PITTSBURGH -- When Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert saw Joe Haden twice a year for Steelers-Browns, pregame chatter turned into dreams of three Florida Gators reteaming.
"Kind of like the Miami Heat, the Big Three," Gilbert said. "Get your key guys winning championships again."
A surprise dip into free agency made that possibility happen. When the Cleveland Browns released Haden from his massive contract last week, the Pittsburgh Steelers pounced at the chance to acquire an established cornerback. They offered a $7 million safety net for 2017 and something more -- the chance to chase a second title with Pouncey and Gilbert, key linemen on the Gators' 2008 championship team.
One of the most decorated college football rosters of all time is losing NFL staying power. Tim Tebow is playing baseball. Percy Harvin is retired. Brandon Spikes is out of the league. But Haden, Pouncey and Gilbert -- three of six players from the 2008 team still in the NFL -- have amassed $130.6 million in career earnings. That number will jump closer to $150 million after this year.
The bulk of 2008 Gators success in the NFL comes from the AFC North, where Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap is a high-level pass-rusher.
Haden knew Pittsburgh would contend for his services the moment Pouncey and Gilbert started blowing up his phone, urging him to sign.
"It's amazing -- we won a championship at Florida and are trying to do the same thing here," Haden said. "Those are really good dudes. They were the same way at Florida, their personality being the life of the locker room. It just brings people together."
Pouncey and Haden were first-round picks in 2010, and though Gilbert went in the second round in 2011, he's arguably the game's best right tackle.
These three weren't the biggest stars in those Gators starting lineups, but they proved to be among the best long-term NFL prospects. Cam Newton is a megastar with the Carolina Panthers but was a backup at Florida and transferred amid legal trouble. Mike Pouncey, Maurkice's brother, is a Pro Bowler for the Miami Dolphins. Wide receiver Deonte Thompson is a backup for the Chicago Bears.
Maurkice Pouncey savors the chance to still play with those who helped him grow. Gilbert and Haden were among his closest friends in Gainesville, Florida, encouraging him in the locker room and talking smack during sun-baked two-a-days.
From the film room to the turf, the three players carried an intensity that still fuels them today, Pouncey said.
"It's pretty cool, the relationship we built there," Pouncey said. "When you are so young as kids, you don't really know how special it is to play together. ... We were such hard workers, so committed to winning. That's all we ever cared about. That was instilled in us the whole time we were there."
Pouncey never thought a former top-10 pick would make his way to Pittsburgh, but once Haden became available, Pouncey was "shocked" when the deal quickly came together.
The three used to love forecasting their professional-football futures. They can still do that. All three should have at least one or two prime years left, assuming Haden recovers from offseason groin surgery.
Pouncey, 28, is still one of the game's best centers. Gilbert, 29, has gone from role player to offensive catalyst. And the Steelers hope Haden, 28, is the much-needed playmaking outside corner to complement Artie Burns.
"We used to always talk about, of course, getting drafted, but winning championships, being a top player at our positions," Gilbert said. "We dreamed of doing top things at this level. The dream is always in our hands."
With more than 30 Gators from that 2008 roster playing an NFL down, Pouncey considers this trio fortunate to still be in the huddle. He knows team fit and timing are crucial for success, and not everyone from that class went 2-for-2 in that area.
As a result, the three hope to go out like they came in -- as champions.
Though Pouncey is still bitter about one thing.
"I thought we were all going to leave school together [in 2009]," Pouncey said. "Then Marcus and my brother decided to stay. They didn't really go to school anyway. They had a good time."