Maurkice Pouney talks to troops via webcam
A few hours earlier, Steelers players gathered in the team meeting room at their practice facility, watching film and going over a game plan.
But with practice over for the day, the room had been transformed, with camouflage replacing black and gold and military members and not the upcoming opponent the main focus.
It was all a part of Pro vs. GI Joe, a program which had Steelers players take on troops currently deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait as well as local troops from the Army's 316th ESC based in Coraopolis, Pa., in video games.
"It's a different spin. We come in here and talk about football and our game plan," said safety Ryan Mundy. "To come in here and talk to those serving our country puts it all in perspective. It makes us much more appreciative of what they are doing, defending us and protecting our rights. To be able to interact with them, it's always a plus."
Players went against the troops in Guitar Hero, with Mundy and others belting out the words to songs like Pour Some Sugar on Me, and Warriors of Rock and Call of Duty: Black Ops."I got beat at every game, I didn't do well," said rookie center Maurkice Pouncey. "But it's exciting. People who give their lives for us every day, to interact with them…it's been great. It was awesome to talk to them. I really have all of the respect for them and the things they do for us."
The family members of the deployed troops were also invited to attend, a chance for them to see their loved ones enjoy themselves for awhile and to connect personally with them via webcam.
"He is real excited about it. He is a big football fan," said Gina Puchany from Canonsburg, Pa., whose boyfriend Patrick O'Bryan took part. "It's really fun. It's great to see him have fun, something outside of the norm and it brings us together. It's good for morale and shows that we support them."
There might not have been anyone there who understood the significance of what was happening more than Eric Wolfe.
A year ago, Wolfe found himself at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, a quick stopover before heading on a mid-tour leave. When he walked in to the USO headquarters, he couldn't believe what he saw. Sitting around the room where groups of soldiers playing video games against the Steelers via a satellite hook-up.
Wolfe, a diehard Steelers fans, wasn't going to be there long, but he made sure he got a chance to play against some of the players he cheers for every Sunday.
"Those five minutes I spent playing games, I talked and talked about that," said Wolfe. "It was sweet. It was awesome."
And it inspired Wolfe to give back. When he returned from leave, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and shrapnel wounds from an improvised explosive device attack. He also suffered some hearing and vision problems, and was unable to return to combat.
"It was tough," said Wolfe, "but I am alive and a lot of guys are not. I have no complaints."
Wolfe, along with his nine-year old son Peyton and a neighbor who drove them, helped with the set-up and organization of the Pros vs. G.I. Joe event, his way of doing something for those still deployed.
"When you are over there you are getting a break from the mental drain that is reality," said Wolfe. "It's a piece of normal civilization you don't get. I am proud to be a part of it, to help out. It's all about them, the ones deployed. These soldiers can't be forgotten."
Pro vs. GI Joe is a non-profit organization founded to bring the troops stationed overseas together with professional athletes and other celebrities in the states to play video games via the Internet and reunite family members of the troops taking part via webcam.
"It's incredible. It's amazing," said Greg Zinone, who co-founded the organization along with his wife Addie. "The Steelers are great. They are just hanging out with the guys. Guys leave their rank and jerseys at the door and hang out like best friends."
Guard Trai Essex took part in the event for the second straight year and it's something he loves doing. His father was in the Air Force, so he understands what it's like to be away from the ones you love.
"I remember being a military kid and all of the things he went through being a soldier," said Essex. "It's a tough thing. My dad had to go overseas. I know what it's like to be away for an extended time. I know it was tough on him so I know it's tough on these guys. They give up so much. I give them all of the respect in the world. Anything we can do to ease the tension, we will do it."
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley stepped in front of the webcam and saw some excited troops waving back at him. He put the headphones on and started talking to them, a mix of disbelief and awe that he was able to interact with men and women that all of the players referred to as the true heroes in this country.
"I appreciate what they do for us a lot," said Woodley. "It takes a lot of heart and commitment for them to go there and do the things they do to make sure everybody in our country is safe. It's just amazing and we are grateful."