As he stood watching his son Michael run a pass pattern at Heinz Field, pulling in a catch from Steelers quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, the smile on Air National Guard E7 Master Sgt. Michael Sears face was hard to hide. He was beaming with pride watching the 10-year old, giving them both a chance to bond and have fun.
Sears was one of 75 military veterans taking part in "Heroes at Heinz Field" on Thursday evening, an event annually hosted by the Steelers and VA Healthcare VISN 4 to honor veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan who are now adjusting to civilian life.
Check out the photos from the 2014 Heroes at Heinz Field event.
Sears served in Afghanistan and received the Silver Star Medal, the third highest honor for valor in combat, for his heroic efforts in saving the lives of others. Sears put his own life on the line to protect a Polish soldier and a medic, suffering injuries to his arm and a traumatic brain injury, but still finished his deployment.
"It's unbelievable to have an event such as this for our veterans coming back," said Sears, who is from Beaver County. "The Steelers organization probably doesn't understand how much it means to myself and my family. Coming back from a couple of bad tours, stuff like this brings me closer to my family and son. It's unbelievable what they do for us."
The event brings the veterans together with Steelers players, 17 of whom were on hand (Mike Adams, Cortez Allen, Kelvin Beachum, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Bruce Gradkowski, Chris Hubbard, Jarvis Jones, Brett Keisel, Arthur Moats, Michael Palmer, Maurkice Pouncey, Shaun Suisham, Cody Wallace, Greg Warren and Brad Wing) for an evening of fun and football. They take part in drills on the field, receive autographs, have a dinner and just spend time getting to know each other and share stories.
"I loved this," said linebacker Arthur Moats. "Any time you get to come out here and interact with the veterans, show them your appreciation for what they do for this country it's a great experience."
Moats father, Arthur Moats Jr. is a former United States Marine, so he understands the impact a night like this can have on the service members and truly thinks of the veterans as heroes.
"Any time they say we are heroes, you are like no way," said Moats. "They are out here risking their lives for us and the things they go through to protect us so we can have the freedom we do, we have the utmost respect for them and appreciate them."
He wasn't alone in referring to the military members as heroes. Every player was in agreement.
"They stuck their neck out for our country," said linebacker Jarvis Jones. "They are the people that allow us to play this game freely, do what we want to do. They protect us and allow us to be who we want to be. We appreciate it and love being out here playing football with them."
Many of the veterans talked about how football serves as a distraction for them, a getaway from the harsh reality that combat is.
"In the civilian world everyone cheers for the Steelers, veterans included," said U.S. Army Sgt. Scott Braden from Butler, Pa. "On deployments it's a representation of where you are from.
"It's like a coping mechanism for us. It allows us to get away from whatever conflict we are in to wind down and see the teams we like and love do well. It's a good distraction from worrying about our families back home and the enemy wherever they may be at. I am proud to have served and proud to have these guys look at me as a hero."
Braden said one of the highlights for him was getting a handshake from defensive end Brett Keisel, a regular at the event since the Steelers began it seven years ago.
"To be around these guys that sacrificed their lives and everything you hold dear, family, friends, where you live," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "It's humbling being around them. It's great to talk to them, share stores and listen to their stories about war and things people don't think about.
"I was talking to one and we sent them a flag when we played in the Super Bowl against Green Bay. He told me how much it meant to those guys. I do feel it's important to try and do the little things to give back because you never know what it's going to mean to somebody."