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Thoughts on Character, the recent Draft, and the Pittsburgh Steelers

Following on the heels of euphoria felt by Steeler Nation over the first round selection of Stanford guard David DeCastro, came shouts of dismay and displeasure from many over the second selection of tackle Mike Adams from Ohio State, the third round selection of Miami linebacker Sean Spence, and the fifth round selection of Chris Rainey of Florida.

The reason for the sudden mood shift lies in large part to the same reason for all three: character issues.

Adams failed his pre-combine drug test, and then apparently lied to various teams, including the Steelers about it. In addition, he was involved in the "Tatoo Scandal" at Ohio State that ultimately cost head coach Jim Tressel his job there.

Sean Spence was implicated in the Nevin Shapiro Booster Scandal that rocked the "U" as reported by Yahoo Sports, and subsequently made the front cover of Sports Illustrated.

Rainey got into trouble for an ill-advised text message to his (now ex) girlfriend which was interpreted by others as threatening, and he avoided legal sanctions by completing probation.

You can review the specifics of these issues via the links provided.

The purpose of this piece is not to debate the merits of neither the "crimes" nor the punishments, but rather look more closely at the concept of character as it relates to the players of today, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Every man, as to character, is the creature of the age in which he lives. Very few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of their times.
Voltaire

It seems more and more players come to the NFL draft with "baggage", whether it is actual crimes for which they were convicted or received probation, or "issues" surrounding their personal choices in life.

Strange as it may seem, the success of the NFL as we know it today is a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to what is hailed as the "Modern Era" of professional football (1970), college football ranked well above professional football in popularity. The pro league(s) were seen as a lesser extension of the college game; a place where college heroes went to continue playing the game they loved after their glory days of collegiate ball were done. Most players had to have off-season jobs to provide for their families. Becoming the public face of ownership for car dealerships, becoming insurance agents, financial advisors, stock brokers, cattleman, farmers, etc all were career choices the players had to make to make ends meet between seasons.

Even most of the players making up the Steelers Dynasty of the 70's had off season careers that they would fall back on when their playing days were over.

Today, despite the poor chance of lasting in the league, and despite the relatively short career expectations of even first round draft picks (6 yrs on average), the potential money to be made in the NFL is a siren call to those lucky, blessed few; a call that draws people from all walks of life, all economic strata. And with them as they come answering the call is all of their life experiences, both good and bad, that have shaped them into the people they are at the time they join the NFL.

Some of the baggage is ridiculous stuff; violations of the NCAA rules (which act more like shackles) against selling memorabilia or gifts; walking into the house of someone they don't know and being penalized because there was a player agent attending the same party. The list goes on, and the hypocrisy and outright bloodsucking thievery of the NCAA is a topic for another post. Needless to say, such issues should carry little weight by the Steelers or the rest of the NFL.

Other baggage, marijuana use, alcohol use, etc needs to be taken more seriously. The use of both can (and often does) turn into abuse of both. In the case of alcohol, use of that substance (often times while still under the legal age) can also lead to behavioral issues such as violence against authority and against other people.

However, none of this is either new, or limited to collegiate athletes. Anyone who has attended college has brushed against these issues to one degree or another. Whether anyone wants to believe it or not, the use of recreational mood modifiers (e.g. marijuana, alcohol) is part of our society and part, again to one degree or another, of most people's rite of passage into adulthood.

What is an issue, especially as illustrated by Mike Adams, is the stupidity in which many of today's athletes treat these issues. At the cusp of a potential NFL career, many of these athletes think they're still immune to the mundane rules and regs the proletariat must follow and fail to realize Newton's Third Law; for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Hence, they light up knowing they would be tested for drug use sometime in the future.

Why? Because they feel they're entitled to do whatever they want; they feel entitled because they've been treated like they're royalty ever since getting into college on a scholarship.

The stupidity is not in their failure to evade detection; their stupidity is their failure to weigh the consequences of their actions, to fully understand the risk/reward matrix before they light up that first joint, or crack open that 6th beer.

We are builders of our own characters. We have different positions, spheres, capacities, privileges, different work to do in the world, different temporal fabrics to raise; but we are all alike in this, -- all are architects of fate.
John Fothergill Waterhouse Ware

This quote from a sermon by a Unitarian minister in the 1800's says it nicely: We are the architects of our own fate. We are responsible for our actions, through which our character is defined.

Mike Adams apparently has laid the first brick of the foundation of his career as a Steeler, by showing character. By calling the team, requesting a meeting, and giving full disclosure and acceptance of his actions, and by adhering to the prerequisites mandated by the Steelers for his re-insertion into their draft board, Adams has taken the first step on the road towards character redemption. Whether it will last is impossible to foretell, but at least he made the effort.

Maybe Curtis Brown best exemplifies this statement. In a story posted on Steelers.com, the description of a seventh grader homeless, without parental support, is heart-wrenching to say the least.

Re-read the quotes from Waterhouse-Ware and Voltaire, and this one:

Talents are best nurtured in solitude, but character is best formed in the stormy billows of the world.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

then read Brown's story (linked above, snippets below):

He felt like he had been abandoned again - once by a mother he never knew, once by an aunt who went to the hospital and never came home, and now by his grandmother who was taken from him by a nursing home. Curtis Brown was a seventh-grader left alone to fend for himself.

Uncle Hosea allowed Curtis to stay with his family, but that turned out to be very temporary because Hosea's wife didn't like the idea of a seventh-grade boy being added to the household. And so Curtis pinballed from place to place, with nowhere to call home.

Curtis admits that prediction could have come true.

"Being in that area and not having a lot of money I did things," said Brown. "I would be around the older kids, and I got into a lot of trouble, stealing and robbing, drugs and liquor, which I will never be proud of.

"But at that time I just didn't have the means to eat ... eating corn out of the can doesn't satisfy you. I was poor, didn't have a family base. I was out there trying to do what I could to provide for myself. But when I saw how bad I hurt my grandma, that triggered something in me. When I saw my grandma cry over that, it really straightened me out a lot."

If ever there was a case to be made for second chances, for acknowledging the sins of a person's past, but accepting their actions of the present for redemption, this is the case. Brown had every excuse imaginable to become self-centered, spiteful of the world and of the adults who let him down, to turn to crime to provide for himself what others failed to provide, and to drugs to mask the pain he for so long lived with, but he didn't. Brown remembered the love, the teachings of his grandmother, of his aunt, and held himself accountable to their standards, and ultimately wanted to make them proud of who he was and how he turned out. No better example comes to mind of a current Steeler player that embodies what it means to be a man of character.

Finally, Character as it pertains to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization.

Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting in a particular way - Aristotle

The Steelers have long been held up as the model franchise of the NFL. While not necessarily the longest lasting, nor the most successful (if you include pre-1970 accomplishments), nonetheless the Steelers are known for their adherence to basic principles of integrity, ethical treatment of the players, and sportsmanship; and it all is derived from the values of the Rooney family.

Since 1933, the Steelers have been owned and managed by the Rooney family. While recently outside ownership interests have diluted the Rooneys' hold on the team, they are still the Managing Members, and continue the tradition established by founder, Art Rooney, of how the organization is operated.

Such consistency in "acting in a particular way", combined obviously with the successes achieved since 1970 substantiates their reputation as one of the premier organizations in all of sports.

Whether it be the ill-fated loyalty Art Rooney showed to such head coaches as Walt Kiesling or Buddy Parker and their inability to field successful teams for almost 40 years, to the Pater Familias approach the Rooneys' took to their staff, coaches, and especially their players, the Steelers have been run one way, the Rooney way, for almost 80 years.

Examples abound of the way the Rooneys treat their players as more than uniform numbers. Two well known examples are Ernie Holmes and Rocky Bleier.

Holmes was a troubled youth, drafted by the Steelers in the eight round of the 1971 draft. Feeling pressured by the job insecurities and troubles in his personal life, in 1973 Holmes suffered a breakdown resulting in his notorious arrest for shooting at motorists and a state police helicopter in Ohio. The Rooneys intervened with the authorities by accepting full responsibility for Holmes, then proceeded to ensure he received the proper medical attention needed to recover (he was subsequently diagnosed with acute paranoid psychosis).

Most teams most likely would have simply cut such a player, glad to be rid of such public trouble ; but as a result of their intervention, Holmes went on win two Lombardi's with the Steelers, and is ranked 8th on the Steelers all time Sack list.

Rocky Bleier's story is so famous, a tv-movie was made out of it in 1980 ("Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story").

After his rookie season in 1968, Bleier was drafted into Vietnam, where he was wounded so severely he was told he would never play football again. Art Rooney, in admiration for the qualities Bleier exhibited on and off the field in college and his rookie year, kept him on the payroll for two years while Bleier attempted to rehabilitate himself. In 1974, he earned a spot on the active roster, and played until 1980.

When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends. ~ Japanese Proverb

While the Rooneys are members of a small group of NFL owners, they are citizens of Pittsburgh first, and part of the larger community of football fans second. When the Cleveland Browns, long and bitter rival to the Steelers, played their last game at Three Rivers Stadium before being "deactivated" for three seasons due to (then) owner Art Modell's decision to relocate the team to Baltimore, the Rooneys had black arm bands handed out to the fans attending that Monday Night Football game to show solidarity to the Cleveland fans in protest of the move.

The Rooneys, owners of a football franchise, chose to go against a fellow owner's greed, and stand with the city and fan base of Cleveland. They chose loyalty over money, integrity over avarice.

The Steelers' locker room environment reflects, as a microcosm, the Rooney Pater Familias culture. Well renown throughout the NFL, the tight "band of brothers" mentality of the locker room insures that self interests and selfishness is checked at the door. As recently resigned WR Jerricho Cotchery put it in one of his initial interviews upon joining the team in 2011:

"I was talking to Ryan Clark earlier and I was telling him I used to watch the (Steelers) interviews and I would hear guys talk about we do things a certain way over here. I wondered what they were talking about. I came here on my visit and I got it.

"These guys in the locker room, I get it. I see what everyone is talking about. It's such a well-respected organization and you get it as soon as you walk through the door."

The character of the Steelers is infused into every corner of the organization, from the Front Office to the locker stalls. While malcontents have passed through the hallowed halls of Heinz Field (and Three Rivers Stadium) from time to time, a core strength and key to their long term success has been embodied in the sacrifice of the self for the team.

Whether it's the anonymity of a player like Aaron Smith, or the quite leadership by example of a Troy Polamalu, the Steeler culture of character and integrity is palpable.

We all know of the myriad issues surrounding Ben Roethlisberger. As successful of a quarterback as he has been, it has been only recently that he was earned the respect of his fellow Steelers, to the point where they have re-instated him as a co-captain of the offense. This is a huge deal for the franchise quarterback.

Having burst onto the scene in 2004 as a rookie, and leading the team to a Super Bowl victory in 2005, nonetheless, Roethlisberger did not win enough respect of his fellow teammates to earn what should have been the obvious selection of captain of his team until 2008. It was obvious from the lack of recognition from his fellow players that his character in the privacy of the locker room must not have been much better than his disreputable public persona during these years. He finally earned recognition as captain in 2008.

But then he immediately lost that title due to his well publicized off-field issues in 2009, proving that even a $100 million franchise quarterback must adhere to the character and culture of the Steelers team; that no man is above the team. He was re-instated as co-captain in 2010.

While I felt dismay over the pick of Adams, Spence and Rainey initially, looking back on what our Steelers represent, through their actions and the success such traits have achieved over these past 40 years, I chided myself for having a lapse in trust in what the Steelers chose to do.

They made these picks with full knowledge of the issues surrounding the individual players involved, and as such put their trust in the well forged character of their organization to provide the best possible environment for these young men to find their way; to take their fate, and their future into their own hands, but doing so in an environment where they are not alone facing the temptations and influences of the world around them.

They are responsible for the hard work and discipline necessary for the cleansing of the smears on their character, but they do not stand alone; they have the entire Steeler organization, the entirety of the history of the Steelers to support them. They have role models, men who have been in their shoes and have raised themselves up, to support them.

And they have me, one of millions of citizens of Steeler Nation, who will accept the flaws of their past as part of what it means to be human, who will now judge them only on what they do from here on out, as they walk that first mile in the shoes of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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