In today's NFL, it is rare to find players who prioritize their team over their wallets; most are loyal to their current contracts and little else, suffocating the hopes of teams to develop franchise talent under a salary cap.
In a recent interview, Antonio Brown provided the Steelers organization and fanbase a breath of fresh air in these tough economic times.
Pittsburgh's own KDKA-TV caught up with Brown after he had visited the ninth floor at Children's Hospital, a long-standing tradition of other Steelers who have tried to do their part for children dealing with life-threatening illnesses - a tradition Brown was proud to be a part of.
"It’s very humbling to see a kid go through that, and any time I can get out and give support, I hope it makes a difference."
If the team is unable to re-sign top receiver Mike Wallace when he becomes an unrestricted free-agent, Brown will not only be a leader in the community, but he will be expected to lead on the field as well.
Brown, a sixth-round draft selection from Central MIchigan in 2010, earned his spot on the Steelers roster behind Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders. He made the active roster for nine regular season games and all three post-season contests in a season which resulted in a Super Bowl appearance - a loss to the Green Bay Packers. Brown impressed with his ability as a special teams returner, scoring a touchdown on the opening kick-off of his NFL debut against the Tennessee Titans in the second week of the season after taking a handoff from Mewelde Moore.
Randle El was allowed to walk after the season, leaving the receiving duties to Wallace, Sanders and Brown, along with veteran Ward and new acquisition Jerricho Cotchery, who was signed as a free-agent after being released by his former employer - the New York Jets. Brown began the year as the team's fourth receiver and primary special teams returner. He accumulated 1,000 yards in both roles, becoming Ben Roethlisberger's second favorite target by season's end.
This time, Ward was the one walking, leaving the Young Money Crew to lead the passing game into the future, beginning with 2012. Unfortunately, Young Money was looking forward to big money. Wallace was the first to reach the end of his rookie deal, becoming a restricted free agent - a byproduct of the previous CBA. Wallace had been the team's most productive pass catcher, mainly due to his unique breakaway speed, and he wanted a long-term deal which would pay him as such. When the Steelers only offered him a first-round compensatory level tender worth $2.742 million, Wallace refused to sign it and participate in team activites or training camp.
His holdout never changed the organization's mind, as their hands were already tied by salary cap restrictions; however, it did lead to premature concern over Brown and Sanders, who were scheduled to also become restricted free-agents following the 2012 season. During Wallace's holdout, Brown was asked about his impending similar situation. Brown replied he would do things differently. He was more concerned with being employed by the Steelers through the future, than he was worried about how well they would pay him. Should the team only offer Brown a tender as they did Wallace, he assured his interviewer he would sign it without hesitation so as not to miss any team preparation time.
Perhaps the team was responding to Brown's comments of dedication or Wallace's holdout, they signed Brown to an extension which would keep him with the team through the 2017 season.
Now, with the 2012 season officially coming to a close, people are once again drawing comparisons between the situations of Wallace and Brown. Wallace is now an unrestricted free-agent not expected to return to Pittsburgh due to their tight cap constraints and his desire for a substantial salary. While Wallace has not completely ruled out a return, he has been clear team loyalty will have no affect on his free-agency.
With his new contract, the team will not have to worry about Brown escaping in free-agency until at least 2018. With recent talk of possible veteran releases like James Harrison, and restructured contracts like LaMarr Woodley; KDKA-TV asked Brown how dedicated he was to remaining with the Steelers, and if he would be willing to take pay cuts along the way to remain in Pittsburgh until retirement.
With zero hesitation, Brown replied with a resounding yes.
"I’d sacrifice whatever it’d take. I know how special it is to be here…I always say I want to finish what I start, and wouldn’t it be great to finish my career here. [It’d be] something special."
"You don’t want to be a journey guy in this league. You want to stay in one place, and have people know that’s where you’re gonna be. You don’t want to bounce around the league and have people say you were good for a little bit, chasing that with no respect for game. I respect this game and love this game, and know I’m part of something bigger than me."
"I definitely feel the specialness of me being here and I appreciate that fact."
As a team of aging veterans slowly fades away and new players emerge, the team will need players like Brown to step up and lead by example. Brown is setting the ultimate example for his teammates, both in contract handlings and community involvement. An extravagant athlete and aspiring endzone dancer on the field, he is the epitome of humility, generosity and selflessness, off.
Brown is a truly special player, playing for a truly special organization - a real Steeler for life.