From the minute they arrived on campus at St. Vincent College on Friday afternoon, Willie Parker, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith and Marvel Smith were back in training camp mode, joking with each other, visiting with former teammates, and fitting in as if they had never left.
But on this day, it was all about saying goodbye for the four former Steelers’ greats, who officially retired before the team’s practice at Latrobe Memorial Stadium.
“It’s an honor to come back and be here with the organization that Pittsburgh is, the tradition, and to come back and be a part of that and experience this tonight,” said Marvel Smith. “I haven’t been out here in a long time and it’s nice to come back.
“Playing here, it was the total experience of being around here and being a part of Steelers history, not just while I was here but a connection with the Steelers past. It’s not one experience, but it’s being here and being around the best players in the league and playing with them on a daily basis.”
Steelers’ fans gave the players a thunderous ovation, something that meant the world to them.
“It’s important for me to give back to the fans, the organization, and the Rooneys,” said Parker, who was recently added to the coaching staff at West Virginia Wesleyan. “Coming in they gave me a shot, with that shot I made it to two Super Bowls, two Pro Bowls. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a blessing. It’s a first class organization, people and coaches. I think I have to close this part of my life to carry on and give my all to the next part of my life and transition on and carry on into coaching.”
For Aaron Smith, who had planned on just quietly walking away from the game at the end of last season but was convinced that officially retiring was better, the memories are fresh and so is the love for his former teammates who were overjoyed to see him.
“It’s big,” said Aaron Smith. “First of all it’s the greatest organization in professional sports. Just the way they handle things, do business, the record speaks for itself and the fans, to be a part of something and to finish it is great.
“There are people who would dream of being on this team their entire career. Guys come back to retire. Look at these guys, they want to retire. It’s a special place and to be a part of that is special.”
As they shook hands and hugged former teammates and coaches, including Coach Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and former running backs coach Dick Hoak, each one of them reminisced about the good times and what it meant to play for the Steelers.
“I didn’t know it at the time when I was playing because you are so caught up in playing and trying to be the best,” said Marvel Smith. “But after I was done playing and reflected back on it I saw the opportunity the Rooneys and the Steelers gave me. I was blessed to have been given the opportunity to come out here and play with my teammates and the teams I was on.”
The players talked about some of the subtle changes on campus, asked about some of the young players on the team, but for the most part realized that while some little things change, being a Steeler is something that will remain a constant.
“It means everything to be here, to have played for the Steelers,” said Parker. “When I was here playing, all of the support I got from everyone, the fans, it was a blessing, a dream come true to win the Super Bowl. Why not come back and close this chapter of my life in the place where I started. It’s always going to be a part of me.”
Porter, who went on to play for the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals after his Steelers days, said he will always be a Pittsburgh Steeler.
“That tradition of being a Steeler is something you can’t explain,” said Porter. “You realize it when you go somewhere else and play for a different organization. I played for some other organizations that were great, Miami was and so was Arizona, but it’s nothing like Pittsburgh. It’s nothing like coming home. When you come home you realize what you had when you left. Not that I took anything for granted, because I loved every moment when I was here. I just thought I was going to be able to be here my whole career. You see how special it was for guys like Aaron Smith and Hines Ward that only wore black and gold for the whole career. You realize how good Pittsburgh was to you when you have to leave. That is what I found out when I left. I loved every minute of wearing that black and gold jersey.
“I knew when I left I would retire a Steeler. When you say Joey Porter, you think Pittsburgh. I feel like I am a Steeler. Even when I was with other teams I was worried about what my brothers were doing here in Pittsburgh. I had to keep tabs on my family members because that is what the team was. That is because we had such a close knit group. That is the relationship we had with all of the guys on the team. This is family.”