My Weekend With the Steelers

By Ruth Whelan

Ruth Whelan, a physiotherapy (what we call physical therapy) manager from UPMC Beacon Hospital in Dublin, Ireland, was invited by Pittsburgh Steelers head athletic trainer John Norwig to join the medical staff – including physicians from the team’s official health-care provider, UPMC – on the Steelers sidelines during their game last week against the Minnesota Vikings. Herewith, an Irish view to a completely foreign game (with a few parenthetical Irish-to-American translations):

Ruth Whelan
On Sunday 29th, Sept. 2013, the Pittsburgh Steelers played Minnesota Vikings as part of the NFL  International Series in the iconic Wembley Stadium before a crowd of 90,000, and I had the privilege to stand pitch side. (Translation: “pitch” is the field.)

Two years ago, Ambassador Dan Rooney introduced me to John Norwig, the head athletic trainer for Pittsburgh Steelers. John was visiting the Rooneys in Ireland and, given his connections with UPMC, John took some time out of his trip to tour our hospital facility: UPMC Beacon Hospital in Dublin, Ireland. From this chance encounter, John and I stayed in contact, and our friendship grew stronger through our mutual affiliations with UPMC and our love of sports rehabilitation. Little did I know at the time that one day John would give me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see first-hand his role with Pittsburgh Steelers.

My invite from John not only included presence pitch side at an NFL International Series game in London, but also unlimited access to the training sessions, mock games (translation: practices) and training rooms in the two days leading up to the game – a truly golden ticket.

The first sighting of the Steelers’ world left me gasping for air. The sheer size of the players, the magnitude of the entourage and the precision of their planning was unimaginable. On day one, I was really struck by the size of the support teams that include a UPMC consultant neurosurgeon, UPMC orthopaedic surgeon, UPMC internal medicine physician, strength and conditioning coaches, position specific coaches. . . . It was an effort to control my emotions with each introduction!

On match day (translation: gameday), the excitement commenced the minute we boarded the coach (translation: transportation, not Mike Tomlin) with a police escort all the way to Wembley and fans waving at our bus as we drove through the streets of London! As if this was not enough, I managed to find myself sitting beside Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clarke (sic) on the coach.

Four hours before Kick-off, it was straight to the locker rooms. The Steelers had two interconnecting locker rooms; one for the offence and one for the defence (translation: hey, that’s how the Canadians spell it, too!), both immaculately presented. Each player’s uniform was presented perfectly in each booth (translation: locker). Players got ready at their own pace and used the cues from the coaches as to when they had to be on the pitch. Calls like “Offence 2 minutes,” “Defence 3 minutes,” “Team 5 minutes” echoed through the locker rooms.  John and his team worked effortlessly to ensure each player’s every need was addressed from taping and stretching to ensuring each player was appropriately hydrated.

Whelan with Steelers
defensive end Brett Keisel.
The calmness in the dressing room was in complete contrast to the roars of the crowds out on the pitch. And then, when you think you have seen everything, a final pleasant surprise: silence descended as they stood while one of the teammates led them in prayer. It was a truly amazing and moving sight to observe.
Just before kick-off, we lined up behind the team in the tunnel and had the privilege of running behind the team onto the pitch to the roars of the crowd – what better way to experience life as a Pittsburgh Steelers footballer!

While the game did not go our way, it was clear that each team player had given it his all; each play carried out with maximum intensity and gritty determination. Coaching staff motivated players during every minute of each play – running up and down the line (translation: sideline), calling players into huddles, scribbling notes for half-time. Athletic training staff had worked hard to ensure players were physically fit for each play and that each stayed hydrated. Medical staff observed every tackle and looked at replays to ensure there were no unaccounted for injuries. It was a true team effort on and off the pitch.

Given my limited knowledge before this weekend of American football, I can readily see why it is the No. 1 sport in the U.S. It offers a true sporting spectrum of strength, skill, speed, agility and pace coupled with passion and nail-biting excitement. The Pittsburgh Steelers game brought this and more to Wembley. They have a new No. 1 Irish Fan. Let’s hope they come to Ireland sometime soon so that more sports lovers can get a taste of what I experienced first-hand!

A huge thank you to John Norwig for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

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