There were eight Steelers -- no, not the targets of that ABSCAM sting, the Pittsburgh Steelers -- and there was a crowd around each of them. It was pretty much like any supermarket opening. When the jocks show up, the people line up for autographs, press for photo opportunities, angle for chitchat. A quiet moment with Franco or Mean Joe to ask the burning question: So, uh, how's it feel to be, uh, so big?

Except this wasn't another supermarket opening or another crowd of suburban shoppers. This was the Dirksen Senate Office Building and most of the askers, pressers and anglers were members of Congress, their families and their staffs in the curious position of being jock groupies. It prompted one onlooker to ask one United States senator: Why are these athletes getting all this special attention?

"Well, they should," said John Danforth (R-Mo.). "They run faster than we do. They work harder. They're better making tackles in the open field. They're much more team players."

Then, Danforth paused. And winked.

And said, "And, they usually don't get indicted."

It was a victory party of sorts for the Steelers, Super Bowl champions, given yesterday afternoon by Sen. John Heinz III (R-Pa.) for his hometown heroes. Heinz, as in 57 varieties, and if you hold the ketchup we're all in the poorhouse.

Just as he had done when the Pirates won the World Series, Heinz invited the Steelers down to Washington to a buffet luncheon where the elite meet to eat and greet and, in this case, geek.

Heinz, smiling broadly and continuously, introduced them: Dan Rooney, son of the owner and Steeler patriarch, Art Rooney; Chuck Noll, the head coach; J. T. Thomas, a cornerback; Sam Davis, an offensive guard; Randy Grossman, a tight end; Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, running backs; Loren Toews, a linebacker; Lynn Swann, a wide receiver and Mean Joe Greene, a Coca-Cola drinker whose fame spread when his shirt hit the fan.

Earlier in the day Heinz introduced three resolutions to the Senate, commending the Steelers, Noll and Art Rooney. Later he would donate some Steelers memorabilia to the Smithsonian, including Terry Bradshaw's uniform, a yard marker and down marker from the Super Bowl, Greene's jersey (that guy is constantly giving away jerseys) and some Steelers shoes, size big.

Heinz is a big Steelers fan.

To be in the company of his favorite team -- especially in the company of one of his "personal heroes," Rocky Bleier -- made him seem like the birthday boy. When the Steelers gave him a ball from the Super Bowl he held it like a Paddington bear and later he was seen tossing perfect spirals to one of his staff. You know, "Go down to the roast beef platter, fake into the cheese spread and I'll hit you near the pickles."

His wife, Teresa, took their kids and everybody else's around for autographs and talked about the Steelers as "the closest thing we have to national heroes. . . . When John was sworn into the Senate -- in this very room -- Andy Russell [a former Steelers linebacker] and Franco came. There were famous people here. Henry Kissinger, for example. But when the athletes walked in, that was it. Everybody went for them."

Congressional immunity?

Not when athletes show up.

"I guess everyone's a football fan," Grossman said, not really understanding the fuss either. "Then again, it depends on what time you get here. Everyone breaks for lunch. If important things were pressing they wouldn't be here."

You sure?

"Well, I hope not."

Concluding his remarks, Heinz turned to the players who stood behind him shoulder-to-shoulder with great dignity, like an Imperial Guard, and said, "Out there are a lot of senators just dying to meet you." He pointed out Richard Schweiker (R-Pa.), Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Danforth, Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and S. I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.). Hayakawa had walked in wearing Bradshaw's No. 12 jersey, which fit him like a glove -- a glove belonging to Sasquatch.

Because most of their time was spent in ceremony, signing autographs and listening to speeches, it may have seemed that the Steelers were bored. Because they stood with such impassive dignity it may have appeared that they were unemotional. In fact, neither was true.

"It's not that we're not excited," said Greene, who has a smile that invariably challenges the accuracy of the nickname, Mean. "It's just that we're programmed not to show our emotions so openly. Also, for the most part we're more familiar to them than they are to us. But I'm excited being here. Actually, I would have really liked to meet Carter. I've been a big fan of his."

Though it probably would't have been politic to say so at a luncheon hosted by a Republican senator, many of the Steelers wanted to meet Carter. On the airplane down to Washington, Davis said most of the players joked about eating in the Rose Garden and "going down to see Jimmy and find out what's happening." Assuming, of course, he knows.

But even without Carter, the Steelers seemed genuinely moved by the reception they received. Both senators from the home state and two representatives from Pittsburgh were there to honor them. John Heinz, who is both a fan and a friend, set it up so that nothing was missing, not even a doll at the door dressed in Pittsburgh black and gold. And Franco Harris, who has the face of a Moor and the strength of three, was appreciative. "This says that sports is a big part of our society. It's great that men like this still have time to recognize some things of national importance like the Steelers. We appreciate them saying hello."

Q. How do you tell the difference between the players and the congressmen?

A. Players are cool.

One senator introduced himself to Swann, introduced his son to Swann, had his son tell Swann that Swann was his favorite player and told Swann what a thrill it was to meet him. Swann played it like a pro.

"So," Swann asked the senator, "how do you like living here?"