The most impressive aspect of Steelers punter Adam Podlesh may not be his punting prowess.
Podlesh ran a 4.4 40-yard dash. That shouldn't be surprising, he posted the top 200-meter and 400-meter times in the state of New York his junior year at Pittsford Sutherland High School. He also played running back and linebacker on the school's football team, along with punting.
His athletic achievements aside, the most impressive aspect of Podlesh may be the fact he's a cancer survivor.
His career was cruising along. A successful four-year run at Maryland translated into a fourth-round selection by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was in a contract year in 2010, having amassed a 42-yard gross average in his previous three seasons with the team.
He went to have a bump around his jawline checked out by a doctor, and after a biopsy, the clean-living Podlesh was told he had cancer of the salivary gland.
‘‘My heart basically dropped to the floor when I heard the news,’’ Podlesh told Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times in 2011. ‘‘Every conversation before that, my surgeon had never said anything about a malignant possibility.’’
His surgery was successful, and after six weeks of drinking his food, he went into minicamp with the Jaguars free of cancer, but weighed down by the prospect of two other punters on the team.
It's understandable, but still rough, having to come back from all of that and compete for his own job along with working to earn a contract extension. Such is the nature of the NFL. It can bring the best out of a player, too. Perhaps that was Podlesh. He punted for a career-high net average of 39.2 yards, and signed a 5-year, $10 million deal with the Bears in 2011.
He wore out his welcome with a regime change after two seasons there, and was released this offseason.
Podlesh was 33rd in the NFL with a gross average of 40.6 yards per punt, and Chicago's punt coverage unit was last in the NFL with a 40-yard average.
Pittsburgh was second-to-last, leading only Podlesh's Bears.
So why Podlesh? Why replace two of the worst statistical punters in the NFL last season with one of the few who was worse?
It's an excellent question, and one that needs to be tempered with the fact Podlesh was given a 1-year contract and he will likely be vying with Brad Wing for the team's starting punting jobs. Not to mention the fact the Steelers have auditioned more punters since 2007 - the year the team traded up in the fourth round to draft Daniel Sepulveda, just 12 picks after Podlesh was taken by the Jaguars - seemingly than any other position on the team.
Looking at his career as a whole, 2013 was the aberration, not the norm. Statistically, it was his worst year, and without reported injuries, to give Podlesh the benefit of the doubt is probably the reasonable conclusion. Granted, you don't get two down years in a row in the NFL, but his big contract not producing even mid-level results is clearly the reason Chicago released him.
Signing him fits in line with the Steelers' modus operendi this offseason - bring in younger veterans with a flaw or two but ones who have shown signs of high-level ability in the recent past. For Podlesh, handling and defeating cancer may be his greatest achievement.