LATROBE, Pa. – The buses leave here at 2 p.m. for the three-hour ride to Canton, Ohio, which means their day won't end until they've spent six hours on the road. Six hours on a bus at the end of a week that has included a dozen on-field practices and at least twice as many meetings. Six hours on buses that can be uncomfortable even for people of normal size. Six hours on buses after having had two practice sessions over the previous 16 hours.
And the Steelers can't wait.
The Steelers can't wait to board those buses, because the buses will take them to the Pro Football Hall of Fame so they can be there when Dick LeBeau is inducted as part of the Class of 2010. Six hours on buses? Talk to some of the players, and you get the impression they would walk to Canton to be there with the man many of them call Coach Dad.
"I wouldn't even want to be there unless they were there," LeBeau said.
The feeling is mutual.
Before Coach Mike Tomlin made it public that the team would be attending the induction ceremonies to support LeBeau, Aaron Smith let his feelings be known. Understand that Aaron Smith never takes a day off from practice, not even when given the option to do so by Tomlin on those occasions that have come to be known as "veterans' day off." He is one of the best people – never mind the kind of player he is – to have worn a Steelers uniform, and there isn't an insubordinate bone in his body.
"It's like one of my family members getting in there," said Smith. "I'm hoping Coach Tomlin gives us an opportunity to be there and support him. If he doesn't, I'm going anyway."
But there was really never any danger of players having to go AWOL, because Tomlin showed what he thought of LeBeau by retaining him as the Steelers' defensive coordinator when he was hired to replace Bill Cowher. Instead of scrapping the zone-blitz philosophy and replacing it with the Tampa-2 defense he had coached as an NFL assistant, Tomlin was sufficiently egoless to let things be, and not all of the others who interviewed for the job would have done the same.
"Dick is a special guy," said Tomlin. "It's an honor that is well deserved, and I am glad that we are going to be able to go up there and be a part of it."
The Steelers will be a part of it as an organization, and veteran Hall of Fame watchers claim this is an unprecedented show of support. And it won't be just current Steelers players on hand for LeBeau, either. Joey Porter, now with the Arizona Cardinals, also made the trip to Canton, and his journey there was a little more complicated than a three-hour bus ride.
It was Porter who orchestrated the wearing of the LeBeau throwback jerseys for the first time – for the 2005 regular season finale against the Detroit Lions. The team reprised the gesture when it played in the 2007 Hall of Fame Game, but by that time Porter had moved on to the Miami Dolphins.
"It won't only be exciting to see him receive such an honor," said Troy Polamalu, "it'll be exciting to see the excitement of the other people who've been so much a part of his life as we have, to see all these old players come out of the woodwork and hear his old stories. You know, he's a really fascinating individual."
"We're definitely happy that his time has come, and he's going to be honored this weekend," said James Farrior. "We feel like it's a long time coming. It's well-deserved."
"This is a big deal," said Casey Hampton. "We're proud of him, and it's a long time coming. It couldn't happen to a better guy."
That's why they'll board those buses and ride for six hours. It's a labor of love.