Hines Ward was a hero to many in Steeler Nation, until he couldn't perform as he once did, and then voices were raised calling for his replacement. Ike Taylor has been the Steelers’ number one corner, until he couldn't perform as he once did, and now voices are rising calling for his replacement.
Aaron Smith was the ultimate team player and "Quiet Man" who garnered little national attention and even many in Steeler Nation couldn't always identify him without a roster, and yet over a twelve year career, Smith became one of the greatest 3-4 defensive linemen in the game. Had he not voluntarily retired himself, the Steelers most likely would have had to cut him. Same with Chris Hoke. James Farrior was the brains and determination behind many a Steel Curtain defense, yet in his last full season voices were raised loud and plentiful that he should be benched or cut because he couldn't cover across the middle like he once did.
We as fans of football take great pride in our teams; we identify with a team for a multitude of reasons, stemming from geographic location to its personality and character. We define ourselves as "true fans" when we stay loyal to the team during its down years, and pump out our chests with pride when "we" win a Super Bowl.
Many in Steeler Nation latch onto certain players early in their careers. Isaac Redman was the darling of the Nation for nothing more than his training camp success crossing the goal line, yet year after year during his brief career he had his advocates cheering loudly and there was even a running joke of his prowess paralleling that of "the most interesting man in the world". Yet as a professional football player, Redman accomplished very little on the field, but he was a fan favorite...until he wasn't.
What seems to get lost in the euphoria of a football season is that these players are men who struggle to retain their jobs in a cutthroat environment where they are not only battling other players on their team and the risk of injury at the hands of their opponents, but also the inevitable mutiny of their own bodies, and the inexorable diminishment of their abilities at the hands of time.
We cheer ourselves hoarse for that cornerback who lays devastating hits on running backs at the line of scrimmage or easily shuts down marquee receivers almost effortlessly; we point to him as the avatar of our team and by adjunct ourselves, when we gather with friends at bars or opposing stadiums. He is the "face of our franchise", that golden boy who by sheer will and determination, and by the grace of the innate physical abilities he was born with, leads our team to success from which we bask in the light of their achievement.
That is, we do until he begins to lose a step. Then he gradually (or not so gradually) becomes an impediment to that glory in which we revel to bask; he's too old, too slow, gotten fat and lazy from his last mega-contract. And so, with the freedom that we all claim as fans, and the anonymity of the internet which allows us to voice what we otherwise would hesitate to say in public, there arises call after call for the bum to be benched, or traded, or summarily cut; his character is questioned and maligned.
These men who once we adored and deified as gods of the gridiron, now face mortality and with it derision from the very fans who once held them so high. We console ourselves by saying that they never read the blog sites from which such calls for their termination, so we feel free to disregard their basic humanity and turn them into mere machine parts to be discarded and replaced with shiny new parts that make the machine that is our team run smooth again.
Numerous words have been written about the dangers of video games; how they desensitize our youth with repeated scenes of violence and gore. What about the desensitization that goes on in the blogosphere where the value of human beings is turned into a commodity to be bought and sold and traded with no regard for the human being underneath the uniform? What about the desensitization that goes on when year after year, player after player, we hold judgment of a man's profession on a knife's edge; one blown play or one mere hint of a diminishment of ability to cover down field or get into the backfield and the calls begin to draft a replacement, sign a better guy off the waiver wire, or hit the free agent market and throw unheard of sums of money to someone else to do the same job.
These calls disregard the fact that Ward, or Taylor, or Farrior practiced and played for countless thousands of hours during their youth; spent hundreds of hours more in the weight room or on the track, dedicating themselves to their chosen profession. They dedicated far more hours of their lives to their profession than almost any of us fans have done. And all the while there was no guarantee they'd make it to the next level, that the skills and talents they honed day after day, year after year, would be good enough for them to make it to the professional level. At any time in any given practice or game they could be injured to such a degree as to wipe out any chance to make it to the NFL, or to continue once they arrived, and yet they played on. And we cheered their success, and lauded their names, until someone better came along.
This is not a diatribe against the game of football, nor is it a condemnation of the fans of the game. It is the very nature of competitive professional sports that these players, implicitly or explicitly, recognized as they grew up and pursued their profession; after all, at one time they were the shiny new part that replaced the man before them.
Instead, this is a momentary pause before the draft as we prepare to watch our team select the next generation of players who will take up our Black n Gold banner and hopefully lead us to bask in the glory of a seventh Lombardi.
How many of us have worked years at our chosen profession, only to be told we were no longer wanted? It recently happened to me. The reasons I was given were eerily similar to those voiced in Steeler Nation about LaMarr Woodley, Casey Hampton, Larry Foote and others. "Paid too much...", "...going in a different direction...", "...looking for someone different...". It happens.
But by hearing these words spoken to me, I was forced to reflect on many things; what was I going to do? Where was I going to work? Why wasn't I "good enough" now but was just a year ago? During those hours and days of reflection, while I read the articles on BTSC and followed the various comments as a means to distract myself for a few moments, I began to see that the only differences between ourselves and a professional athlete is that my profession lasts a lot longer, and the gradual deterioration of my physical skills due to time is not a factor. Other than that, and in varying degrees, most of us are in the same cutthroat environment as these players. Our employment is "at will", in the hands of our managers who have their own agenda to follow and have little regard for the consequences that occur to the individual workers when they change that agenda.
The only other real difference between us fans and these players is we don't have scores of un-named "fans" debasing our character in public, ridiculing us or calling us names alongside demands that we be summarily turned out after years of dedicated service.
So while I watch this year's draft, and allow myself to get caught up in all the excitement and hoopla over the next great player the Steelers will draft, I know I will be feeling a little conflicted. When the Steelers draft their cornerback of the future, and before I allow myself to read all the comments about how Ike Taylor should be cast aside and this new player allowed to take his place, I'm going to do what a real fan does, and not turn on Taylor or any other existing player just because he's gotten a little slower, a littler older; I'm going to enjoy Taylor's last year and remember all the great things he's accomplished for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Steeler Nation and me.
And as the upcoming season unfolds and we see Taylor out there giving his best effort, whether that effort is as good as it once was or not, it will be with words of gratitude, not derision, that I hope we speak of him even as we thank him for his service and watch him walk his final yards as a Pittsburgh Steeler.