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Veterans, Steelers trade avenues of respect

| Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 12:03 a.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Army veteran Jake Schwerin, 29, of Glenshaw, hands his cane to Steelers' defensive back Ike Taylor to distract him in the middle of a play during an evening of football for veterans at Heinz Field along the North Shore on Tuesday evening. The distraction worked, as the confused Taylor dutifully held the cane while Schwerin then spun around and caught a throw from Steelers' linebacker Sean Spence. 'That's the move, that's the move right there,' chuckled Taylor, realizing he'd been tricked. Schwerin uses the cane now after complications from injuries sustained during two Army tours in Iraq.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Infantry Marine veteran Jason Johnson, 24, of Altoona throws a football during the 'Heroes at Heinz Field' event at Heinz Field along the North Shore on Tuesday evening. Johnson didn't let his injuries from stepping on an IED in Afghanistan keep him from playing ball with the Steelers for an evening alongside other veterans who came out to toss around with players from the team.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Brett Keisel signs a hat for Army veteran James Roberts, 25, of Derry, during the 'Heroes at Heinz Field' event at Heinz Field along the North Shore on Tuesday evening. Roberts, who served as a gunner in Iraq, spent an evening alongside other veterans who came out to toss around with players from the team.

Jake Schwerin limped down the sideline on a quick out as Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor backpedaled into the end zone.

Recognizing he was no match physically for Taylor, Schwerin stopped suddenly and held out his cane. Taylor's eyes widened and he grabbed it. Schwerin then turned suddenly, raised his hands and caught the pass. Touchdown. The crowd went nuts. Taylor could only shake his head admiringly.

“That was the move,” Taylor said. “That was the move right there, man.”

Schwerin was one of 150 veterans and guests invited to Heinz Field on Tuesday to run football drills with 12 members of the Steelers, including Taylor, Brett Keisel, Mike Adams and Heath Miller. They ran pass patterns against pro cornerbacks, kicked field goals under the tutelage of punter Zoltan Mesko and threw passes with the encouragement of quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.

“Amazing,” Schwerin said, moments after burning Taylor for the most memorable TD of the evening. “Once-in-a-lifetime experience. They don't have to do this for us. It means a lot to everyone here.”

It's the least the Steelers can do, Keisel said.

“For us to come down here, shake hands and take some pictures — and then they thank us?” he said. “Football is pretty insignificant compared to what they've done for us. ... I wouldn't miss this. It's a chance to thank the people who have done so much for our rights and freedoms.”

Keisel and his teammates shouldn't underestimate the impact they have on returning veterans, said Bill Smathers, a patient advocate with VA Healthcare — VISN 4, which helps organize the annual event.

“A lot of these guys come home and they don't want help,” Smathers said. “Here, they let their guards down, even when they didn't want help before. The Steelers bring them out. I'm serious: This event has changed the lives of many vets.”

This is the sixth year of the Heroes at Heinz Field event. About 600 vets and family members have participated.

Brothers T.J. and Nate Sommers, Marine veterans who served in Iraq, said they watch the Steelers on television every week.

“And now here I am doing chest bumps with Zoltan,” T.J., 33, of Slippery Rock said after nailing a 25-yard field goal. “It's a good feeling to know these guys appreciate us.”

For vets such as Schwerin, 29, of Glenshaw, the event was a chance to feel normal again. He's used a cane since a stroke in August, the result of repeated head injuries during two tours with the Army in Iraq.

“When was the last time I got blown up, honey?” he asked his wife, Rachael, 27, while trying to recount his injuries.

“2006,” she said.

“Right, 2006,” he said. “I forget things. … My second tour lasted only seven months. I got blown up too many times, so they sent me home. (But) you can't regret anything about life. You can't change the situation, so you just face it.”

A smile on his face, he walked away.

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or

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