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Kevin Gorman: Steelers start city’s healing, showing love is stronger than hate

November 18, 2018

Mike Tomlin pursed his lips, taking a deep breath amid an opening statement about Saturday morning’s synagogue shooting in Squirrel Hill, just eight football fields from the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers coach.

Hate didn’t just hurt his city but his community.

“Our hearts go out to the victims of yesterday’s shooting, the Squirrel Hill community and the community of Pittsburgh at large,” Tomlin said, letting out a deep breath before speaking. “I am a member of the Squirrel Hill community, personally, and words cannot express how we feel as members of the community. We are prayerful.”

This city showed Sunday how it is stronger than hate. Pittsburghers have rallied by adopting a modified Steelers logo -- replacing one of the three hypocycloids with the Star of David -- on shirts and signs and social media in support of the victims at Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill and the Jewish community.

The Steelers started with a moment of silence followed by a moment of cheers, first with a prayer for the shooting victims and then by clapping for local rock legend Donnie Iris to sing the national anthem.

It was a perfect Pittsburgh moment, as Heinz Field served as a sanctuary for a city in mourning. The Steelers gave fans something to celebrate: a 33-18 victory over the Cleveland Browns. It was a temporary reprieve.

Tomlin didn’t want to make that moment about himself or his team, saying he was “just glad we are here to serve our community if we can in some small way.”

The shootings hit home for Tomlin and the entire organization. They mourned for the city, the Jewish community and especially the family of Michele Rosenthal, a former community relations manager for the team whose brothers, Cecil and David, were among the 11 people killed by an anti-Semitic gunman filled with hate in his heart.

Ben Roethlisberger sent his thoughts, love and prayers to all of the victims, “especially from me and my family to Michelle. We love you, Michele, and we are thinking about you.” The Steelers quarterback said the “senseless shooting” brought tears to his eyes during the moment of silence, and he struggled to keep his emotions in check during the game.

“Coach always talks about when you step inside the white lines, everything else has to go away,” Roethlisberger said in the locker room afterward. “Sometimes, it’s easier said than done. I told the guys during the post-game team prayer, ‘We’re thankful for the victory, but we also understand that there’s bigger things. There’s life.’

“I’m glad we could give people three hours of a break of maybe not thinking about it all the time. That’s what sports does sometimes: It helps you to kind of heal. It’s over, and people are going to celebrate and enjoy this but reality still sets in for a lot of people.”

Season-ticket holder David Shirey debated sitting out Sunday’s game, but the Steelers were a source of solace in so many difficult times for the Squirrel Hill native that he found comfort in cheering his favorite team.

“For anybody of a certain age from Pittsburgh, the Steelers have provided comfort and diversion in tough times,” said Shirey, a distant cousin of the Rosenthal brothers. “Today is a prime example of that. This is family. It’s helping the healing process.”

That the Steelers were playing the Cleveland Browns made it more significant for Shirey and his best friend, Kenny Holtzman. Both are Jewish and bid farewell to a parent on the day of a Steelers-Browns game, as Holtzman’s mother Joan died 20 minutes before kickoff in 1994, and Shirey buried his father Fred hours before a game in 2002.

“It’s cathartic,” Holtzman said. “It takes your mind off everything. We’re seeing the unity, people giving each other hugs.”

Ken Strauss spent his childhood attending services and Sunday school at Tree of Life, followed by watching Steelers games with family and friends in Monroeville. His parents moved to Boston when he was 10, and Strauss moved back to Pittsburgh four years ago after their deaths and attached himself to its pro and college teams by attending games.

The instant Strauss learned of the shooting, he saw a text message from his brother, Elliott, who lives in Boston and checked to make sure Strauss was safe. Then he recognized Tree of Life and realized his ties.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God. That’s my old synagogue.’ That really hit me,” said Strauss, who found comfort at the Champions Club by hanging out with former Steelers Louis Lipps and Robin Cole. “I knew I’d see my friends at the Steelers game. That’s my family now. ... If it weren’t for sports, I don’t know where I’d be mentally right now.”

That connection isn’t lost on Cameron Heyward, who lived in Summerset at Frick Park and spent time performing community service in Squirrel Hill. His maternal grandparents live nearby, in Highland Park, and just talking about the shootings had the hulking Steelers defensive end glassy-eyed, his voice cracking at times with emotion.

“When you put on this jersey, you understand that you represent this city, and I don’t take that for granted,” Heyward said. “Joe Greene helped teach a lot by the way he played, that when you played the Steelers, you’ve got to play the city, too. Guys take that personally here.

“We try to use football as a getaway when we’re on that field. Sometimes fans do that as well. It doesn’t make you forget, but it helps take your mind off it a little bit. If we can do that for anybody, we want to. As players and guys in the community, we won’t just do it on the field. We will continue to be factors off the field. So many guys care about this community, and we’ll heal together.”

That healing started with the Steelers, by following silence with cheers and giving a city in mourning a chance to take a deep breath and exhale.

Beating Cleveland was a small step toward the city’s next -- and greatest -- challenge, showing the world how love can conquer hate.

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