I’m not going to lie, in the hours leading up to The Hangover, the Steelers-themed podcast I co-host each week with Bryan Anthony Davis, I break out into a cold, cold sweat—at least lately, that is.
Because, since it’s summer and there isn’t a ton of news, I’m always afraid Bryan is going to ask me about those Steelers underdogs—you know, the players on the very fringe of the roster? These are the guys that are most eligible to win the Isaac Redman Award, named after the former running back who rose from obscurity to capture the hearts and imaginations of Steelers fans everywhere (at least on social media).
As BTSC fanpost writer Toronto Steeler Fan put it two years ago in an article I literally just found while writing this one: “The Isaac Redman Award is unofficially given each year to the unheralded Steelers player who came from the furthest reaches of obscurity to reach general heightened fame among Steelers fans.”
So who are the really good candidates for the award this year? Don’t ask me, I haven’t looked. I just can’t bring myself to do this, to study these really obscure players.
I tried once or twice, like the time I wrote my own little piece about unheralded players following the 2013 NFL Draft (mostly for laughs). However, since I focused only on the actual draft class, people were like, “Not obscure enough to qualify for the Isaac Redman Award!!!!!!!!”
To reiterate, if you really want obscure, I’m afraid I can’t help you there.
But isn’t ignorance what makes a true underdog story all the more special?
One year after arriving in the NFL as an undrafted free agent who initially tried to make the Eagles roster as a defensive end, do you think Alejandro Villanueva, a former war hero and defensive end/receiver/offensive lineman for the Army Black Knights, was on anyone’s radar as a candidate for the Isaac Redman Award when he reported to Steelers training camp in the summer of 2015?
If he was, more power to you. As for me, I don’t remember hearing much about the guy, other than his remarkable history as a decorated Army Ranger who served several tours of duty in Afghanistan. Today, Villanueva’s story is truly inspirational. But why? Because he made the Steelers roster in 2015. A year later, he was a full-time starting left-tackle entrusted with protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside. He’s now a decorated football player after making the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons.
Had he not reached such heights as a professional football player, Villanueva’s Wikipedia Page (if he even had one) probably wouldn’t contain a detailed account of his military and football history.
That’s the beauty of the underdog beating the odds and becoming a household name.
Speaking of war heroes and NFL underdogs, do you think anyone really gave a hill of beans about Rocky Bleier in the early ’70s when he was desperately trying to make the Steelers roster as a running back while simultaneously working hard to recover from a very serious foot injury he suffered after being wounded on the front-lines in Vietnam?
Yeah, sure, in Fighting Back, the 1980 made for TV movie starring the late Robert Urich, Bleier is the center of attention; people spend the entire film saying things like, “I really have my doubts about that guy!” But the likely reality was that Bleier was just another obscure football player that nobody would have ever heard of had he not, well, fought all the way back to make the Steelers roster and win four Super Bowls.
Same held true for Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger (no way did the entire Notre Dame football team volunteer to sit out so Rudy could play in his final game), Vince Papale (special teams players don’t get to date Elizabeth Banks) and Rocky Balboa (I don’t care what anyone says, the Italian Stallion was a real person)!
Antonio Brown is arguably the greatest wide receiver in Steelers history. But in 2010, he was just another sixth-round pick—and not even the most note-worthy (that would have been running back Jonathan Dwyer. He was a great value pick—”Why Jonathan Dwyer could be the steal of the draft,” I’m sure someone wrote that summer).
In more recent years, we spent a lot of time obsessing over Senquez Golson’s various injuries, not realizing that Mike Hilton, a 2016 undrafted free agent and former teammate of Golson’s at Ole Miss, would come along and fill the role of slot corner—and do so to great acclaim.
No, I’m not the man to ask about those unheralded players, but if you do want to know about them, you need to read the articles published by our very own F.S. “Flip” Fisher, as he’s been doing a fantastic job showcasing them.
Maybe one of these fringe roster hopefuls will one day have a made for TV movie produced about how he beat the odds to become a decent-to-good player. Maybe one of them will even pull a James Harrison and become an All-Pro.
At any rate, I can’t wait to be pleasantly surprised.