The news broke in mid-October. Aaron Smith needed neck surgery and was going on injured reserve. The career of the greatest 3-4 defensive end in Steelers history almost certainly was over.
"We're all on deck," linebacker James Farrior said that day, one of the saddest of the season for all the players, who adore Smith as a teammate and a man.
That thought -- that so many of the Steelers' longtime players were approaching the finish line of outstanding careers -- didn't hit home at the time. There still was much football to play. The team had a strong year, finishing 12-4 and earning a spot in the wild-card playoff game Sunday at Denver against the Broncos.
But it hits home this week, doesn't it? After the Steelers play their final game -- whether it's Sunday, at Super Bowl XLVI Feb. 5 in Indianapolis or at some point in between -- the players will head their separate ways knowing that many probably won't be back next season. Smith, for one. Nose tackle Chris Hoke, who also had neck surgery in December. Hall of Fame-caliber wide receiver Hines Ward. Perhaps five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton. Backup quarterback Charlie Batch. Even Farrior -- the undisputed team leader -- who turns 37 today.
"We all could be gone," Farrior said the other day.
"Any one of us," linebacker Larry Foote said. "We don't know what they're thinking upstairs. We don't know what's going to happen in the draft. We don't know about the salary cap. It's not really up to us as players ...
"I guess I'm starting to adapt to guys leaving by now. We've been so spoiled here. A lot of us have been together for a long time. It was really hard at first when guys started leaving. Jerome [Bettis] retired. [Joey Porter] left. Deshea [Townsend] is gone. That's when it started to be real to me."
Defensive end Brett Keisel said he tries not to think about the gang breaking up. He had a superb year and is expected back next season for his 11th NFL season despite the fact he will turn 34 in September. He said there already is a different feel in the locker room and meeting rooms without Smith and Hoke, another extremely popular player. Smith joined the Steelers as a fourth-round draft choice in 1999, Hoke as an undrafted free agent in 2001.
"We've been together for a third of our lives," Keisel said. "During the season, we spend more time with each other than we do with our families."
"These guys are family to me," Farrior said. "The funny thing is, even outside of work, we feel the need to be together. We're always going out to eat together. I know the wives and girlfriends don't always understand that. Well, that's too bad. That's the way it is."
Foote joined the Steelers in '02 as a fourth-round draft choice and started on their Super Bowl-winning teams in '05 and '08. He signed as a free agent before the '09 season with his hometown Detroit Lions but, almost from the start, couldn't wait to come back to the Steelers. He re-signed here before the '10 season.
"I kept seeing those guys' faces," Foote said.
Farrior, his best pal. Smith. Keisel. Hampton. Hoke. James Harrison. Troy Polamalu ...
"That's why I came back," Foote said. "Those guys are the reason. When I was away, it was like, 'Man, I miss what they've got going there.' "
Success has contributed to the closeness. All the players I've mentioned won the two Super Bowl titles and played in a third. Since '01, the Steelers have won six division titles and reached the playoffs eight times.
"We have great memories ... memories that will last a lifetime," Farrior said. "There's a bond there that we'll always have."
It's not exactly a breaking story to report the Steelers veterans want a third championship. They know it will be difficult; they almost certainly will have to win three road games to get to the Super Bowl and they have not been a good road team this season. They also know it can be done; they did it in '05.
"Us against the world. We kind of like that," Ward said.
"We've got a shot. That's all we can ask for," Farrior said.
Keisel, like the others, knows how good it feels to lift the Lombardi Trophy. He wants to do it one more time. He knows he will be saying goodbye soon to some teammates. He just hopes it's not until after a big parade the second week of February.
"How awesome would it be for those guys to go out as champions?" Keisel asked. "I mean, they're already champions and they'll always be champions. But to get back to the big dance and win it, man, that would be the perfect ending."•
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.