Steelers make long-awaited return to Saint Vincent: ‘Some guys love it. Some guys hate it.’

After a two-year absence, the Pittsburgh Steelers returned to their summer training home in the foothills of the Laurel Highlands, reporting to Saint Vincent College on Tuesday to officially kick off the start of another NFL season.

Some came willingly, eager to spend the next three weeks living in cramped dormitories, eating meals at a cafeteria and bonding with teammates.

Others arrived reluctantly, longing for the amenities provided by living at home while they trained at the former Heinz Field.

“You can look at it one of two ways,” said outside linebacker T.J. Watt, the defending NFL defensive player of the year. “You can be like, ‘Man, I wish we were back in Pittsburgh,’ or you can say, ‘I embrace it. I love the tradition. I love the history of this place,’ and really just take it all in and put your best foot forward.”

Starting in 1966, the Steelers spent 54 consecutive summers holding training camp here. That changed in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic prevented the Steelers from conducting camp off-site. Camp returned to the North Side stadium again last summer, although, unlike the previous year, fans were permitted to attend workouts — but not to get autographs.

Because of that absence, only 22 players on the 90-man roster had trained at Saint Vincent. The others hadn’t practiced in front of fans lining the hillside and bleachers above Chuck Noll Field or trudged up to the locker rooms after sweating in 90-degree heat.

“For these young guys, we have to remember we’re living our dreams,” Watt said. “This is the best job in the world. This is what we dreamed of as kids, so don’t think for a second that you’re better than Latrobe because you’re not.”

Aside from perhaps team president Art Rooney II, nobody in the Steelers organization is a bigger proponent of training at Saint Vincent than head coach Mike Tomlin.

“It’s an opportunity to capture the intangible,” he said. “That which we cannot measure, the informal time that going away to camp provides you, those moments when a veteran guy gets to spend time out back on a stoop at night or between meetings or after dinner.

“There is value in that and collective growth in that. I’m excited about what this environment provides us from that perspective.”

Cam Heyward, the longest-tenured Steelers player after the retirement of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, welcomed the return to Saint Vincent. His advice to those players who have never stayed at the campus?

“Make sure you bring your own sheets,” he said. “You come up here, you get to bond with your team, you get up close with the fans. It’s one of those sacred places that won’t go away.”

Even a decorated veteran such as two-time All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is a newcomer. Until Tuesday, he had never set foot on the campus.

“I’ve heard mixed opinions,” he said. “Some guys love it. Some guys hate it. I’m a guy that likes going out to camp. It reminds me of high school, although we went out in the woods in cabins. It takes away any distractions and allows you to just focus on football, focus on your teammates and really come together.”

Players with seniority are permitted to stay in single rooms. Heyward took over the space previously occupied by Roethlisberger.

“Ben was one of those guys who brought the comforts of home to Latrobe,” Tomlin said. “He spared no expense or amenity. I walked into that room today, and I laughed.”

Tomlin said the room is “less comfortable” with Heyward occupying it.

“Cam is somewhat of a caveman,” he said.

Watt has his own living space, but he is sharing a bathroom with brother Derek, who, in his third season with the Steelers, made his first trek to Saint Vincent. First-round pick Kenny Pickett is sharing a room with fellow rookie quarterback Chris Oladokun.

Quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph are in a quad with tight ends Zach Gentry and Pat Freiermuth. Fitzpatrick is staying in a unit with defensive backs Cam Sutton, Karl Joseph and Terrell Edmunds.

“It’s going to be fun,” Fitzpatrick said. “We all love each other. We’re all good dudes. We’re all going to enjoy each other’s company.”

Fitzpatrick paused.

“As long as they are clean and orderly, we’re not going to have any problems.”

Asked if he is the de facto leader of the room, Fitzpatrick said, “We’re all in charge of it, but I’ll enforce it though.”

Second-year running back Najee Harris unexpectedly found himself without a roommate when the Steelers released running back Trey Edmunds on the eve of camp. Harris had lobbied for the team to give him a rookie roommate to no avail.

Harris didn’t seem excited about the Spartan living conditions of Rooney Hall.

“I don’t think they are the nicest ones,” he said. “I heard a lot of people show up, there is a lot of support from the fans and I heard it’s a good environment for football. … I heard a lot of good things except for the dorm rooms.”

When he met with the media in the early afternoon, Harris admitted he hadn’t set foot inside his room yet.

“I don’t want to,” he said, “but I have to.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at jrutter@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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