making them with Steelers logos. It has been easy for us. They really helped us out in that department. As long as you are prepared and following guidelines, wear a mask, gloves, wash your hands, you're doing your part. "

Chris Ecton and the rest of the Steelers playing surface staff are accustomed to getting fields ready for the team's training camp, but at Saint Vincent College there is a lot more grass, a whole lot more space.

The fields at Saint Vincent College provide over five acres of grass, with three full grass fields, plus an additional artificial turf field that can be utilized in the event of heavy rain. At Heinz Field, there are only two acres of grass and just one field.

"It's a lot smaller area. That is more concentrated foot traffic," said Ecton, the sports turf operations manager. "You have to make sure all of that is good. There is no room for error. At Saint Vincent you can move to another field, but there is only one field here. We have to make sure it's as good as it can be.

"Our washers and dryers will run from morning until night with towels, apparel, etc,.” Adam Regan, Equipment Manager

The Steelers use Kentucky Blue Grass at Heinz Field, with the sod grown at a farm and shipped in. In the past, this is the time of year the Heinz Field sod would be replaced after a summer of concerts and events. But because COVID-19 cancelled the Rolling Stones and Kenny Chesney concerts, the field is in excellent condition right now.

"It's nice the field has been in since last fall," said Ecton. "We didn't have to have any concerts and then have to put a new field in this summer. We have been able to take care of this field since last fall and that helps out a lot. Everything we have done from the sod farm to the time the guys run on it, we have looked at every aspect of that over the years and tried to make every step as efficient as possible to make sure we have the best service. Especially since we are having the summer we are. It's the hottest summer since about 1995, maybe back even further with as many 90-degree days as we are having. Any time you have to cut turf out where they grow it, throw it on a truck and ship it 400 miles, roll it back out, tug it into place and re-establish it when it's 95 degrees, that is one of the most challenging things you can do in the grass world. Not having to do that should help out a lot.

"I don't anticipate replacing anything during camp, maybe post-camp. Maybe a small area here and there during camp. We have never done (camp) here, so it depends on how much we move the players around. Any kind of repeated drills in the same place every day over and over, we will have to do work there. But if we can move them around, we hope to get through camp. The original grass is always better than what you replace it with."

As players, coaches and staff make their way to Heinz Field for the start of training camp, they'll be doing so under a much different set of circumstances. The venue, as well as some of the challenges, might be different, but the goal is the same.

"The ultimate goal is to host a safe and secure training camp," said Sacco. "We just want to make sure it's what Coach, Kevin and Team President Art Rooney II want. We will provide a first-class facility for them to do that.

"We're all in it for one cause, and that's to get the season going."

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