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The transformation of Heinz Field
The view is one you can't miss as you drive out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel and embark on the beauty that is Pittsburgh. All you have to do is glance slightly to your left and you see the sun reflecting off the golden seats inside Heinz Field to feel the energy.
That shine on Heinz Field is brighter than ever right now, as every bit of it has been cleaned up and down, time and time again, for training camp. That's right – training camp. As the Steelers hit the practice field for the start of the 2020 edition of training camp, they're embarking on a whole new world.
And it won't just be that they are holding training camp at Heinz Field for the first time. They will be holding training camp during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"COVID-19 has changed a lot of things," said John Norwig, the Steelers head athletic trainer. "It's not normal. But we're going to make it work."
In an effort to "make it work," the Steelers have enlisted many different departments within the organization in an all-encompassing effort to make Heinz Field as convenient and safe as possible as it hosts training camp this summer. After the NFL mandated all teams hold their training camps at their own facilities this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Steelers chose Heinz Field over the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
"In May we started discussing sites and Heinz Field was on the list to see if it could be feasible to do camp there," said Jimmie Sacco, vice president of stadium operations and management. "We did a lot of planning. We inventoried the area to make sure we had enough space. Then we did a layout and a walk-through to make Coach Tomlin and Kevin Colbert feel omfortable. Then we started putting pencil to paper. Now it's all set up and ready to go."
As Sacco said, it's set up and ready to go. But that didn't happen overnight. It required a collaboration of the whole organization to get everything to where it is today.
"The staff has pulled off an unbelievable task, and I give them credit for what they've done," said Sacco. "We have hosted the NHL's Winter Classic and Stadium Series. We have done every big production in concerts. That is how we had the idea that Heinz Field could do this.
We are following the template we use for other big events, the Winter Classic, Stadium Series, Rolling Stones, U2. Things other than games."
Fans watching videos or looking at photos from camp on the team's digital and social platforms will see the players and coaches on the field, similar to what they saw during a training camp at Saint Vincent College. What they won't see is how every area of Heinz Field is being utilized.
The PNC Champions Club will be a secure area where players and coaches will have their meals. The spacious West Club will be "COVID-19 has changed a lot of things, It's not normal. But we'regoing to make it work." - John Norwig, the Steelers head athletic trainer.
converted into team meeting space. The North Club, which fills one end zone area, will be broken up into smaller pods for position meeting rooms. And suites will be used by individual players to rest or study between practice and meetings.
The team will use its own locker room, the visiting NFL locker room, and the visiting college locker room to allow the players and coaches plenty of space to socially distance. The training and equipment staffs also have plenty of space, including a 64-foot trailer where players, coaches, and staff will be tested daily for COVID. The weight room will be an outdoor oasis in an area between the locker rooms and the dining area to allow for secure and healthier atmosphere. And every inch of space will be cleaned and sanitized to reduce risks for everyone.
"We have stepped up (the cleaning) since April," said Sacco. "We have added more crews and are doing more deep cleaning. We are taking all of the precautions and following all of the protocols set by the league and the government. We have made everything touchless from the time they walk into the building until they get to their given spaces."
The athletic training staff will be dealing with day-to-day player maintenance, and this summer that includes monitoring players for symptoms of coronavirus.
"We want to keep our players and coaches safe, and the NFL has put together an extensive protocol of cleaning, social distancing, and contact tracing," said Norwig. "It's about 42 pages of protocol. The cleaning is extensive. Touch surfaces are cleaned three times a day. There is a special protocol for the locker room, the training room, the weight room, the cafeteria. We believe this protocol and using common sense, social distancing, wearing a face mask, washing hands frequently, and not coming to work sick are the most important things we do in our daily lives to protect us from COVID-19."
The NFL has provided each team with contact tracing devices for players and staff to know who they were around while at team facilities.
"The players will wear a device where if anybody contacts them within six feet it will register who contacted them, for how long and how many times that day," said Norwig. "If we should have an issue where someone is COVID-19 positive, we can trace that individual.
"When we compared Saint Vincent to what we have at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and the stadium, Heinz Field was the obvious choice for training camp," added Norwig. "Things are centrally located. The amount of space we have at Heinz Field is immense. We are using (multiple locker rooms) so there is an element of safety and distance for not just our athletes, but coaches and staff as well. Whether it's Saint Vincent College, the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, or Heinz Field as our training camp, the quality of our medical service should be unchanged.
Other than the playing field, one of the busiest places at any NFL facility is the weight room. It's a place where players often go in groups, working out at the same time while encouraging each other. It's a busy space, a closed indoor space, a loud space.
At Heinz Field, it's going to be a wide-open outdoor space that will change the atmosphere totally but in a manner that is all about safety. The weight room will be in an area convenient for the players.
"I am very comfortable that once we get started with training camp, we will have a really good space to prepare our football team," said conditioning coordinator Garrett Giemont about the weight room. "It is right behind the locker room area, in front of the cold tubs and hot tubs, and right behind the PNC Champions Club where the food service will be. It's an outdoor facility, and the NFL and NFLPA recommended teams do as many outdoor things as possible." Having it outside means warm temperatures. Pittsburgh is having a hot summer.
Pittsburgh is having a hot summer. "We did a few things to make sure we would have it at a proper temperature and with the proper lighting," said Giemont. "All of that is needed. We tarped some areas to create a coolness. We have five air conditioning units to create a welcoming temperature. We have space for social distancing. And it will be a limited number of players working out at once, around 15 players only. All of those things will help."
Before any equipment was put into place, the first thing Giemont focused on was laying down the floor, something that wasn't as easy as it might sound...