A magical mile

How does a football field, at 300 feet long and 160 feet wide, become a mile?

You watch big-hearted Steelers defensive lineman Nick Eason become an impromptu tour guide for Girard’s Hunter Crites — and hang on for the ride.

It was one mile of back and forth and zig and zag and up hills.

It was 30 minutes of huffing and puffing, and cheers from fans who caught on to Eason’s heartfelt act.

And it was a memory of a lifetime for Hunter — a frontman of sorts for Easter Seals of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana Counties. This past year, he produced some tear-shedding moments when he was able to walk without his crutches at the Easter Seals Spring Fashion Show.

Last week, a few folks from the Mahoning Valley conspired to surprise Hunter — a big Steelers fan — with a trip to Steelers training camp. It stayed a secret until Hunter arrived in the Latrobe, Pa., parking lot Monday with his mom, Stephanie, and aunt, Julie, in tow.

Training camp is regimented for the players. So it goes, too, for special guests. Stand here, go there, don’t approach the players, stay behind this line, etc.

For the two-hour practice, Hunter had a nice experience, the highlight of which was linebacker James Farrior giving him some Gatorade.

When a practice ends, the players roam — they stay for extra drills, work out, hang out with family, sign autographs for fans or disappear into the dorms and away from the plus-90 degree heat.

That’s when Eason found Hunter.

Eason asked Hunter about football and the Steelers. Hunter demonstrated his sprinting ability — crutches and all. At some point in that initial meeting, Eason set out on his own agenda — no permission, no warning. He hustled Hunter into his stroller, and the push was on.

Scanning the field, they first went to lineman Chris Kemoeatu, then they ran across the field to safety Troy Polamalu, then back across the field to quarterback Dennis Dixon, then wide receiver Mike Wallace, then ex-Steeler Jeff Hartings, then Farrior and linebacker Larry Foote.

Coach Mike Tomlin was talking to choir kids, and Nick interrupted. Wide receiver Hines Ward was interrupted during some stretching.

All smiles, all autographs, all pictures — and all memories for a little boy.

The Steelers dormitory is across two football fields and up a hill (a pretty good one), and there’s where a handful of players signed autographs for about 1,500 fans who lined up in the 5 p.m. heat.

Eason ran Hunter over there. Mascot Steely McBeam was first, then punter Dan Sepulveda, then rookie Maurkice Pouncey.

Along the tour, Eason also was the comedian.

On Kemoeatu: “See this big guy here? It’s so hot, he’s done lost his mind. He don’t know who he is.”

On mascot Steely McBeam: “He’s not as strong as he looks.”

On Sepulveda: “He’s a nice guy; he’s our pretty guy, too.”

First-round draft pick Pouncey got the best:

“This is our first-round draft pick. He smiles all the time because he just got paid. Big ol’ payday. He got lots of money.”

To which Hunter replied: “I got a lot of names.”

That whole part was magical.

What was to come was moving.

Eason pushed Hunter around the field in a stroller without much ado from fans and players — until the climb up the 100-foot-long hill to the dorm. Then fans picked up on his effort and started cheering and chanting “Nick, Nick ...”

The top of the hill was greeted with a 20-stair climb to the dormitory. There, defensive lineman Doug Worthington met an out-of-breath Eason:

“Can I help you, Nick?”

“Yeah ...,” he said between gulps of air.

The two carried Hunter up — to more wild applause and cheers.

At the top, a dripping Eason found a chair next to a girl in a wheelchair. He introduced the girl and Hunter, and the three chatted in their own little world — in front of about 1,000 more fans.

Two hours of practice in plus-90-degree heat was followed by 20 minutes of pushing an 8-year-old in a stroller across four football fields, which closed with a long walk up a hill and 20 stairs.

Still, Eason decided to teach Hunter about signing autographs.

For 20 minutes more, the two walked the fan line like it was Oscar night.

Fred and Ginger; Tony and Tina; Nick and Hunter. Nick signed away. So did Hunter.

Some ladies asked for Hunter to sign first. Another person wanted her Art Rooney book signed by Hunter. Even young girls gave their notebooks to Hunter.

He was a pro.

“He’s on our roster,” Eason teased to the fans about Hunter. “We just forgot to put his name down. He’s on the VIP list; not with the regular scrubs like us.”

At last, the line ended. Thankfully. Eason would have continued.

Tired, thirsty, exhausted — Eason gave hugs and handshakes to Hunter’s group. And with a slower gait and sunken shoulders, he trudged his way into the dorm along the fan line he and Hunter just conquered. Nice applause lingered from fans who knew of his feat.

Our Steeler media handler (who likes to stay out of the media) looked at me a couple of times as Nick and Hunter worked the line — and we smiled. Media handlers and media have an unwritten rule: Don’t smile at each other. This is work, after all.

“This is just Nick,” she said as she stared at the improbable scene before her.

Eason’s role-player career has been stable and rewarding in Pittsburgh. This year sees him battling for a backup spot while returning from a near-death battle in the offseason with appendicitis that went awry.

He’s on a one-year contract, and coaches have said having an experienced guy ready to jump in is vital to a good defense.

Huge paydays such as Pouncey’s and a date with the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton are likely not in Eason’s football future.

But if big paydays were earned by kindness, and Canton was assigned to guys who could seize a moment of good will and make it for all it’s worth, Eason is in.

“I did it because it just popped up,” Eason said. “It may have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wanted to make sure he remembered it.”

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