It was a thoroughly depressing week for Steeler Nation. Our love and admiration for the men we have watched over the years just slammed headfirst into the inexorable helmet of Father Time. Where’s Roger Goodell when you need him? I’ve got a heart injury.
Many of you have been cheering the Steelers on for decades, and you have seen many players, even ones as well-loved as Hines Ward, given their pink slip. You have watched other players take their place. Many of these new faces have come and gone, a mere blip on the radar screen. Others have had a more lasting impact. Although no one could replace someone like Franco Harris or Jack Lambert, many new players have carved out their own niche in the hearts of Steeler fans.
But some of us don’t have this perspective yet. For those of us who are fairly new to Steeler Nation, this is our first experience of this type of loss. I joined Steeler Nation during the 2009 season, in the middle of the disastrous five-game losing streak. Although I didn’t understand much of what I was seeing other than the scoreboard, and although what I saw on the scoreboard wasn’t good, nonetheless I was hooked. Names I had heard frequently on the broadcasts—Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison—started to become real people to me, although I still wasn’t sure whether Troy played for the offense or the defense.
As I learned more about the game, I also began to learn about the men who played it. There are some whose names I never knew before they left the team. Other names I knew, but only as objects for derision, or so I gathered from the disgusted comments on BTSC. But there were names I heard frequently and almost always with approval in those earlier days. Hines Ward. Aaron Smith. James Farrior. I came to understand these men as the embodiment of what it was to be a Steeler. It wasn’t just about football.
I discovered Hines Ward had a rule named after him because of his fearlessness and his selfless play. He had changed the expectations for how wide receivers played, not just in Pittsburgh but across the league. But I also learned about Hines’ biracial heritage and his efforts to increase tolerance of biracial children in his native Korea. I saw him honored by the President of the United States. And then during the 2010 offseason, we all - Hines included - discovered that he could dance. During this process of discovery a nation fell in love with Hines and saw the tough, hard-working, and yet tender-hearted person Steeler Nation knew him to be. We saw his determination in mastering a new discipline, his tears for his injured partner, and his joy at winning the grand prize. He made me proud to be a Steeler fan.
I discovered Aaron Smith was considered to be one of the most underrated players in the NFL. As I learned more about the roles of the various players in the defense, I discovered the front three are the unheralded workhorses of the Dick LeBeau 3-4 defense, sacrificing impressive statistics of their own to support the linebackers. And Aaron Smith was the consummate 3-4 DE. But I also learned about the man his teammates knew and loved. I read about the battle his son went through with leukemia, how he inspired his teammates during this difficult time, and his quiet faith. I saw how his teammates joined him to raise money for childhood leukemia research. He made me proud to be a Steeler fan.
James Farrior was different than Hines Ward or Aaron Smith. He was drafted as the 8th pick of the 1997 draft by the New York Jets. Ward was drafted in the third round in 1998, Smith in the fourth round in 1999, both by the Steelers. Farrior’s career with the Jets was not impressive, although it is perhaps not too surprising since he didn’t see much time on the field. He was considered somewhat of a bust and allowed to leave in free agency after the 2001 season.
The Steelers picked him up, and in his first season he amassed 82 tackles in 14 games. Two years later Farrior was runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year, right behind Ed Reed, having recorded 94 tackles, three sacks, and four interceptions. During the 2010 season, at age 35, as part of an unbelievably good run defense, Farrior had 109 tackles and six sacks. Perhaps his early struggles said more about who drafted him than his play, or maybe he was a late bloomer; but either way, Farrior thrived in the Steeler organization.
As I continued to learn about how the defense worked, I discovered that Farrior was the brains of a very complicated system. His teammates elected him captain of the defense every single year beginning in 2004. I saw and appreciated his soft-spoken style of leadership on the field. I also learned about his compassionate heart off the field. With his brother, Matt, he formed a foundation in his hometown of Richmond, VA to address the needs of "under-served and at-risk children." The foundation helps to meet their physical needs with a Coats for Christmas program, but more importantly, it is concerned for their health, education, and character development. Farrior is directly involved with some of the activities of the organization and is making a difference with not only his money but his example. He makes me proud to be a Steeler fan.
On an intellectual level, I understand these roster moves are necessary and proper. As hard as it is to believe, I know other players will step up to fill the leadership void these men leave. But in my heart, I cannot see how we will ever see their like again. I join my voice to the great chorus of Steeler Nation and thank them for what they have meant to both the Steelers and to the sport itself. Whether they have hung up their cleats for the last time or play for another team, they will always belong to the Black and Gold.
And I bid them Godspeed.