Monday night was the dress rehearsal for my Christmas concerts, beginning this weekend here in the Burgh. After we finished up, one of the singers, Joshua Mulkey, came up to me and said "What are you doing tomorrow night?" He went on to explain that he was a finalist in the Fear Da Beard competition, and would I like to accompany him to chronicle the event for my readership?
Naturally, I wouldn't let you all down by refusing! And thus I found myself pulling up to the Sheraton in Station Square for the 2014 65-Roses Sports Auction. But first, I had a look at the website to see what the dress code would be.
What I found was a bit mystifying. This is a quote:
"Attire: Business casual is preferred, but Steelers attire is welcome."
When I sent this quote to Josh, he responded with confusion. He couldn't work out what the distinction between 'business casual' and 'Steelers attire' was supposed to be.
I too was in a quandary. I have a white Polamalu road jersey (formal,) a Polamalu t-shirt with a quote from Galatians (casual,) and various types of home jerseys [Roethlisberger, Miller, and Joey Porter]—semi-formal. Exactly where does "business casual" fit into this? And does anyone really know what "business casual" is, anyhow, other than bathing suits are probably out?
In the end, I dressed in tasteful black with my ruffled Steelers lady scarf, and I didn't get thrown out, so I guess I did okay.
One unexpected treat was that each attendee received a football to take through an autograph line. I'm not a big autograph person, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to a) see some of the guys up close and personal and b) thereby acquire a Christmas present for one of my children, at no expense. But first, I think you need to see the beard which brought these good things to pass:
I'm afraid the beard is rather lost in the shadows, but you'll see more of it in a moment.
We were almost the last people in the autograph line, and so had no idea who, other than Brett Keisel, would be signing our rather handsome pleather (or so I assume) footballs. But as we actually got into the room, the array was breathtaking. Headlined by Keisel and his buddy Ben Roethlisberger, the lineup also included heartthrob and pulling-TE-extraordinaire Heath Miller, pulling-guard-even-more-extraordinaire David DeCastro, co-chair and increasingly- awesome-DE Cameron Heyward, DT and seriously-big-man-who-appears-to-be-key-to-stopping-the-run Steve McLendon, BTSC-whipping boy-but-apparently-nice-guy Cam Thomas, rapidly-improving OT Mike Adams, and a couple of mystery white guys. After some detective work, I identified said men-of-mystery as DE Ethan Hemer and DL Joe Kruger, both practice squad members.
I had the opportunity to tell Keisel that I cried when he left the field in obvious pain, and how much he would be missed. He was, as you might expect, gracious. But really they all were, although David DeCastro was a bit disconcerted to find Ramon Foster had revealed that he shot a deer this past week, and wasn't sure what to say. Luckily, (or perhaps unluckily for Foster) this revelation occurred as I was driving to the event on Foster's weekly 93.7 The Fan radio show. I won't even tell you the more intriguing details about Foster's revelation—you'll have to go on the website and listen for yourself : )
During the dinner, the big moment came—the competitors were invited up to the stage for the competition. I was fortunate enough to be at the table with the defending champion, Joel Hollies, and here is a picture of his very righteous beard:
That's a lot of competition to overcome, but I felt that Team Camerata (as I've just now named it) had an advantage—of all the beards, only Josh's was black. I personally thought this fact might have been accentuated by, say, gold ribbons braided into it, but since there was so little notice, such winning details only occurred to me after it was too late.
The gentlemen filed onstage and Brett Keisel appeared to be overcome with emotion at the sight of so much bearded beauty. He then took the microphone and talked about how much his work with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation had meant to him over the years, announcing his concern that this tradition be carried on. Therefore he had asked Cameron Heyward to be the co-chair with him this year, in the expectation Heyward would carry on the tradition in the years to come. As was noted by more than one person, Heyward's beard has a long way to go, but he asked everyone to be patient with him : )
Heyward then asked for the microphone and thanked everyone for the opportunity to be involved. I have long considered him to be a sensible and solid young man, and clearly Brett Keisel views him as his heir-apparent in more than one way. It was very moving to see a well-loved and respected veteran visibly passing the torch, and I look for great things from Heyward, both on the field and on the chin, in years to come.
The moment of truth could no longer be delayed. Brett Keisel had to make his choice. And in the end Team Camerata went down to the guy wearing the Keisel jersey. You can bet our team is looking to acquire a Cameron Heyward jersey without delay : ) Here's a look at the finalists:
There was one other gentlemen with a beautifully manicured beard who doesn't appear in this picture. Unfortunately, the light was not kind to my camera, and I couldn't get very close, so most of the pictures I took were not usable.
But as I noted in the title, what the event really did was to get me thinking about how lucky we are as a fan base. I know that there are great guys on every team in the NFL and that they perform a lot of community service. But I do think something which is fairly unique to this franchise is the feeling that players are expected to not only 'give back' to the community but to each other.
Jerricho Cotchery, another upstanding man who I was very sorry to see leave, commented on this as one of the reasons he chose to sign with the Steelers. Veterans routinely mentor new players, knowing full well that the guys they help may replace them, long before they are ready to hang up their cleats. As I wrote in a long-ago article:
Right tackle Willie Colon injured his Achilles tendon prior to the 2010 season, and could have chosen to rehab elsewhere. Instead, he remained in Pittsburgh, stumping around training camp under the blazing sun on a walking cast and offering his advice.
Offensive line coach Sean Kugler asked Colon to give a weekly scouting report on each opponent for the season. Ramon Foster noted "[He] never slacked off on it. He gave us a lot of insight."
Rookie Center Maurkice Pouncey gave a great deal of credit to Justin Hartwig's mentoring last summer for his rapid assimilation of the playbook. Hartwig's generosity was rewarded by Pouncey becoming the starter, making Hartwig expendable.
Aaron Smith and Ziggy Hood perfectly demonstrate this "team first" attitude. Smith's injury last season gave Hood a starting slot. It would be understandable if he hoped to retain it. Yet Scott Brown reports: "Hood said he has no problem accepting a lesser role if Smith is healthy. 'Splitting time or [Smith] starting would not upset me at all because we're trying to make this team better.'"
Smith said "My ego's not so big that I feel like I have to play every snap. Whatever they think is best for this team, I'm willing to do."
We saw this in the game last Sunday when veteran corner Ike Taylor benched himself, with the agreement of the coaches, because he felt he was doing more harm than good by being on the field. Not what one would expect out of "Swaggin'" Ike Taylor, but exactly what you would expect from a team culture which puts the good of the whole ahead of the egos and feelings of the individuals. It was little wonder the veterans reportedly wanted LeGarrette Blount gone.
And no one exemplifies the culture and ethos of the Steelers like Brett Keisel. He was never a flashy player—he plays a position which generally accords the player little individual recognition. He took a good deal less money to come back to the Steelers than he could have made with the Cardinals, despite the fact the Steelers let him walk. Here are a few quotes from my 2013 Character (Ac)Counts article on Keisel:
Keisel loves to hunt and fish. He is even featured on the cover of the latest issue of The Backwoodsman.
He decided to parley this love for the outdoors into an opportunity for some of the kids at Children's Hospital, as detailed by this June 2013 article:
"Ted Zablocki heard the horror stories about professional athletes and, frankly, was quite turned off by them.
'How some of them are, you don't want them to be a role model to your kids,' Zablocki said.
Brett Keisel doesn't fall into that category.
The Steelers Pro Bowl defensive end hosted four boys ages 9-14 from Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC at the Alpine Hunting and Fishing Club of Bridgeville for a VIP fishing outing unlike anything they'd done before.
One of those boys was Ted Zablocki's 9 year-old son Wesley."
No amount of money contributed to a program, however needed the funds, can touch the life of a child in comparison to the giving of your time.
Keisel is not only a role model for the youth of the community. His unrelenting hard work and determination are models for his young teammates, as detailed in this June 7th Post Gazette article. After naming the '08ers' (the 12 remaining players with a ring from the 08 Super Bowl, Ed Bouchette notes the following:
Keisel hasn't missed a spring practice, even though several of the other '08ers on defense have gone missing, including Polamalu since his appearance the first week.
"This is my home, I live just up the street," Keisel said. "This is my team, I feel like. I think it's important for me to be here. We have a lot of young defensive linemen; I want to show them that even an old guy can come out here and work, even an old guy can go into the weight room and practice. If I can do it, they can do it."
Keisel is one of the earliest players I learned to recognize when I first became a fan, and he's one who's going to remain in my heart long after he officially hangs up his cleats. Part of the joy of rooting for this franchise is the opportunity to be inspired by men like him. May the generous spirit of "da Beard" live on in future generations of Steelers.