As the line continued to grow outside the Hazelwood Senior Center on Second Avenue, the reality began to hit Steelers fullback Will Johnson even more. The mix of young and old, families and senior citizens living on fixed incomes, all there because of the struggles life brings, is why Johnson knew he wanted to give back.
A year ago Johnson attended then teammate LaMarr Woodley's Thanksgiving food distribution and saw what it meant to the people who were provided a turkey and all of the fixings for a proper holiday meal. It touched him so much that when Woodley signed with the Oakland Raiders this offseason, Johnson immediately stepped up and took it over, hosting his first-ever Thanksgiving food distribution this year in conjunction with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
Steelers FB Will Johnson teamed up with the Food Bank to give away a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings.
"I knew there was a void in that area," said Johnson, who hosted it along with his wife Jessica. "Just to see the joy in people's faces. Everyone is not as fortunate as we are. To be in a position to give back means the world. I don't think anybody should have to go without a Thanksgiving dinner. I drive through the (Hazelwood) neighborhood every day. You can see the help is needed. It's a blessing to be able to give back."
Johnson, who had current and former teammates helping him distribute the food he purchased to the 200 recipients, understands what it's like to have to work for what you want, as he came from a single parent household and his mother, Wilma Gilmore, did everything she could to provide for them.
"I come from a background where we struggled a little bit," said Johnson. 'My mom being a single mother trying to make ends meet to provide a dinner for us two kids was a struggle for her. It's a blessing to give back. I know my mom would be proud of me. For me and my wife it's a big deal to help these people out. Just to be in that position means everything. I know we are going to make someone's Thanksgiving better."
That kind of attitude is one that the food bank relies on, the generosity of those who struggled to give back when they are able to.
"He stepped up right away," said Lisa Scales, the CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. "When you see the number of teammates he had at the event with him, they all stepped up for him. For him to say it's important to feed people in Hazelwood, a community that is in need, means a lot. We looked at the families being served, and I saw a number of senior citizens, a number of children. It's heartwarming to me to see what his inspiration has done for this community.
"And for someone like Will, who admits his family struggled, I see that and that is the joy of working at the food bank. We see the struggle, but we see the resilience of families and the strength of the community. Time and time again I see people who have had to go to a food pantry for assistance who were struggling, parents who were struggling to put food on their table so they and their kids can eat, but when they are able to, giving back. That is what the spirit of the holidays is all about and we see it throughout the year."
Center Maurkice Pouncey is no stranger to helping the food bank, and once again this year made sure families on Pittsburgh's North Side were taken care of when he hosted his Thanksgiving food distribution at Stage AE.
Pouncey, along with teammates including his fellow offensive linemen, passed out turkeys he provided and the fixings to 200 low-income families who might otherwise go without Thanksgiving dinner.
"I am just in a position to give back," said Pouncey. "I like to bring smiles to people's faces. If I can help out a little bit I am totally into it. It's for a great cause. People aren't as fortunate as us. For them to get a big-time meal on Thanksgiving is huge."
Pouncey, understands the importance of giving back.
"Thanksgiving is all about giving back and that is what I am trying to do," said Pouncey. "To see all of those people's faces come in there and get the turkey and food and have them happy is truly amazing."
As they went through the line, one by one, the recipient's eyes would light up as Pouncey and his teammates filled their bags with each item, thanking them, wishing the players luck and giving them advice for the season.
Maurkice Pouncey teamed up with the Food Bank and Giant Eagle to Giveaway a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings.
"Maurkice is an institution now in terms of joining us, partnering with the food bank to end hunger in our community," said Scales. "He is a real testament to the idea if we all come together we can solve hunger. Through his generosity and spirit, his time and him coming together with his teammates at Stage AE, it has been tremendous. It's a large distribution and it's been so successful year after year. I can't thank him enough."
Pouncey will also spend part of his upcoming bye weekend distributing Thanksgiving baskets with his twin brother Mike in their hometown of Lakeland, Florida.
"It's going to be tremendous," said Pouncey. "I can't wait. I am really excited about it. All of my family members are. I want to see all of the smiles on the faces of the people from Lakeland. And we get to do it at the high school this year so it's going to be really touching for me at the same time.
"I call both Pittsburgh and Lakeland home. This is the longest I have been on any team my whole life, so this is home. I have the opportunity to give back and I am taking advantage of it. We weren't able to growing up, and the people that did it we looked up to and those are the steps we are taking."
When Coach Mike Tomlin preaches to his players the importance of giving back, of being involved in the community, of helping those in need, he can do so with ease because it's something he does. He truly is a man who practices what he preaches.
Since he was first hired by the Steelers in 2007, Tomlin has quietly provided turkeys for the food bank and helped distribute them in the city's Homewood neighborhood. He doesn't do it looking for attention or fanfare. He does it quite simply, because he gets it, he understands.
"He does it in the way you would expect Coach Tomlin to do it, humble and low key," said Scales. "But he is decisive, saying I'm in Pittsburgh and I want myself and my entire family to help other families. It has been heartwarming to me.
"He's kept it quiet because it's about neighbors helping neighbors. It's about the values he has. He doesn't need to toot his own horn. He has a great reputation in the Pittsburgh community. This isn't about him. It's about helping people in need. He knows that is the focus and that's what's important to him. It's not about him, it's about service to the community, and it's about ending hunger. That's what's special about his distributions."
Tomlin brings his wife and kids with them, and they don't stand around and watch dad. They are put to work.
"It's important to give back to the community," said Tomlin. "It's also an opportunity to teach my kids the spirit of giving. I make them do all of the leg work. They unload the turkeys off the truck, help hand them out to the people we are giving them to and wish them a Happy Holidays.
"We are all very blessed to get the chance to do what we desire to do and I feel like we have an obligation to share those blessings with those who are close to us."
The food bank serves 11 counties in the Western Pennsylvania area and their numbers have significantly increased every month since 2008. They depend on the generosity of individuals like Johnson, Pouncey and Tomlin, organizations like the Steelers, and the general public to aid all of those in need.
"It's been a wonderful partnership for many, many years," said Scales. "I can't thank the Steelers organization enough. They have been champions on the field, and as an organization they are championing the cause and saying it's not acceptable that children go to bed hungry. It's a great organization. Throughout the years the Steelers have stepped up time and time again to help neighbors in need. "We had served on average 110,000 people a month in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Over the summer our service increased to 125,000 people so the need is just growing. That is why initiatives like these are so important, especially this time of year when seniors are having to choose between paying for medicine and paying for food, paying for heat and paying for food. We don't want anyone to have to make that choice. We don't want parents to have to choose to skip meals so their kids can eat. We don't want children to go to bed hungry. That's what this is all about, ending hunger."