Terry Bradshaw swarmed by kids, 1981 (Photo by Bob Pavuchak/Post-Gazette) Franco Harris with his young fans Lynn Swann draws a crowd of fans, 1977 John Stallworth, 1987 (Marlene Karas/The Pittsburgh Press) Donnie Shell, 1986 (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette) Jack Lambert with a baby at Steelers training camp Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu greeting the fans in Latrobe.

"Steelers and their fans throughout the years at the training camp in Latrobe"

Tomorrow, for the 48th consecutive year, the Steelers will draw a (steel) curtain on yet another training camp at Saint Vincent College. As usual, several thousand fans will be there to see off the team. Though there is no official record being kept on fan attendance, it’s plainly visible that it’s down this year – that’s what 8-8 and diminished star power than years past will do.

Still, even on a slower weekday, there’s an average of 1,000 to 2,000 fans who’ve made the trip to the quaint Catholic college campus, some from nearby, some from afar. More crowded days tip the 5,000 mark. In the years following Super Bowl victories, I’ve seen crowds that easily pushed past five digits.

But why? Why drive out to a near rural area, to watch a bunch of big guys run around? I’ve heard this question asked by somewhat cynical media types for years, and they have a point there – nothing really happens during the practices. It’s not a game. There is remarkably less contact now. It’s often uncomfortably hot (although it’s been mostly pleasant and cooler this year).

Of course, the campus is beautiful. It can be a fun family outing or little road trip. But let’s be honest – it’s the chance to see the players up close. Game tickets are expensive and have been sold out for decades. This is free. And while the players are a bit less accessible than in the past, and fans can’t walk wherever they like on campus anymore, there’s always the chance to get an autograph, photo or interaction with “the guys.”

As the PG’s Nick Veronica wrote before the 2013 edition of Camp Tomlin began, “… backups get most of the work at training camp and jersey numbers repeat, but when the team takes to the field of Saint Vincent College … part of the attraction for fans is being up close and personal with the players who will battle for their Steelers 16 times this year, and hopefully more.”

“You’re able to be close to them. You sweat with them,” Downtown resident Mike Sidowsky said when asked what’s so special about training camp. “There’s more of a connection to it.”

Training camp may as well be Steelers Nation’s family reunion, and Saint Vincent’s is its picnic shelter.

Take a look at some pictures from pigskin “picnics” spanning the decades …

— Dan Gigler

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    I think Jack Lambert was about to eat that baby.
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    My team man
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