We are now just a short time away from the beginning of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ journey to Latrobe, where they will spend several weeks conducting their training camp in preparation for the 2017 season. The Steelers have been heading out to Saint Vincent College for over half a century, and while the landscape hasn’t changed a great deal since then, if you ask the old players, training camp certainly has.
One such former player who experienced the heyday of Chuck Noll’s hardnosed camp sessions is rather relieved in his late age that he will never have to experience it again.
His name is J.T. Thomas, and he was there for all four of the Steelers’ Super Bowl championships of that era, playing in a secondary that often gets overshadowed by the presence of Mel Blount. He was the Steelers’ other cornerback, and he was a good one.
But that didn’t make him like training camp any better. In fact, he hated it.
“Training camp for us was hell”, he recalled, referring to his teammates from those 70s teams. “People say what was your favorite moment about training? It was the day we left training camp. Even now when I go by Latrobe, I don’t look, I just floor the accelerator”.
It’s got to be pretty bad if you can’t even stand to look at the place anymore when you’re driving by, and it’s true that today’s NFL players will never understand what Thomas’ generation went through during training camp. Especially if you take into consideration that back then they didn’t necessarily report in pristine physical conditioning.
“It was the place where it weeded out the men and the boys very early”, Thomas said of those times. “In the first two weeks, you knew who would make the ball club. It was a weeding out process, and it was strictly survival”.
But survive he did, for many years, carving out a nine-year career for himself in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t easy, but he put in the work, and I’m sure he would have to admit that it ultimately made him a better player. But there is no love lost, all the same.
“I don’t think anyone loved training camp. We all hated training camp. But it was something we had to go through. The memories are not fun”.
But, he said, “it made us stronger. As a matter of fact, the games were easy. The season was a cakewalk because training camp was such a hectic, vicious, hurtful, painful environment. The conditioning was just terrible. We had a track schedule. We ran three 50s after practice timed”.
You might recall that this is a similar comment to one that Barry Foster made earlier this year. Both he and Thomas participated in the Steelers’ Legends Series, from where these comments were originally taken.