There are already numerous posts, and undoubtedly will be many more over the next few weeks, examining Sunday's game and asking in essense 'what went wrong?' There are also posts, some of them extremely eloquent, saying that it sucks to lose, but considering everything we were very lucky to be in the Super Bowl in the first place, and we are lucky to be fans of this team. In the coming weeks and months we will discuss players and coaches, pro and con, draft strategies, pro and con, and other teams' fans, mostly con I fear. What is it that keeps us coming back day after day to discuss even the most arcane and obscure things? In the end, it is love - love for the game (just look at how much grief we've given the higher-ups in the NFL that have tried to meddle with it,) love for the players, but mostly love for this amazing organization that year after year at least has a chance at greatness. They seem to have the recipe for success, and that recipe is compounded of equal parts of heart, integrity, practicality, and old-fashioned hard work.
These posts will pretty comprehensively cover the football stuff. I want to revisit the season from a slightly different angle - the human interest. One thing that has really stood out to me about the team this year is the quirky individuals that made the team come alive. Here are some of the personal stories that captivated me.
First, it was the Year of the Hair. How could it not be? Head and Shoulders announced in August that for perhaps the first time in history a head of hair had been insured for <place pinky next to mouth> One MILLION Dollars </place pinky next to mouth.> But behind the scenes, a quiet revolution was brewing on the defensive line. Brett Keisel, who has always sported a neatly trimmed beard, decided to stop suppressing its natural instincts. I'm sure that no one, included Brett himself, anticipated that The Beard would take on a life of its own and even challenge Troy's iconic tresses for publicity and air time. As Keisel explained to those of us lucky enough to hear his talk at the October Ladies' Night Out, he decided to get a jump on the usual play-off beard and just see where it would take him. As we all know now, it took him all the way to the Super Bowl.
What I also discovered is that both Polamalu and Keisel dispense regular doses of self-deprecating humor. It's great to see celebrities that take themselves with a large grain of salt.
Here was one of yesterday's Quotes of the Week from Peter King:
-- Hairy Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel, who has the longest beard in Super Bowl history and who, after discussing his ultra-long beard for most of 45 minutes at Super Bowl media day last Tuesday, was asked by one TV reporter, "I just got here, and I wondered if you could please talk about your beard for a minute.''
I expect that The Beard is history by now - Keisel's wife gave him a razor in his Christmas stocking, so I guessing it has once again been tamed. Fortunately, we know Troy will never cut The Hair. It's just too valuable.
You might also say it was The Year of the Rookie. The Steelers are known for how well they draft - they haven't missed on a first round pick in a very long time - but part of their philosophy is that they are drafting for the future. Dick LeBeau's system is said to be too complicated for a rookie to be able to grasp sufficiently to make a sizable contribution - LeBeau's initial playbook when developing the zone defense was 900 pages. It is more common to get meaningful contributions from offensive players as a rookie's first season plays out, particularly from their first round picks. But no one expected a center to make the transition from college to NFL ball in time to win the starting job in training camp. Instead the coaches planned to play Maurkice Pouncey at guard while he learned the ropes. We all know how that worked out. The really interesting part is to think back to the many people that said that Pittsburgh was 'reaching' by taking Pouncey at pick #18. They obviously didn't see the young man who would contend for Rookie of the Year and be named to the Pro Bowl roster.
Maurkice is not only a great football player but an unusual and interesting person As everyone who has read any Steelers-related news in the last eight months will know, he has a twin brother Mike who also plays offense - guard next to Maurkice and center without him. This is extremely uncommon - a cursory Google search turns up only one other pair of twins in the NFL, Ronde and Tiki Barber. But the Barber brothers had different specialties - Tiki was a running back (drafted by the Giants) and Ronde is a cornerback still playing with Tampa Bay.
Maurkice has another claim to fame that will always endear him to me. Like many players, he has a full set of 'sleeves.' But you would be hard pressed to find another NFL player with tattooed portraits of his parents on his arms. He is obviously an extremely hard worker, as detailed in the profile I wrote about him - you can read it here. This trait was exploited by the veterans with some serious hazing of Pouncey, including setting him up for an unexpected solo in the Steelers' Christmas video. His sunny personality has endeared him to Steeler Nation, and his fierce play on the field has already inspired comparisons to legendary Steelers of old.
Then there is the Young Money crew, rookie wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown and second year man Mike Wallace. (Wallace takes the credit for this moniker.) In the wake of the loss of Santonio Holmes, Wallace was expected to step up, and although he isn't yet the shifty receiver that Holmes has become, he also showed that he wasn't the "one-trick pony" that coach Tomlin called him. Although two veteran receivers were signed to fill the gap that Holmes left, their role was minimal, particularly Arnaz Battle, as the rookies rapidly developed. It wasn't entirely unexpected for Sanders, who was a third round pick and a training camp star, but Brown, one of the Steelers' 6th round picks, was a surprise. He certainly surprised the Titans as he took a handoff from Mewelde Moore during a kick return and took it 89 yards for a touchdown. It made it even sweeter that it was the first time he touched a ball in an NFL game.
"The rest of the story" on Brown, as the late great Paul Harvey would say, is more poignant. Homeless at 16 in one of the worst sections of Miami, he somehow kept his head above water and his eye on the prize, and with the help of friends and coaches continued to play football and fight for his dream. "Being on my own as a teenager taught me a lot of survival skills, to work hard and to really go for what I want," Brown said in an article on Steelers.com by staff writer Teresa Varley. His story is amazing and inspiring, and if you haven't read it I encourage you to do so.
At the other end of the age spectrum are some players who are especially dear to my heart as I enter my declining years. (Or so my daughters tell me, anyway...) That would be the Geriatric Ward, which I've named for the irrepressible Hines. He is joined by other Steelers, including one of my favorite players and "the unquestioned leader of our team" according to Mike Tomlin, James Farrior. Other players that are approaching Old Age Pensioner status in football years are Flozell Adams, Aaron Smith, and Casey Hampton. Brett Keisel and James Harrison are both on the wrong side of 30. All of these players except Ward and Adams are defensive linemen. And yet this defense that the pundits were declaring to be past their prime were, with a little help from Ziggy Hood and the DBs, the #1 defense in the NFL against the run. They were so much better than the #2 defense (60+ yards per game as compared to 90+ yards for the next best defense) that it was close to the best in NFL history. The Old People Abide!
On the offensive side, Ward not only distinguished himself on the field ( Ward holds the Steelers' career records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns,) but off the field, as he was named to President Obama's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Ward's Helping Hands Foundation assists mixed-race children who face discrimination, and it was this that brought him to Obama's attention.
Flozell Adams, perhaps my favorite free-agent signing this year, was brought in to replace the injured Willie Colon, and after a lifetime (in football years) of playing left tackle switched to right tackle. This was not a move on the part of the Front Office that sent shivers of joy up the spine of much of Steeler Nation. After all, he had played for the hated Cowboys for his entire career, and in his final few years had been a penalty machine. But he came, he busted his butt, and he conquered, ending up as the only offensive lineman to start every single game, from the preseason to the Super Bowl. You can read more about how he viewed this season here.
Another "geriatric" that came up big for us this season was Charlie Batch. Relegated to 4th QB, he held himself ready, ever the professional. When first the #2 QB, Byron Leftwich, and then the #3, Dennis Dixon, went down, he and our aging defense carried us through the first quarter of the season, leaving us at 3-1 heading into the second quarter of the season. Steeler Nation owes him an enormous debt of gratitude for his many years of uncomplaining service.
Well, as they say in garage sale ads, there are just too many more to list. Danny Sepulveda, Atwaan Randle El, Ryan Clark (one of the wittiest off-the-cuff speakers I've ever heard,) LaMarr Woodley and his annual Thanksgiving giveaway, Ziggy Hood making us almost forget that Aaron Smith was injured - where do I stop? I'll just throw out two more names.
First of course will be Isaac Redman, The Most Interesting Running Back in the World. At training camp I met up one day with fellow BTSCer alfresco, and he was wearing the #33 Redman shirt he had made at a custom t-shirt shop. We were standing behind the end zone, and after practice some of the players came over to sign autographs, including Isaac. He made a beeline for alfresco, stating in awed tones that this was the first shirt he'd seen with his name on it. He not only signed it but removed one of his gloves and gave it to my floored BTSC peep. Al practically had to be carried back to his car after this brush with greatness - but kidding aside, what we saw was a sweet, humble young man. I look forward to cheering "Redzone Redman" in the coming years.
When reviewing the memorable names, one can scarcely omit QB Ben Roethlisberger. For better or for worse, he is our quarterback. He has his incredible highs, like the 58 yard strike to Antonio Brown in the first postseason game. He has his lows, when he spends half the game on the ground because he tries too hard to keep a play alive. He scrambles, and when he runs it looks like they've slowed the camera down, and it isn't very graceful. But as often as not he gets the first down, and he mostly doesn't bother with that wussy quarterback slide, either. He's been called a quarterback in a linebacker's body, which would seem to be a good assessment. He certainly gets as beat up as a linebacker. No penalty flags for Ben - those are all reserved for the pocket passers. Who could forget the sight of him leaving the field after Haloti Ngata rearranged his face, getting his broken nose taped up, and playing the rest of the game on a broken foot, a bad knee, and with blood running down his throat? He may lack finesse, he may not be pretty, but he lays it all out, for better or worse. And it is mostly for better. Ben put Steeler Nation through a lot this year, and I hope that he continues to mature and work to mend his off-the-field persona. If he does, I look forward to seeing him take his rightful place as one of the greatest quarterbacks of his generation, and one who is redefining how the position is played.
And finally, a big thank you to the Steelers for a year filled with equal measures of thrills and cardiac arrests. I look to our awesome front office and coaching staff to bring in another crop of promising rookies. And I look to our awesome ownership to be the catalyst to getting a deal done that is fair to both the owners and players, so that we can enjoy another amazing season of Steeler football.