By Matthew Marczi
With the Pittsburgh Steelers’recent reunions with old faces once again this season—courtesy of the returns of cornerback William Gay, tight end Matt Spaeth, and wide receiver Plaxico Burress—it is quite evident that a recent trend is emerging of former Steelers returning to greener pastures after exploring the landscapes of other teams.
Beginning with the uncapped year a few seasons ago, several men who have spent time with the Steelers at some point have made the decision to come back. This has likely long been the desire for many former players who have moved on, but it is only recently that the team has begun to welcome them back.
This does not even mention the players who decided to retire after they were released, rather than play for somebody else, such as Hines Ward, James Farrior, and Aaron Smith. Even players such as Joey Porter, upon ending their careers, elected to ‘retire’ a Steeler informally, wishing they could have done so officially. Let us also not forget former Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart announcing his retirement with the Steelers organization last year, despite not attempting a pass in nearly a decade.
Among those who found their way back before the recent crop of returns are Larry Foote, Bryant McFadden, Byron Leftwich, and Antwaan Randle El. What is it that makes the Steelers organization special, that makes players want to come back after seeing how things are done elsewhere?
Players like Gay and Foote have a unique perspective on the Steelers organization. They grew up in the NFL with the Steelers before seeking opportunity elsewhere, and it was that experience that helped them appreciate what they had before. Here is what some of these players have had to say when they did come back.
William Gay - “I was on the way to Charlotte last week when the news came out about me being released,” said Gay. “As soon as I landed my agent called and said Pittsburgh wants you back. He said there were a couple of other teams too. I told him I was done going to another team, if the Steelers have something on the table, I will take it.
“When I told my grandmother and my family I was coming back, they were excited. They were mad I ever left. They still don’t understand it. I was happy they were excited for me.”
Larry Foote - "In my heart I\'m a Steeler and, when I left last year, they told me I\'d always be one," Foote said. "I just didn\'t think I was going to be back here."
"I know the coaches here and the guys here that I love and the community and town. Seeing the [Terrible] Towels and the black and gold ... it was a weird feeling being on that [opposite] sideline and seeing those towels."
"I just thank God I\'m back and I didn\'t sign a longer deal [with Detroit]."
Bryant McFadden - "You know, what\'s funny is that I have a couple of teammates down here with me. Today I had a youth football camp at my high school of South Florida. I got a couple of the guys here I still have a relationship with from Pittsburgh, and they were here. You know Keyaron Fox, Ike Taylor, William Gay, Charlie Batch, those guys. So they were with me, when I kind of received the news, they received the news. It was crazy because my phone was blowing up with texts from everyone saying, ‘welcome back home,’ ‘glad you\'re back,’ ‘happy to have you back, you should have never left.’ Different things of that nature, so it kind of made me feel a little at home."
Byron Leftwich - “I was excited to be back. I had just a great time when I was here last time and guys welcomed me back with open arms. To be a part of an organization like this, which I feel is the best organization in sports. I had a smile on my face from ear to ear to have the opportunity to come back here and be a part of this.
“It’s fun. I had the most fun in my NFL career last time I was here. It’s not because we won the Super Bowl. It was about being in the locker room with the veteran guys, guys who understand what it is all about. Here there is only one goal and that is winning football games.”
"Just to have the opportunity to work for a first class organization is a great thing.”
Antwaan Randle El - “I had about six teams that were interested, so it’s not as if it was just the Steelers. That’s where I started and I had a good vibe about it. When you get up in age, you kind of want to go to teams where you know they’re basically going to take care of you. Not just in terms of practices and all that. But take care of you in terms of saying, ‘We know this guy. He’s a proven guy.’ They understand.”
Kordell Stewart - “I just wanted some closure with my NFL career. I wanted to finish it off as a Steeler. This is where I started. I talked to Mr. (Art) Rooney and he gave me the opportunity to finish it out as a Steeler. This means a lot. It lets me know how much they appreciate what I have done. I just want to tell Mr. Rooney and Dan Rooney the appreciation I have toward them and how they stuck by me during the tough times. When I talk about the Rooney family and how they do their business, they do it better than anybody.”
“My dad passed and perspective started setting in when my main man wound up leaving. I needed closure in some areas of my life. This was one. I figured if I was going to do it, I wouldn’t do it anywhere else.”
Stewart was not the only former Steeler to retire with the team in 2012. Ward, of course, was afforded the opportunity to hold a press conference to announce his retirement. Chris Hoke did it quietly. And as a group, Smith, Marvel Smith, Willie Parker, and Porter all joined the team during training camp to officially say their goodbyes to the game of football as Steelers.