Do you know how rare it is to stand on the sideline of a football field and have to move your feet quickly to dodge a tackle in front of you? Do you know how often it happens that there's a fight five feet in front of you, and you have to have incredible peripheral vision to avoid the bodies flying into the fight? And do you know how rare it is to stand alongside the head coach of a National Football League team as he twirls his whistle, with cornstalks one long spiral behind him, as he prepares to start his team's afternoon practice?
Welcome to the best site to watch America's most popular sport. That's what I'd call St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., the camp of monks (really, there are cloistered monks here) and Steeler faithful an hour east of Pittsburgh in the rolling Laurel Highlands of west-central Pennsylvania.
I've watched the Steelers here over the years -- I actually interviewed Mike Webster in his dorm room in 1984, the first year of the camp, and showered alongside the players before their morning meetings in the same shower where St. Vincent freshman lathered up. My annual though is this must be what it was like to watch NFL teams before the days of fame and fortune and $700 Super Bowl tickets. "It doesn't get any better than this," former Steeler coach Bill Cowher told me in 2003 after one practice, as he looked out at the cornfields to the southwest of his practice field. "This is football, classic football. I know there's been a lot said recently about where teams practice, and some teams are going back to their facilities to have training camp. But look at this place. How can football get better than this? Four weeks of being together, no distractions, everything within walking distance? Fields all here. Nothing but football. Nothing. Just four weeks of you, your roommate and football. I think there's a lot to be said for how you start your season, and every year we feel like we get a great start to what we're going to be as a football team by being up here."
Come here around 8 in the morning some early August day. Watch the mist rise from the highlands. Sit on one of the hills surrounding the practice fields. Soak it all in. One of two or three things will happen. Joe Greene will stroll by, rolling an unlit cigar in his fingers, and say, "How are you today?'' Or a St. Vincent monk or priest will say hello and ask if you need anything. Or you'll see a player hustling to morning meetings--a player or maybe a coach, and you'll be pleasantly surprised that neither will ignore you.
It's the best training camp in the NFL, the best venue for watching real football in the NFL, and my favorite place to soak in what sports should be.
1. Fenway Park, Boston On a sunny summer day, in any seat in the park, you've gone to heaven.
2. RFK Stadium, Washington When the Redskins were hot, the stadium shook, I wish they still were there.
3. Coors Field, Denver Sit 30 rows above the third-base dugout, look out ... The Rocky Mountains!
4. Cameron Indoor Stadium and Wrigley Field (tie)What better place to have five afternoon Old Styles and fall out of the human race for a day?