By Duane Williams aka duane1969

My story starts 16 years ago in Erie, PA. I didn’t get into collecting until I had moved to Pennsylvania and was already in my 20′s. It was the early 90′s and the hobby was taking off again and I, like many others, had gotten caught up in the hobby craze and had quickly accumulated boxes and boxes of cards. I had missed out on card collecting as a child in the 70′s so I was making up for lost time by grabbing every box and pack that I could. Along the way I even bought out a few collections and was involved in part-ownership of a card shop.

Jump forward to 2001. My family and I had relocated to New Castle, PA. I was working hard as a manager for a petroleum marketing company putting in over 60 hours per week. Between my work schedule and the disappointment of realizing that 99% of the cards that I had accumulated during the 90′s would never be worth more than the paper they were printed on, I decided to pack my collection away and focus on life and responsibilities.

My job as a manager brought me into contact with many people and along the way I became well known as a fanatical Pittsburgh Steelers fan. It was rare that I was ever seen without a Steelers cap or t-shirt on and my customers always made it a point to strike up a conversation about the team or a particular player. Since New Castle is just 50 or so miles from Pittsburgh, Steelers fans were all over the place and team news was a daily thing and so were the discussions about everything Steelers. One of the best things about living so close to Pittsburgh is that I was often able to pick up some neat Steelers memorabilia like beer mugs from the 1970′s or an autographed 8×10 of some unheard of player like Kent Nix or Willie Asbury. Occasionally some of my customers would bring me small gifts of Steelers items to add to my collection when they came in to conduct business. Usually it was no more than a refrigerator magnet or a bumper sticker, but the generosity was what counted and I always appreciated it.

Many customers were unique but Sarge was a character that stood out from the rest. He was an elderly retired United States Marine Corps Master Sargent. He was grumpy and difficult to deal with because after nearly three decades of people jumping when he yelled he had gotten used to it. Many of the employees hated to see him coming and tried to avoid being the one to wait on him so I had taken on the role of Sarge’s primary contact. Eventually we had gotten used to each other, he knew he could count on my to meet his needs and I had figured out that his grumpiness was easily curtailed by knowing what he wanted and having it ready for him. He came in on the same day, at nearly the same time, and always placed the same order, so I made it a point to have his paperwork already filled out and waiting. He obviously appreciated my efficiency and we developed a working relationship and became friendly to the point that he would hang around for a few minutes and chit-chat after his business was finished.

After some time I decided to leave the business. The hours were wearing me down and I needed to find a new career that afforded me more time with my wife and children. Over the next few weeks I informed my customers that I would be leaving the business. Many of the elderly customers told me that they were sad to see me go and wished me well.

Eventually my final day came and it just so happened that it was also Sarge’s day to come in. He came in and did his business and we had our usual talk afterwards. He then asked me if it was my last day and I responded that it was. He pointed his finger at me and said “Don’t you leave this place until I get back this evening!” I jokingly saluted him and said “Yes sir!!” He grinned and shook his finger at me and headed out the door.

The day progressed as normal and I sort of forgot about Sarge. Around 6PM I was about to call it a day when Sarge pulled back into the parking lot and I remembered that he had said that he would return. He walked into the store and handed me a small package wrapped in brown paper. He smiled and shook my hand and said “I am going to miss you son” and then told me not to open the package until I got home because he didn’t want the other employees thinking he had “gone soft”. I promised to wait, we said our goodbyes and off he went.

Later as I drove home I couldn’t help but wonder what was in the package. I pulled into the driveway and parked and pulled the package onto my lap and ripped it open. Inside I was stunned to find a Lucite case with a Steelers mini-helmet in it and on the helmet was autographs of then Steelers players Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart. To be honest, I got a little bit emotional.

To this day I still own that mini-helmet and I know that I always will. It holds a special place in my Steelers memorabilia collection and every time I look at it I am reminded that no matter how hard-nosed or gritty and old Marine seems, deep inside, he is just a big softee.