Coming home again

The smiles were plentiful, the laughter hearty and the hugs were solid.

Because when the family gets together, that is exactly what happens.

"It's pretty special. It means a lot to know I have history here," said former Steelers linebacker Kendrell Bell. "Every time I come here, I feel like I am home again.

"It tells you the value and what they think of us to bring us back. It means a lot to me, to the other players. It's like a reunion. We see old friends and see how people are doing."

On Saturday night, there was a family reunion when the Steelers hosted the 2023 Alumni Weekend Dinner, presented by UPMC, UPMC Health Plan & U.S. Steel at Acrisure Stadium. The dinner, which benefits the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, brought together players from the previous two decades of Steelers football.

"This is fantastic," said Kordell Stewart, the former quarterback who played for the Steelers from 1995-2002. "It's being able to get back with each other and talk about the good times, family, how everyone is. It's like getting back to square one, what was normal way back when. When you see them, it's like you saw them just yesterday. It's like old times, like you never skipped a beat.

"It's great to come back and do this. We get to sit around and talk about the funny stuff, the good times, the games, everything. We might not have seen each other for a while, but it's all about the fond memories we have all shared.

"We get to talk with the new players, the new staff and sit down and watch a game on Sunday. It's a combination of the feel-good stuff you remember being a part of."

Some of the players were local, driving just a few minutes from their homes for the dinner and weekend celebration, while others drove miles to be a part of it, including Clint Kriewaldt who came in from Wisconsin with his wife and two of his kids.

"It's awesome," said Kriewaldt, who played from 2002-2007 and was a part of the Super Bowl XL Championship team. "We're super excited. And the guys that are here, I played with probably 85 to 90 percent of them. I haven't talked to or seen those guys since the last time we were in Pittsburgh, probably six or seven years ago, which seems like a long time. It's amazing. Once you see guys, it seems like it was just yesterday that we were playing with each other.

"We love Pittsburgh. We love the city, we love the fans, the coaches. We're excited to be back home. It's just the people and it's very similar to the people in Wisconsin. They're very passionate about what they love. They love their football. They're just blue collar, hardworking people that make you feel welcome, make it like home."

The evening kicked off with a tour of the Steelers Hall of Honor Museum, taking in the steeped history they are all a part of. It continued with a reception where the stories were flowing, and then it went full tilt when former running back Merril Hoge hosted conversations with the players about their time with the Steelers.

"It's just a highlight of the year," said Jeff Hartings, the former center who played with the team from 2001-2006 and was a part of the Super Bowl XL Championship team. "Just so proud to be a part of this organization, and I feel so blessed to be a part of this organization.

"I have told some of the players and coaches, the kind of season they are having this year makes you feel really blessed and proud to be a part of the organization because of the way they do things. The Rooney family is amazing. I am speechless just getting to take part in this.

"You come back and see some of your teammates. If you don't come back and have events like these, you don't get to see these guys that much. That is what so many of us appreciate it. These are the guys you spent a good part of your playing time with, you spent every day with them. When you retire and get away from football, you appreciate that more and more. Being able to see these guys around these events is special."

There wasn't a single player, or family member in attendance, that doesn't appreciate that the Steelers do events like this for their players, showing them how much they are loved and appreciated and a part of the team forever.

"I spent my first four years in Detroit, and then once I got to Pittsburgh, I didn't realize it at first, but the more I was there after my first year, second year, it was just what a difference in franchises," said Kriewaldt. "In Pittsburgh I would see the Rooneys every single day. They're eating lunch with us. They're out at practice. You don't get that everywhere. It just felt more like a family and felt more like a college atmosphere, family atmosphere.

"I remember seeing all of the legends who would come back and visit when I played there. When you would see those guys walk around, that is what the history of the Steelers is. It's kind of surreal coming back."

The players will also be honored at halftime of Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers, giving the Acrisure Stadium crowd an opportunity to welcome home family.

"It is very special," said Stewart. "It's pretty cool that you can come in for a weekend and they go out of their way to accommodate us, to let us go to the practice facility, to see the walk-through practice, to do the tour of the facility with the kids and see the game.

"And then to be announced at halftime. That's pretty cool. It's very special."

For many of the players, getting that stadium welcome isn't something they are as accustomed to anymore and it goes a long way.

"It's very exciting to go out on the field and hear the crowd," said Hartings. "To be honest, the attention NFL football players get was a little overwhelming for me when I played. I just wanted to play football. Then I came to the Steelers, and it's really overwhelming. Your identity is as a football player. It wasn't until the parade after Super Bowl XL when I really started to connect with Steelers Nation and understand they just love the Steelers.

"To be able to go out there and hear that cheer again, there is a special connection between Steelers Nation and the players. I hope all of the players now realize Steelers Nation loves them and appreciates what they are doing now and what we did 20 years ago."

As the players walked through the Hall of Honor Museum, shared stories during the reception they had, and then took the stage for dinner, the one thing they kept mentioning was how much they loved their time in the black and gold.

"When I played, at the time I was young and didn't think about it," said Bell. "It's time like this that you realize how special it was. I was able to play football here, finally find my niche. To know that is preserved by them bringing us back, seeing old teammates, it's just an overall great feeling."

The Pittsburgh Steelers celebrated the 2000s and 2010s during the Alumni Weekend Dinner at Acrisure Stadium benefitting the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program