All eyes on Hampton

<b>LATROBE --</b> When 330-something-pound nose tackle Casey Hampton left minicamp in June, he was warned by coaches to watch his weight because everyone else would be watching it during the run test at training camp.<br><br> Hampton, who failed last year's test in spectacular fashion, passed this year's in a breeze. He was greeted with enthusiastic, if not wild, applause from his teammates.

Just like last year, though, Hampton doesn't understand all the fuss.

"I just ran the test, man," he said. "It wasn't any different."

Did Hampton feel the eyes of Steelers Nation upon him?

"I guess but that stuff don't bother me because when it's time to play I'm going to play, regardless. I was just tired of people always telling me I won't make the test, this and that. The test ain't no problem with me. It wasn't no big thing."

The test, consisting of 14 40-yard sprints, was moved indoors to the St. Vincent College basketball court Saturday because of rain showers. Coach Bill Cowher said the move helped Hampton. "I think the surface was conducive to that," Cowher said, "but I think the way he finished was very inspiring to a lot of people."

Hampton shook off the applause and back slaps and high fives with a shrug. "Anything I do, my team is behind me like that. I kind of figured it was going to be like that," he said.

All the Steelers who took the test passed it. Jeff Hartings was held out for the second consecutive year as a precautionary measure for his knee troubles. Linebacker Joey Porter was also held out because he woke up with a sore groin. He'll be examined again today before the team's 1 p.m. practice, the first official practice of the new season.

Of course, rain could change the schedule. But Cowher didn't take Saturday's showers as an omen that bad weather would plague training camp as it had last year.

"I looked at the long-range forecast. I think we'll be OK," he said. "The best thing about it is our field conditions. Those fields are immaculate out there. I think we're going to get good quality work out there."

The fields on the main practice square at St. Vincent College have been re-shaped with crowns, and another practice field has been added, giving the team four fields on the main square. Cowher is anxious to put them all to use.

"We have some work to do and we've got to turn some things around," he said. "I think there'll be a sense of purpose at this camp."

Cowher didn't have an update on the status of the team's negotiations with first-round draft pick Ben Roethlisberger, but he did have his first opportunity to view the halfback battle between Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. Bettis, possibly in the best shape of his life for a sixth or seventh consecutive camp, initially ran next to Staley, but moved to the other side of the gym to avoid Cowher's shouts of encouragement. As per his norm, Bettis saved himself for the big sprint at the end by consistently jumping the starting gun throughout the early portion of the test.

"He's a cagey veteran," Cowher said. "He has a way of saving himself to the end. He certainly never got a late start on any of the 40s."

Not that any of it really matters.

"This type of test can't tell you if you're in football shape or not," said Hampton, who went on to make the Pro Bowl after his awful performance last year.

"You can't play football if you're not in football shape. I tell my coach that all the time. A lot of guys come out here and do all this and they get out on the field and be tired. But it's going to take awhile to get in football shape."

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