As Carrina Noce watched her 13-year old son Joshua run a pass pattern at Heinz Field with Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, Sean Spence and Will Gay taking turns defending him and others, she couldn't hold back her smile.
It was more than she could have imagined, more than she could have dreamt of when she first found out she would be one of 75 military veterans taking part in "Heroes at Heinz Field" on Tuesday 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.
"No matter what your job in the military was, coming back home for me was toughest," said Noce, who was thrilled to spend the evening with her son around other veterans. "Being on high alert with everything to adjusting to regular civilian life is difficult. You are on edge more. It's just a matter of learning what works for you and doesn't. Knowing you have the support helps you move forward in your life."
And she had plenty of support, especially from the players that included Allen, Gay, Spence and Taylor, as well as Mike Adams, David DeCastro, Bruce Gradkowski, Brett Keisel, Zoltan Mesko, Heath Miller, Greg Warren and Jason Worilds. Each of them helped run drills, from receiving, to passing to kicking, giving instruction and encouragement to all of those participating.
"These guys are our heroes, our country's heroes," said Keisel, who has had numerous family members serve in the military. "They put everything on the line for our freedoms and rights, everything we enjoy in this great country we live in. It's a great honor for us and a small thing we can do to say thank you.
"Growing up I was taught to appreciate the sacrifice they make. I don't think people understand the magnitude of it sometimes. But when you come here and meet some of these guys that have been wounded, it really hits home and makes you appreciate it."
One of those wounded that took part was Marine Corps Cpl. Brandon Rumbaugh, who served in the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. The Uniontown, Pa. native had just finished a security patrol in Afghanistan, sending out the next patrol, when something went wrong.
"One of the guys stepped on an IED. We heard it go off and I grabbed my team," said Rumbaugh. "I was on my way in to pull him out and stepped on an IED 15-20 feet away from him."
The blast was so strong it sent him into the air, landing hard on the ground. His left leg was lost below his knee, and the right leg was damaged so severely it had to be amputated.
He spent a year and a half at Walter Reed Hospital recovering physically, but being at Heinz Field for just a few hours helped the healing in other ways.
"If you are feeling depressed or sad and come to one of these events, make some new friends, usually it makes your mood better overall," said Rumbaugh, moving around with only the aid of crutches. "When you are around other people that know what you experienced, it's not always can I help you, can I do this or that for you. They have the same mentality, they know you want to do stuff on your own and be as independent as possible. It's nice to be around that for a change."
Army Spc. Brandon Rethmel, who lives in Elizabeth, Pa., understands. He had only been in Afghanistan for seven days when a 107mm rocket hit the guard shack he was in. He lost his right leg, part of his triceps, had shrapnel wounds and had to have skin grafts. And he was the lucky one. The soldier on patrol with him was killed in the attack.
Rethmel said the evening at Heinz Field, a time to get away from all of the problems and see how much people appreciate their service, was special.
"It shows how no matter who you are, a pro football player, retired football player, retired military we all have something in common and that is football," said Rethmel. "These guys come out here to show us a good time and show they care what we do."
The two sides have something else in common, the respect and admiration of those who protect the United States.
"There are some people in our country that take some of the things our brothers and sisters in arms fight for, for granted. It's sad," said Rethmel. "That hurts a little bit that they take it for granted. This is perspective, it shows they care."
It was easy to see how much Gay cared. Wearing a camouflage Steelers hat and American flag socks, his appreciation for the troops was definitely on display.
"They are the real heroes," said Gay. "I told them you are the heroes. I am glad to be around you. Not everybody can do what they do. Not everyone will go out and protect their country and say I don't care what happens to me, I am putting my country first."
And each one of them, no matter what they went through, echoed the same type of message – they would do it all over again if they could. It was something that inspired the players.
"We go through a loss like this weekend and we can get through it," said Gradkowski. "Look at what they have gone through. They have gone through much worse. We look at our life and our struggles and this puts it in to perspective how blessed we are."