Smash-mouth football. Imposing our will. Winning the battle in the trenches. The Steelers, even going back to the dark ages before the glory days, have long had a reputation for simple toughness. Iconic images dot our history- YA Tittle bleeding on the ground, Mean Joe giving a not so surreptitious elbow after the whistle had blown, Jack Lambert introducing Cliff Harris to the turf. All of these moments capture that spirit that carries through to our own day- see the offensive line cavalry riding to the scene of Eric Reid’s ejection. I get all this. I resonate with it. Were I to acquire a throwback jersey, the choice would be easy- Donnie Shell, the toughest hitter of them all. And I’d get an away jersey, the better to show spilled blood.
Having established my he-man bonafides, however, I write today in praise of the smile. More specifically, a smattering of Steeler smiles that light up my game days. I noticed it first with Hines Ward. I’m not sure how early it was in his career in the black and gold, but I remember thinking there must be something wrong with his facemask or his mouthguard, because his pearly whites were shining through. It wasn’t until the third or fourth time I saw them that I figured it out- Hines is smiling. From that point forward, however, I noticed that he was always smiling. It wasn’t just because of a big play. It was because he got to play. And, it helped me to embrace the smile to know that no one ever accused Hines Ward of being soft.
His retirement not only left a hole on the field, but a hole in the Smile Hall of Fame. It wasn’t long before a young wide-out from USC filled both spots. JuJu is a phenomenon for three reasons. First and least important, he is an adept at harnessing social media and hitching it to his brand. Second and most important, he is an adept at getting open and into the end zone. The man can play. In between though is the third reason- his enthusiasm for the game, evidenced in the TD celebrations, and in the smile. When he is having a great time, I’m having a great time.
Finally, there is Joe Haden. As with the first two, there is a connection between the power of the smile and the gifting of the player. But it works in both directions. That is, all three men smile, in part, because things are going, or went, well for them. Playing for the Steelers leads to success. But, they succeed, in part, because they enjoy the game. They love to play. Eric Liddle, the Scottish Olympian turned missionary, and subject of the Best Picture Oscar winner Chariots of Fire once said, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” I get what he is getting at. Though I’m no Olympic writer, when I write I feel God’s pleasure.
When these men take the field I am grateful. These days I watch Joe and Juju, while decked out in my Hines Ward gear. Their joy becomes my joy. Here’s hoping we have much more to smile about, through Thanksgiving, Christmas, the New Year and into February.