By Teresa Varley
The regular season doesn't start for another week, but fans helped get things rolling at the 2009 Steelers Kickoff Luncheon at the Pittsburgh Hilton Hotel on Wednesday.
The luncheon, which is hosted by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, was a chance to introduce the 2009 team and coaches to the approximately 800 guests in attendance.
"It's the Steeler Nation and we are always going to have great fans," said wide receiver Hines Ward. "It's great for them to see some of their favorite players up close and in person. The season is around the corner, it's about to start. This is the realization that it's here. It's a chance to introduce some of the players and get the fans acclimated to the new faces. It gets us ready to get focused for the season."
Fans that arrived early had the opportunity to obtain autographs from former Steelers Randy Grossman, Mike Logan and Edmund Nelson and bid on silent auction items.
"It's great to see the support we have," said cornerback Deshea Townsend. "It's a great way for the younger guys to see how the city feels about you. It lets us know it's time for the season to start."
During the luncheon the Steelers 2008 highlight film played, often interrupted by cheers from the crowd, especially when highlights from Super Bowl XLIII played. When the film came to an end, the fans gave the team a standing ovation.
Steelers President Art Rooney, II welcomed the guests, thanking them for their continued support and loyalty and asking them to keep it going this season.
"Thank you for being here to help us get ready to kick off another season," said Rooney. "It's certainly exciting. I know our players are excited, the fans are excited. I just want to remind everybody we have to take it one game at a time. Show up at Heinz Field and cheer loud. Every team that comes in here this year is going to be shooting for us so we need the fans to do their part and I know you will."
A year ago, Coach Mike Tomlin spoke to the crowd and assured them, 'We are working extremely hard to make everyone proud and to pursue a championship for the Steeler nation.'
Having delivered, Tomlin enjoyed some of the moments of celebration from last year, but was ready to move forward to a new season.
"That highlight video doesn't get old, does it?" Tomlin asked the crowd. "Every time I watch Santonio get his toes down in the corner of the end zone I get that funny feeling. I get the same feeling I get when I watch Franco Harris scoop that ball up before it hits the ground at Three Rivers, or Lynn Swann making an acrobatic catch on the sideline. It's part of Steelers lore. It's history. It's just that for us.
"Although some of the guys that comprise some of the highlights are still on this stage today, we are singularly focused on the challenges that lie ahead in 09. We look forward to writing new history. Not necessarily January, February history, we are excited about taking one step at a time and meeting the challenges of the day and understanding along the way hopefully we are writing history.
"We appreciate the love and support of Steeler nation. Hopefully we give you something to be excited about this year. We look forward to seeing you out there and Heinz Field and other places because nobody travels like Steeler Nation."
Former Steelers offensive linemen Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley, both part of the Steelers radio broadcasts, served as the emcees for the luncheon and introduced the players and coaches to the crowd, with plenty of cheering taking place.
James Harrison was acknowledged as the team's 2008 MVP and in honor of a tradition the players have he took the microphone over to rookie Keenan Lewis, who was told he had to handle the Harrison introduction. Lewis started to do just that, but quickly learned he was the victim of a yearly joke played on an unsuspecting rookie. Harrison then took over the microphone and said his thanks.
"I would like to thank my teammates because they voted for me," said Harrison. "My defensive teammates especially because without them I am not as good as I am. I would like to thank Coach LeBeau because he draws us up some great defenses that get us free and get us the recognition we get out there right now. I would like to thank the fans and look forward to your continued support."
Rookie Patrick Bailey was also honored for winning the 2008 Joe Greene Great Performance Award, thanking PNC Bank who sponsors the award, as well as the Rooney family, coaches, Kevin Colbert and the scouting department and his teammates. He also thanked the fans for all of their support.
The luncheon ended with Ward being acknowledged for being the Steelers 2008 Walter Payton Man of the Year.
"It's a great honor," said Ward. "It's our responsibility to give 110 percent on the field and give back to the community. I am blessed to be in a situation where I am able to give back to a city that has given me so much. I want to thank you for your support."
And before he was done, Ward made sure to encourage the crowd to be out there in full force on September 10 when the Steelers host the Tennessee Titans in the season-opener at Heinz Field.
"Get ready to go out, call off work on Thursday, and help us in our quest for Seventh Heaven," said Ward, his words greeted by loud cheers for all in attendance.
Photos by Mike Fabus