Heinz Field was home to football on Sunday, but it was a little different than what Steelers fans are accustomed to seeing on a Sunday afternoon in the fall.
The Steelers hosted the Championship Tournament for the Girls Flag Football League they helped launch this year for high school girls, with Ambridge, Ellis School, Moon, North Allegheny, Shaler and West Allegheny High Schools all taking part, and Steelers Pat Freiermuth and Derek Watt on hand to cheer them on and hand out championship awards.
It was Shaler Area High School who came out as the champion, defeating Moon, 1-0, in double overtime on the same field the Steelers play on.
"It's surreal. You really can't describe this kind of stuff in words," said Robby Heinrich, the coach for Shaler Area High School. "For the girls to come down...the chance to play on Heinz Field, it's amazing. It's a blast. You really can't describe it. To see these girls come down and be a part of history. To start something that is going to take off in the next couple of years and generations after them. They are creating a ripple effect right now. They are setting a foundation for girls they won't even meet. But in 10-15 years down the road, it's going to come back and be amazing.
"I tell the girls all the time it's more about the memories than the win. The championship today is more of a capstone than anything. It's more or less about how close we grew together as a family, all the memories we had, the memories we made on the field. That is what is going to last forever. That trophy will carry dust, but the memories will last for those kids forever."
For the girls, who are accustomed to playing the games in much smaller venues, playing at Heinz Field was life changing.
"It was unreal from the second we walked out. I've never been to Heinz Field before, so being able to be on the field, it was amazing," said Shaler's Hannah Warren. "The family that we created. The girls on my team, we have all grown so close, we love each other very much, we're there supporting each other 24/7. The coach, of course, always giving us the best advice possible, no matter how angry, sad, happy we are.
"The game was down to the brim. We're the team that's always the underdog. Getting to make it to that level was unreal. That final touchdown we were more in shock than anything and all really happy for each other."
In this pilot season for the league, while winning is always a goal, like the winning team said it was about memories, relationships and so much more.
"It is 100 percent more than winning," said Mike Marchinsky, the Steelers Youth Football and Player Relations Manager, who also happens to be the coach for the West Allegheny team. "I've always said that. As you get older, the pressure and the want to win becomes higher. And I understand that, especially at the high school level. But I told my team from Day 1, I don't care if we score 60 points, or we give up 60 points. I don't care if we win or lose. Our two goals are to have fun and learn something. If they come out there and learn to compete, learn the plays, have fun, smile after every game. It is definitely more than winning.
"One of the things that even at the youth level when we have our camps and clinics is we want to try to teach the kids that it's okay to want to win and to be upset when you lose, but it's more about teaching the game situation, knowing what you need to do to win, knowing that you've got to hold them, or the conversion attempts, so you can get the ball back. Those are all things that a lot of these girls haven't learned before. For me it's teaching them the different parts of the game so they can improve and get better."
The Heinz Field experience was a special one for the games, which featured Round 1, semifinals and the championship game. Team and individual photos were taken pregame in the Steelers player tunnel, with the familiar lighted Steelers backdrop. The teams were introduced and ran out of the same tunnel as the Steelers players do on game day. And the experience is one the girls will never forget.
"From the Steelers perspective, we were excited we were able to host it," said Marchinsky. "It was awesome. We had the field painted a certain way to match up with the way we play the game. We had intros, photos. It was a great day."
The Steelers provided flag belts, footballs, and other support to help launch the program which came from funds through Steelers Youth Football, including the donation of Pro Bowl grants from T.J. Watt and David DeCastro. Nike provided the uniforms, while Pittsburgh Flag Football League also provided support.
"It's all really come together," said Marchinsky. "I remember the first time we had our first set of games, and I was cleaning up the field after putting the pylons away and the cones and the footballs. It was pretty emotional to see it actually happen. It's pretty special and hopefully it's the start of something even bigger."
Making it something bigger is something the Steelers are focused on. The Girls Flag Football program was introduced this Spring as a pilot program for girls in grades 9-12, one which the Steelers hope soon becomes a sanctioned sport in Pennsylvania.
"This shows it's not just about the boys that have played football their entire lives," said Marchinsky. "This is changing the culture at the high school level, which is awesome.
"We are going to be working with the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason and then present a plan to the PIAA. We're talking with the Eagles about hosting a state championship next year either at Heinz Field or in Philadelphia. Those are early discussions. But we want to get to the point where it's a state sport, just like soccer, basketball. There are some different ways to do that. There's a state sanctioned sport or there's a state sponsored sport. Both have the opportunity to have championships. It's just a matter of how it's viewed and in terms of the overall PIAA. We're trying to figure all that out and what the best opportunities are. Right now is a great time for girls sports so it's exciting."