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A homecoming for Steelers alumni

For many of the players on hand for the team's annual Alumni Weekend it was their first time back in Pittsburgh since their playing days ended.

And what they experienced was above and beyond anything they could have expected - a reunion with teammates, a trip down memory lane and a chance to enjoy Steelers Nation once again.

"It's amazing," said Chidi Iwuoma, a special teams standout from 2002-06. "It's exciting to be back in Pittsburgh. Just stepping off the plane was exciting for me. I am glad to be back.

"Some of the guys here were a little before me, but it's still a unity. We are all Steelers. The common link that we all have is we expect to win. We know what it takes to play for the Steelers and it's something to be proud of. The sense of pride those guys had before me, I now have and know what it's like to be a champion."

He wasn't alone in that sentiment.

"I never walked in Heinz Field, but it reminds you of what an organization should be like," said Oliver Gibson, a defensive tackle from 1995-98. "I am really happy to be here. I should have been here before this. I am going to come back more. Walking into the locker room, in the past when I did that I was just thinking about playing football. Now you appreciate it 20 times more."

Some players brought their families with them, a chance for kids who were born after their playing days in Pittsburgh to learn a little bit more about the city they called home for a while.

"It's great to be back. It's fun sharing old stories with these guys," said running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, who came from Hawaii with his wife and three kids. "In Hawaii nobody remembers me as a Jaguar. It's all about Pittsburgh. I am glad it is like that because I want to be remembered as a Steelers player.

"I am so proud and in awe of it. I am so happy for my family to see all of the people here. When I came here I was a 21-year old who was scared, far away from Hawaii. I met so many great people and now my kids get to meet them."

The group of 14 players began their weekend as the guests of honor at Taste of the Steelers on Saturday night, an event which benefitted the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at UPMC and the Cancer Caring Center. 

Players shared stories with the guests, some getting emotional while others had the crowd rolling in laughter, particularly Brentson Buckner, a defensive end from 1994-96, who shared a practice story from his rookie season at Three Rivers Stadium.

"Friday practice is when we would run the two-minute offense. It's like game time, very serious," recalled Buckner. "There was a microphone in the dugout that goes straight to the quarterback. Jim Miller was the quarterback and Bill Cowher was calling the plays. I get the microphone and say 'Can I get two pizzas, large Sprite and no pepperoni.' Jim Miller is yelling. Cowher is cussing everyone out.

"We had fun, but when we went out to play we wanted to represent you all."

Punter Josh Miller, who recently moved back to Pittsburgh, shared a story about an elderly woman giving him punting advice after a tough rookie year.

 "I ran into this woman in the bank," told Miller. "She told me my drop is too high and you are not as flexible as you think you are. I asked her for an example – she told me Reggie Roby. I told her thanks. I went home. I dropped it and everything seemed to work out

"You can't get that anywhere but in Pittsburgh. Everybody knows what is wrong. And you have to listen. I would like to say it was the hard work in the off-season or that Coach Cowher gave me some pointers, but it was the little old lady in PNC Bank who made the difference."

All of them thanked the Rooney family and the Steelers organization for the experience of playing in Pittsburgh, many who moved on to other teams or came in as free agents talking about what a special place it is.

"I must thank you as a player to the fans. Your enthusiasm toward the team actually motivates you as a player to reach to higher levels," said Wayne Gandy, who signed with the Steelers as a free agent from the Rams in 1999 and played four seasons. "To know that there are people who are depending on you for morale and something to cherish each week is special. To see how you come out and support the team is great.  To come here and see a whole stadium in Steelers apparel was very moving and I cherish my Terrible Towel to this day."

On Sunday the competitive side of the players came out when they had an alumni bowling outing, but what they were all waiting for was game night. They stopped in the locker room pregame and were on the sidelines during pregame warm-ups, taking it all in.

"This feels great. It's always great to come back to Heinz Field," said cornerback Willie Williams. "This is where I started my career and this is where I ended my career and it's a great feeling. To be considered an alumnus here, that means a lot. Being around some of the guys I used to play with is a great feeling. When I was here in 2004 I saw Dermontti Dawson come back. It was a great time. I never thought I would be a part of that."

Dawson was among those who returned again, admitting how much he missed the atmosphere. Dewayne Washington also came back, cherishing the experience.

"It is exciting, seeing the guys and making the connection again," said Washington. "There is a kindred spirit where it comes to football players at the professional level. I know exactly what they are going through. When I watch the games I watch them differently. I understand what they are doing. It's special being at the game.

At halftime the entire group, which also included Myron Bell, Mark Bruener, Levon Kirkland, Jason Gildon and Chad Scott, were welcomed back by the Heinz Field crowd.

"Here in Pittsburgh it's a whole other level of love for the team," said Scott. "The city bleeds black and gold. The sports teams are all black and gold. It's the only city in the country like that." 

And before they departed, they took one final look around, knowing that many plan on coming back sooner rather than later.

"They say, once you are a Steeler, you are always a Steeler," said Kirkland. "I believe that."

Others do as well.

"There is only one Pittsburgh," said Buckner. "I am former Bengal, former 49er but I am a Steeler for life."

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