It started small, with the hopes of doing a youth football camp in the Pittsburgh area to help kids learn proper skills and the values of teamwork.
Today, the Steelers Youth Football program has grown into something nobody involved could have imagined. Not only are they reaching kids in all of the Pittsburgh region, but also kids nationwide, as well as assisting area coaches in an effort to make the game safer for all.
Over the summer the team hosted three Youth Football Camps, with instruction from past high school Coach of the Week winners as well as a mixture of current and former Steelers players, including Tyson Alualu, Christian Kuntz, Pressley Harvin, Henry Mondeaux, Kevin Rader, Charlie Batch, Terence Garvin, Chris Hoke, Arthur Moats, Shaun Suisham, Vince Williams and Craig Wolfley.
“It’s crazy. Our first camp was in 2009 and we started with one,” said Mike Marchinsky, the Steelers youth football and player relations manager. “The goal at that point was to have camps in communities North, South, East and West of the city to pull those kids from those towns. Fast forward to 2022 and we have kids from about 26 states represented. It’s kind of overwhelming when you think about the goal was just to be in those neighborhoods and now it’s Steelers Nation.
“For our youth camps we have 600 kids and a waitlist of over 200 kids. It’s awesome. It gives the proper perspective of why they come to the camp and it’s a great experience. That is a credit to our high school coaches that make sure that the kids come through and have a great time and our current and former players that spend time with the kids. It’s not a photo op, it’s not an autograph session, it’s teaching and learning and the guys spending time with the kids while also making sure it’s a fun experience playing football. I think that’s why it lends itself to being such a great experience.”
Batch has been a regular at the youth football camps since their inception, understanding he was once that kid who wanted to learn from the best, so he wants to lend his hand any way he can.
“When you have that type of camp, the kids are eager to learn,” said Batch. “You want to teach them everything that we know, but at the same time giving them something tangible to be able to take back to their teams that can help them number one, personally with their individual goals and obviously team goals. We’re just trying to make sure that they leave out better than they came in. And have fun at the same time.”
Batch took that fun to the next level this summer when he stepped in at quarterback for a flag football game at one of the camps, quarterbacking both teams in a game that ended with a 77-70 score.
“It was one of those games that the kids were flying,” said Batch. “They were ready to play. I think that had to be the highest scoring game in the history of Steelers youth camps.
“The key was it was fun, and they were learning. It’s so important the Steelers do this because the kids get a chance to be around us and get a chance to build relationships. We are able to tell the story. We’re telling them we were just like they were, eager to learn. Anytime you’re able to not only do the camp, but the way that the Steelers rotate them and try to go to different regions now you can touch everybody and not just be centrally located in downtown Pittsburgh. The beauty of it is the fact that you have so many people that come in from out of town and want to be a part of it. I love that element of it.”
The team also held daily youth football programs during training camp at Saint Vincent College, with two youth football teams taking part in a daily skills clinic, then forming a tunnel to welcome the players to the field as they head to practice and taking in the practice session.
“Nobody is better equipped than the Steelers to have these programs, and where better than the hallowed fields of Saint Vincent College where the team has been coming for over 50 years,” said Wolfley. “The Steelers have always been a community-based group that sought to better the community they’re in. And that is exactly what the youth programs are doing.
“It’s so important to lay the first foundational processes for these young kids to be able to go out and enjoy a fantastic, superb game. And they’re making it safe all the time. To be able to do that, you need people that know what they’re doing. They know how to communicate what they’re doing, and then be able to have enough joy in their heart to lay that out with the young kids and just engage in what is fun. It’s has to be fun as well as being able to play the game.”
Wolfley said he enjoys the teaching aspect of it as much as the kids enjoy running around and playing.
“I love it. It’s a chance for me get my coaching yayas out,” said Wolfley. “To be able to interject a little life into the kids. To be able to show them a little bit about what the pro football life is about. And then to be able to just enjoy that back and forth with the kids that lets them know we are real.
“We see kids come back year after year for these events and they’re growing every year in their skills and their love of the game. I always try to share the joy I have for football with them and just try to be real with them and encourage them most of all.”
This is a time of growth for kids who take part in the camps, and they are very impressionable, so making the right impression is paramount. If the message isn’t delivered right, it’s not heard.
“I think about when I was their age what I wanted to learn,” said Batch. “You don’t want to go talk over their head but simplify the game and get them to understand the basics. When I’m dealing with the quarterbacks, and young quarterbacks at that, you explain that while they might run a different offense when they play, what I’m going to teach you is a three-step and a five-step drop. Those are things no matter what level you’re playing at, you’re going to have to do. You can see kids light up when you say that. We’re also making sure for the parents who are watching that they can take the lessons that were learned from those drills and continue to work on them even in the backyard. Those are the things I get excited about.”