When you listen to players who have just come through free agency talk about it, the one word you hear over and over again to describe the endeavor is stress. It's a time when uncertainty reigns supreme regarding their football future, and of course tension comes with that.
But none of that can compare to the stress long snapper Greg Warren endured recently, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he too was a free agent.
Weeks before the Steelers' veteran signed a one-year contract to remain with the team he faced the kind of stress and anguish no husband would ever want to.
His wife Ashley, his beautiful bride of less than a year, had to undergo surgery to have a brain tumor removed.
Her health issue first surfaced in 2010 when she was suffering from frequent headaches. An MRI revealed a rare skull-based brain tumor, completely unrelated to the headaches, and removing it would be a delicate and slow procedure. The initial thought was it was benign and shouldn't cause immediate danger, so rather than rushing into it they did their homework, sought out second opinions and made sure they got the best care could.
Blessed with finding one of the best doctors in the country practically in their backyard in their native North Carolina, they found comfort in their decision to have the surgery done this offseason at the Duke Medical Center.
"We spent about a year trying to decide where she felt most comfortable doing this and having it removed," explained Warren. "That was important, feeling comfortable with where we went. One of the best surgeons in the world for this procedure was right there at Duke so we decided to go with them."
So on February 27, Ashley Warren went in for the long, delicate procedure, all the while Greg anxiously waited for word on how she was doing. If you want to know what stress truly is, just imagine what Warren experienced in the waiting room, watching the clock, hoping and praying.
"Going into the surgery there was a lot of anxiety for Ashley and more so probably for us," said Warren. "I think she was more worried about her parents and me than anything. She had a lot of faith and really put her faith and trust in God that he was going to take care of her. We all kept that same faith."
That faith was rewarded when after just three and a half hours, of what was expected to be a six to eight hour surgery, good news was delivered.
"They didn't know if they would get the full tumor in one surgery," said Warren. "They didn't know if she was going to need radiation. We did know about 95 percent that it was going to be benign, and it was thank goodness, but there were so many things we didn't know.
"Then they called and said they were finished. They got the tumor completely and had very few complications. She has been very blessed to be where she is right now having the whole tumor removed. In the long run they think she is going to be just fine."
Recovery is about a three to four month process, during which Warren has been right by her side. She has had some numbness in her face, has slept a lot and has had to endure frequent and severe headaches. But in time, that will all go away and a full recovery will follow.
"The large majority of the recovery is getting through the headaches," said Warren. "She has had massive headaches. To do the surgery they had to do some different things with the jaw to get into where they needed. She has some jaw issues where she is trying to do rehab on the jaw and the joint itself to get her bite and everything else to line back up. That is the worst of the issues at this point.
"It's been kind of stressful, but watching her go through it she has been so strong. The two weeks prior to it you would have never known she was going in to have a major brain surgery. She was so strong and her faith had grown so much. She really had very minimal amount of anxiety. The comfort of seeing her like that probably helped her parents and me more than anything. Had it been any other way we would have been a mess."
So, when free agency officially began on March 12, Warren naturally thought about what was going to happen. But he put it all in perspective. The most important thing for him was just having everything settled for Ashley's sake, so that all they had to focus on was her recovery. And it helped that the team supported him through it all.
"I wanted to make sure she didn't have to worry about anything," said Warren, who was signed on March 13. "The Steelers reiterated they wanted me back when the season was over. They also told us they would help us any way they could with her, finding a doctor, helping with my schedule. The Steelers are great about making everything a family atmosphere and the continuity we have been able to keep over the years is a testament to the Rooney family and everyone else. You feel like it really is a family unit and we can all lean on one another. They were so gracious with how they handled the situation and helped us out."
Warren said that he truly feels like Pittsburgh is now their home, after playing for the team since he originally signed as an undrafted rookie in 2005.
"It was important for us to stay here for a lot of reasons," said Warren. "We have come to know Pittsburgh as home. For us to be able to continue that and not have to try and find a new home it was huge. With her surgery it was even more important for us to not have to make any changes right now.
"It's easy to call Pittsburgh home because the people are friendly, open and inviting. The people that surround you in Pittsburgh make you feel like you are welcome."
While they are in North Carolina during recovery, they take comfort in knowing when they do return to Pittsburgh that the support system will be just as strong.
"I really feel blessed to have spent my entire career here in Pittsburgh so far," said Warren. "My view of the league has been greatly skewed for the better because of what it's like to play for an organization like the Steelers. I couldn't ask for much more."