Back in the time when the Pittsburgh Steelers called Three Rivers Stadium home, their executive offices were on the ground level of the building, behind two big, heavy, carved wooden doors. Of those doors it was often said: They open out; they don't revolve.
The meaning, of course, being that those who chose to leave were not invited back.
Today those doors are gone, and so, too, is that sentiment.
During the first 10 days of this free agency period, the Steelers have been unusually active, with Monday's signing marking the fifth veteran addition. And if five doesn't sound like a big number, remember that in 2008 the Steelers signed just two veteran free agents – Mewelde Moore and Justin Hartwig – and in 2009 they signed none.
Those numbers aren't the only thing that's different. Among the five players signed were two of their own – Antwaan Randle El and Larry Foote.
Randle El and Foote were the second and fourth picks by the Steelers in the 2002 NFL Draft, and both of them became professionals here. They learned their crafts here, learned what it takes to win here. They experienced the NFL at its best here. The Steelers drafted them and taught them and nurtured them – Randle El as the former college quarterback who was going to have to learn wide receiver to play professionally, and Foote as a linebacker who was never going to be able to rely simply on superior physical ability.
They learned and developed, as players and professionals, and they helped the team win games and championships. They were Steelers.
But then they both left for more money, or more playing time, or the promise of some combination of both. Randle El went to the Washington Redskins after Super Bowl XL as one of those annual moves Daniel Snyder seems to make that helps his team win in March but never in January, and Foote went home to Detroit after Super Bowl XLIII to be a part of the resurrection of the Lions.
Today, both are back with the Steelers, and everybody is happy about it.
"I was coming off the Super Bowl and anxious to start over and do something different," said Foote about his thought process at the time, but he explained that those hopes and dreams of turning the hometown franchise from winless to a winner turned out to be nothing but hopes and dreams.
"You can't really explain it until you go through it," said Foote about joining a team that had just gone 0-16 and then finished 2-14 in his only season there. "You talk about dog days. Those were dog days, especially being a competitive person and losing. I made some nice relationships over there, and it was good going home and playing there, but I just thank God I'm back and didn't sign a long-term deal (there)."
Randle El said he always kept an eye on the Steelers during his four seasons with the Redskins, and he admits his first thought upon being released by that team was to wonder what the situation was with his former team.
"I had about six teams that were interested, so it's not as if it was just the Steelers," said Randle El. "That's where I started and I had a good vibe about it. When you get up in age, you kind of want to go to teams where you know they're basically going to take care of you. Not just in terms of practices and all that. But take care of you in terms of saying, 'We know this guy. He's a proven guy.' They understand.
"You know (Pittsburgh) is not a team that's just going to get rid of (veterans). Indianapolis was in the mix. And that's certainly a team that understands what it means when it comes to veteran guys. Also, the same thing with New England. They were also in the mix. That was another team that has veteran guys and ... the family-based teams, if you will, that understand that whole process and bringing veteran guys in."
The Steelers understand the importance of having veterans, of having players experienced in the ebb and flow that comes with every NFL season, of having guys who appreciate the atmosphere here and respect their teammates and understand their roles. In Randle El and Foote, that's exactly what they got.
They also got guys who have seen life on the outside and opted to come back because they believe it's better here. And in the social structure of an NFL locker room, those voices are valuable allies in the event of a fight for the hearts and minds of some players who might otherwise be inclined to think more of "me" than "we."
Randle El will provide veteran depth and savvy, with his forte being a receiver who has the hands, smarts and understanding to work the underneath areas to move the chains on third downs. Foote will provide flexibility and injury insurance at a position where there is little of either. Ironically, Foote wanted to leave because he didn't want to be a backup to Lawrence Timmons, but he returned with the understanding he would be that, and he accepts it.
"Just the experience I went through last year," said Foote about why he changed his mind. "It's all about winning in this league and having fun. I know the coaches here and the guys here that I love, and the community and town and seeing the (Terrible) Towels and the black and gold. It was a weird feeling being on that (opposite) sideline and seeing those towels. In my heart I'm a Steeler, and when I left last year they told me I'd always be one. I just didn't think I was going to be back here."
In the past, he and Randle El wouldn't have been allowed back. In the past, the Steelers would've ignored this opportunity. But that past is past, and it's a good thing for the future.