Steelers play with tragedy on minds

PITTSBURGH — Sunday dawned gray and gloomy in Pittsburgh with a persistent drizzle.

It was one of those days when the elements matched the mood.

The Steelers played the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field, just a few miles from the spot where a hideous tragedy was making international headlines.

An individual armed with automatic weapons and hate started firing at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. By the time he was captured, the destruction was horrific.

Eleven people died, nine of them over the age of 65. Two victims were brothers. A husband and wife died. They were killed because they attended a Saturday morning worship service.

Around the time the players were being introduced on the North Side Sunday, the victims’ names were being released to the media by authorities.

When Mike Tomlin and his wife Kiya moved to Pittsburgh with their three children in 2007, they bought a house in Squirrel Hill. He estimated his home is about 800 yards from Tree of Life.

Steelers president Art Rooney II also lives in Squirrel Hill, a leafy green neighborhood known for stately old houses, an eclectic retail and restaurant mix and a unique sense of community. Its main thoroughfare, Murray Avenue, is busy daily with pedestrians. Even if the dog walkers and shoppers don’t actually know each other, there’s a bond.

By now, we’re all familiar with Tomlin’s demeanor at news conferences. He stares stonily from beneath his cap and answers questions in a clipped manner that belies no emotion. He’s all business.

Sunday was different. Tomlin appeared ready to tear up when he was talking about Saturday’s events.

“I’m a member of the Squirrel Hill community personally, and words cannot express how we feel as members of the community,” Tomlin said. “We are prayerful.”

This was personal for some of the Steelers. The team’s former director of community relations, Michele Rosenthal, lost her two brothers in the attack.

Ben Roethlisberger opened his post-game results by saying, “Our thoughts, love and prayers go to all the victims of yesterday’s senseless shooting, especially from me and my family to Michele. We love you, Michele, and we are thinking about you.”

Defensive end Cam Heyward has done community work in Squirrel Hill and Saturday’s images hit him hard.

“It’s your own community, so it hurts even more,” Heyward said. “It hurt a lot. I’m not going to sugar coat it. I thought about, what if my kids were there? I have friends who live there and I’m calling to check.

“For someone to do such a harmful and hateful crime. … Pittsburgh is better than that. Nobody deserves that. They are innocent people. I don’t care what you believe, you treat people with respect and care about everybody.”

The Steelers observed a moment of silence before the game. Roethlisberger said he had tears in his eyes.

Across town, the Penguins announced they have canceled a Halloween costume promotion for their next home game on Tuesday. Instead, they’ll collect money for a victims fund. They are also promoting a blood donation drive.

After Sunday’s game, some media people were trying to pursue the angle that the Steelers had given a grieving city a gift with the 33-18 victory over Cleveland. That’s just silly. At best, the game was a three-hour distraction from a very grim reality.

“Today was much larger than the game of football,” running back James Conner said. “Our hearts are with the victims.”

Long after the score and details are forgotten, this will be remembered as the day the quarterback was crying and the head coach was moved to offer a rare and involuntary look behind his ice-cold facade.

Gray and damp and depressing, no football game could fix this.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

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