By Teresa Varley
The excitement for a new football season was in the air on Thursday at the 2008 Steelers Kickoff Luncheon, held at the Pittsburgh Hilton Hotel.
The luncheon, which is hosted by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, was a chance to introduce the 2008 team and coaches to the fans and sponsors in attendance.
"It's fun," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "The fans can see us up close and personal and see our whole team. It's fun to connect with our fans.
"You know it's time to go when we have this luncheon. It's time to gear up and rock and roll. We are excited about this year. We have a good team. We're excited about where we are going and about this team."
The luncheon began with a silent auction and raffle and Steelers alumni Gerry "Moon" Mullins, Louis Lipps and Jeff Hartings signing autographs and greeting the fans.
"This city has always been known for the fans," said Lipps. "It's always going to be like that. To be a part of that still being far removed from playing makes it all that more special. It's always great to be around the fans.
"On game day I am in the parking lot getting ready to enjoy the game. You get a chance to see it from the other side. I can see why the fans can't wait for the season to start. It's such a great time just seeing these people enjoy themselves and they can't wait to see the Steelers play."
This was the first time Hartings attended the luncheon as a former player and it was with a new appreciation for the relationship between the team and fans.
"What changed my perspective more than anything was winning the Super Bowl and the parade," said Hartings. "After that I had a different perspective on how much our fans love us. Any time I get an opportunity to go out and give back to them I do. It's nice hearing the compliments. I guess that makes you feel good. More than anything it's a way to say thank you to them."
Former Steelers offensive linemen Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley served as the MCs for the luncheon and even they couldn't help but enjoy the electric atmosphere in the hotel ballroom.
"Although camp signifies the start of the football season this starts the regular season," said Ilkin. "The energy and excitement that is in this ballroom, having the players and coaches and fans and sponsors means that it starts for real and there is an excitement about it."
Wolfley took a look around the room, saw the fans decked out in their black and gold, and couldn't help but smile about the start of another Steelers season.
"It's like the swallows returning to Capistrano," said Wolfley. "You are excited. It's a new cycle of life. It's a new team. There are new elements. What adversities await them? What challenges do they have to overcome? Who is going to emerge as the new hottest young thing? Who is going to have the breakout year? It's always exciting every year."
The luncheon got underway with welcome remarks from the Allegheny Conference, Chamber of Commerce and Steelers President Art Rooney, II.
"We're looking forward to a great football season," said Rooney. "There has been a lot of talk about our schedule being one of the toughest in the league, but a lot of those games will be at Heinz Field. We are looking forward to our fans being there and being loud and helping to make a difference."
Head coach Mike Tomlin got a huge ovation when he was introduced and he was quick to let the crowd know how important they are to the team.
"We appreciate the bond and relationship we have with our sponsors, fans and this community," said Tomlin. "Events such as this represent that relationship. We don't take anything for granted.
"We are working extremely hard to make everyone proud and to pursue a championship for the Steelers nation. I thank everyone for their excitement and hope we keep everyone on the edge of our seats. We look forward to a great season in 08."
Players and coaches, who entered the ballroom down the center aisle right in the midst of the crowd, were then introduced to the crowd, with everyone getting a warm welcome but possibly getting the biggest hand was defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
James Harrison was acknowledged as the team's 2007 MVP and in honor of a tradition the players have the microphone was handed to unsuspecting rookie linebacker Bruce Davis who thought he would have to speak. Harrison quickly let him in on the yearly joke, though.
Rookie Dan Sepulveda was also honored for winning the 2007 Joe Greene Great Performance Award and he wore his disappointment about missing this season on his sleeve.
"It's tough to know that I am going to miss out on this special year with this group of guys," Sepulveda told the crowd, having been placed on injured reserve.
The luncheon ended with Ward being acknowledged for being the Steelers 2007 Walter Payton Man of the Year.
"It's definitely a big honor," said Ward, who capped off his speech by asking the crowd to wish Nate Washington a Happy Birthday. "I am very blessed to give back to a great community, especially to a community that has given so much back to me here in Pittsburgh. You guys are what make this city so special. We like to give back to the community. You guys mean so much to us."