By Teresa Varley
Robin Tyler hugged Hines Ward, thanked him and then said she needed her oxygen because she was so excited not just to meet the Steelers wide receiver, but to be served Thanksgiving dinner by him and his teammates.
"This is a dream come true," said Tyler, who was on hand with her eight-year old daughter Elizabeth. "I never thought I would be served by the Pittsburgh Steelers. I am so happy. They care for people less fortunate and they really have great hearts."
Tyler was among the families from the Salvation Army Homeless Family Crisis Center and Steel Valley Corps who were treated to dinner by Ward at his restaurant, South Side 86, on Thanksgiving Day.
"They are all so excited," said Salvation Army Major Asenath Clark. "It's an opportunity of a lifetime for them. This is a time when they can come face-to-face with the Steelers. They will never forget this experience. This is a real blessing."
This is the second year that Ward has served up Thanksgiving dinner for families, providing the meals which were cooked by Big Mamma's House of Soul. And there was plenty to go around, as everyone had full stomachs and smiles on their faces as the plates were cleared.
"I have a lot to be thankful for," said Ward. "I have been here for 12 years. I enjoy doing it, just giving back. Being in a position to give back is great. It gives you a sense of feel good to do something positive for people who may not be in the best position to do it themselves. It's special to sit down and enjoy it with them, and enjoy everything about Thanksgiving."
Ward was joined by all of his fellow wide receivers, receivers coach Randy Fitchner and his family and even Coach Mike Tomlin stopped in to lend a hand and spread some holiday cheer.
"It warms my heart. It's obvious these guys get it," said Tomlin. "We are extremely blessed to be in this business and game and doing what it is we love to do. We are obligated to share those blessings with others.
"I think we all can learn from a guy like Hines. I just wanted to come by and be a part of it. It's something I am proud to be a part of and I am learning from it as well. He is a shining example of what being a member of the community is about."
The players lined up behind a buffet table, serving turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes and more to the families.
"We are blessed to be in the NFL," said wide receiver Limas Sweed. "I think we should give back and bless others. That is part of what today is. Seeing all of the people here smiling, it's the holiday spirit and we are here having a good time."
They weren't the only ones having fun. Michael Bradley, his wife and four children were overwhelmed by it all. They left their home in North Carolina after the economy cost them their jobs and moved to Pittsburgh looking to get a fresh start.
"It's been great here," said Bradley. "God gave us a blessing and we were able to come. It's a blessing for them to give back to us all. We became Steelers fans when we came here."
Current economic struggles have the Salvation Army seeing people who were once donors now seeking out help to get back on a regular basis, making the work of Ward and others like him so valuable.
"It's tough all over," said Major Clinton Foster, chief financial officer of the Salvation Army in Western Pennsylvania. "We're doing the best we can to help as many as we can. That is why we really appreciate Hines putting on this dinner for some of those families that are coming to us for help."
And for Ward, it's just his way of saying thanks on a special day.
"Hopefully we bring a little enjoyment to their Thanksgiving," said Ward. "Pittsburgh has given me so much. I can't repay everyone back, but this is my way of helping, bringing excitement to them on Thanksgiving.
"I am blessed to have the opportunity to give back. I want to walk away at the end of the day and feel good. From the bottom of my heart, it's something I feel good about."
To view a full photo gallery by Teresa Varley go to Hines Ward Thankgsiving Dinner and look under Most Recent or Off the Field.