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Character (Ac)Counts on the 2013 Steelers

in which the author highlights some of the vets and speculates about the rookies...

Geoff Burke

While perusing our SBNation Pittsburgh sister site, Bucs Dugout, I ran across the following in a fascinating article by David Manel:

...Baseball Prospectus' Ben Lindbergh said that one of the black holes in modern baseball research is the effect that clubhouse character has on player performance. However, he observed that if you look around the league it is hard to ignore the fact that teams are making some roster decisions based on this seemingly unquantifiable quality. The situation amounts to this: major league front offices value something that baseball researchers who work from the outside are unable, as of yet, to get a handle on. Indeed, what is likely going on is that teams are ahead of the rest of us and have developed analytics that factor in things like player character, and are already examining its relationship to on-field performance.

He continued with an interview with Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle in which he asked Hurdle about this. Hurdle stated that back when he was with the Colorado Rockies they had begun to try to quantify character in players and assess how it affected performance on the field. Do read the article—you can find it here.

I had been pondering the whole question of character as I looked at the Steelers' draft picks. Character is notoriously difficult to assess. My understanding is, the Steelers prefer to draft players without obvious character concerns, but as we have seen in some rather high-profile players, the supposedly high-character ones can on occasion let you down rather badly.

Then there was the 2012 draft. The Steelers uncharacteristically took three players with character concerns: Mike Adams, Alameda Ta'amu, and Chris Rainey. Ta'amu's college DUI was presumably known about before the draft—if it wasn't, the Steelers need to have a little chat with their scouting staff—and so though most of us didn't know about it, surely the front office and coaches did. Chris Rainey was, I would guess, on an extremely short leash, and the leash broke in Florida. The one considered to be the biggest risk, Mike Adams, appears to have turned out the best. In a way, this doesn't surprise me. When a young man has the guts to own up to his mistakes and face the music in the way Adams did, it bodes well, and the Steelers' risk appears to have been worth it.

This year's draft felt different. As I began looking for information on the "intangibles" of the chosen players, a definite theme seemed to be running through the Steelers' choices. Fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas helped to raise his siblings after the death of his parents. Second-round pick Markus Wheaton is described by his coaches as having a "relentlessness" to improve and a work ethic second to none. They also want to talk about what a fine young man he is off the field. ESPN's Mel Kiper said of the Steelers' first-round pick "On a scale of 1-10, Jarvis Jones' character is a 15." Throughout this year's draft there doesn't seem to be a whiff of off-the-field issues or character concerns.

But as Steeler Nation has discovered, you really learn about a player's character when he has job security and name recognition. What will happen to a player once they get that big contract? On the field is one issue, and one I won't attempt to address. Instead I want to look at some off-the-field indicators of what I think is the direction the Steelers are trying to go.

One of the players Steeler Nation has loved to hate is cornerback William Gay. The collective lack of enthusiasm for his re-signing this spring was deafening. Whether Gay manages to earn a roster spot this season or not, though, he has earned respect for his spirit of community service.

Gay visited the Pittsburgh Women's Center and Shelter on Thanksgiving during the 2010 season, and was so moved by the experience that he agreed to make a PSA video encouraging women suffering domestic violence to get help. He also opened up about his own experience of violence in childhood—when he was eight years old his stepfather murdered his mother, then killed himself. Gay spent a lot of time at the Boys and Girls Club of Tallahassee, and they have just honored him by dedicating a room to him. But it wasn't just to acknowledge the fact that he "made it." For the past three years Gay has hosted a free football camp at his old high school. The only thing the participants have to provide is a signed waiver form. Gay pays for the camp out of his own pocket. He is determined to make his hometown a better place.

Giving back through sports is also a passion for OLB LaMarr Woodley. But long before he started giving and raising money to keep school sports free to the participants in his native Saginaw, Michigan, he began a tradition of driving to his hometown for Thanksgiving and giving to those in need. Last November his foundation gave out 500 baskets filled with basic household items - paper towels, detergent, cutlery, and so on. Woodley and members of his family were among the volunteers distributing the baskets.

This barely scratches the surface of what his foundation does for his communities—Pittsburgh as well as Saginaw. Woodley also hosts a free football camp for 500 kids each year in Saginaw, and he heads up a Toys for Tots holiday drive in Pittsburgh. Beyond this, Woodley takes his status as a role model extremely seriously. His "Think Big, Dream Big, Live Big" initiative provides SAT and ACT tutoring, encourages clean-up programs and urban renewal, provides college scholarships, assistance with goal-setting, and a long list of other critical programs for underprivileged teens. His foundation has also begun a PACT program ("Prevent Another Crime Today") which encourages community support for victims of violent crime, including encouraging people to come forward with information which will help to identify the perpetrators.

This is only a partial list of the many causes he espouses, and, astonishingly, he didn't wait until he entered the NFL before he began giving back. He and Clifton Ryan, another Saginaw native, teamed up while students at the University of Michigan to hold a golf outing to raise money for the Saginaw Parks and Recreation department. They still do this every year.

One of the players one thinks of first when contemplating high-character Steelers is Troy Polamalu. Everyone knows he is a man of deep faith and amazing humility. But the thing which impresses me the most about Polamalu is how hard he tries to keep his good works out of the spotlight.

One of the things he has been doing for years is visiting the critically ill children at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh. He, without fanfare or cameras, goes every Friday afternoon during the season, spending time with the children and talking to them about whatever they like. When you make as much money as Polamalu does, it's pretty easy to write a check. He gives freely of his most precious commodity—time.

This was beautifully illustrated in the case of Heather Miller, an 11-year-old girl with a rare cancer. Scott Brown, a sports writer with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote a book about Heather's struggle with cancer, the interaction she and her family had with a number of Steelers players and members of the organization, particularly Troy Polamalu, and her death. The book, "Heaven Sent: The Heather Miller Story," is available here, and you'll want plenty of tissues available when you read it. What struck me was not just Polamalu's personal involvement but how he brought in teammates to be part of the extended support network.

Character also shows in the little things. I noted a tweet from Baron Batch congratulating Cameron Heyward on his marriage last month. I looked for further information about the wedding but found very little. The one thing I did find was the wedding registry (Macy's and Crate and Barrel) for the couple. What struck me was the modesty of the requests. Of the 60+ items requested, only one (a set of pots and pans) cost more than $100. The majority of items cost under $30. This may not seem like a big deal to those of you of the male persuasion, but to me it says they are down-to-earth, sensible people. In a world of "Bridezillas" it's refreshing.

One of the really interesting aspects of Cameron Heyward is how carefully and deliberately he has avoided the mistakes of his famous father, "Ironhead" Heyward. In an excellent article published by Yahoo Sports a few days before the 2011 draft, Les Carpenter wrote:

...unlike his father at the beginning of his career, Cameron doesn’t drink. He stays away from parties and barely steps into bars. He has been with his girlfriend, Allie, a volleyball player, since their freshman year at Ohio State. In a few weeks he will graduate with a degree in education. When football is done he thinks he might want to be a fourth- or fifth-grade teacher.

"My dad’s dad had trouble drinking, my dad did, I don’t want to put anyone through that," he says quietly...

Carpenter interviewed one of Heyward's coaches, who said this:

Jim Heacock, the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, has had plenty of great players in 37 years of coaching. He’s pretty sure he’s seen determination and fire before. He knows he’s seen good men too, ones who studied in their classes, who visited hospitals and signed autographs, who had a moment for everyone.

Then Cameron Heyward showed up to school. And from the start there was something unique about him on the field. He never stopped. Every play in the games, every drill in practice Cameron ran the same. He was relentless.

"I never had anyone quite like him," Heacock says.

I'm sure there are many more stories to be told, if I had the time and you all had the patience : ) Much has been made this off-season of the emphasis on conditioning as the foundation of a hopefully less injury-prone team. I wonder if a similar sort of shift didn't take place behind closed doors before this year's draft. While the Steelers' brass has always preferred high-character players, I wonder if the decision wasn't quietly taken to insist upon them.

It seems to me the talent difference in the NFL between even the "elite" players and the rest is often razor-thin. The players who are clearly well above the rest in each draft probably amount to less than 5% of the total number drafted, and an even smaller percentage of the total players declaring for the draft. The Steelers are very seldom in a position to take one of these top five players. So what makes the difference if you are putting together a team essentially without a lot of obvious "elite" talents? The intangibles, I would contend. Work ethic, desire, and, for lack of a better word, heart. While it is certainly not unprecedented to find these qualities in players with significant character flaws, I would think you are much more likely to find them in players without such flaws.

A.J. Burnett, the (extremely) veteran starting pitcher for the Pirates, commented recently that every team he has ever been on had a jerk who was tolerated by the locker room because of his talent. Every team, that is, except for the 2013 Pirates. Insert obligatory rude remark about the Pirates here, if you like. I believe the point is, the Pirates' head office and coaching staff may feel they have found a way to quantify character, and may have had some success with the metric. If so, this would be pretty interesting news. It would be even more interesting if it does turn out to affect, even in a relatively small way, how the players and the team produce.

No one is perfect. Jarvis Jones' "15 on a scale of 1-10" doesn't imply he's never done a stupid or selfish thing in his life. Nor does it guarantee he will be a great football player. Too many unknowns, from injury onwards, can intervene. But I think it's a great start.

Is there any reason to believe that a "high-character" locker room is better than the converse, or even the usual mix of good and bad? I think there may well be. As we all know, winning fixes everything in the locker room, or at least it smoothes things over for the most part. Where the rubber meets the road is what is happening between the players when things are not going so well. Given that recent Steelers' teams have more than occasionally seemed held together by duct tape and hairpins, a strong locker room is surely a good thing. It is at least reasonable to assume that the uncharacteristically public mini-meltdown of last season's locker room, overblown as it probably was, made its own contribution to the unsatisfying ending to the season.

Perhaps the new emphasis on conditioning will cut down the injuries. I certainly hope so. But injuries are inevitable in football. There's always going to be adversity—the question is how the team handles it. Here's hoping that both the conditioning and the character of the 2013 Steelers leads to a great season, both on and off the field.