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The Renegade 2014: Letter from the Editor

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As Steelers coach Mike Tomlin says, "life is about rebounding." The soul of the 2014 Renegade is powered by the strength of one individual who taught me what that really means.

Life is about rebounding. The spirit of the 2014 Renegade comes from the efforts of a little girl who doesn't know what it means to quit.
Life is about rebounding. The spirit of the 2014 Renegade comes from the efforts of a little girl who doesn't know what it means to quit.

The Renegade was forged in the spirit of simple accomplishment. I wanted to start something and I wanted to finish it.

As I wrote in the Letter from the Editor, I wanted to see what I could do if I put all of myself into it, results be damned. I wanted to do it out of a fit of a combination of boredom and a sense of inferiority. I wanted to show my daughter, just a few months old at the time, I was capable of finishing something I started.

This year, I don't really care about any of that. She would eventually trump my best efforts.

Fitting with a yearly tradition, I was the victim of staffing cutbacks at my place of employment. I saw my industry's version of The Turk in November of 2013, my third layoff in three years, It was becoming clear things job-wise just weren't working out. As my dad says, "if you keep doing what you're doing, you'll keep getting the results you're getting."

I was able to land another job fairly quickly afterward, but the damage done over the last three years had taken its toll on me. I was sick of who I saw in the mirror, sick of the direction I was leading my family. The spirit in which the first Renegade was created seemed to have dissipated, leaving me with the same sense of despondence I had prior to it.

It was perhaps a bit easier last year than in previous years. For one, the Steelers had turned themselves into a charming group; a beacon of hope for people who dealt with their own version of an 0-4 start. Everyone can battle back to normal.

The trip I took to Green Bay in late December helped boost that feeling. Granted, I coasted back to town two hours before I needed to be at work, but that win provided me with the energy I would need.

Green Bay has no rival when it comes to game day experience. A phenomenal cultural event, I was greeted warmly by everyone I met, and was engulfed by the sense of history and tradition at the tiny town with an enormously popular football team. Everything just felt so positive, particularly strolling out of town with a huge win over a would-be division champion.

After that, the thoroughly disappointing season-ender could only be taken with such negativity if one was to throw an incredible second-half of 2014 performance over the rail. It was difficult to accept the Steelers missed the playoffs after such an exciting day, but I will aggressively defend my stance that it was one of the most exciting days I've ever witnessed as a football fan.

Everything was about the draft starting in January. The first two players I broke down, Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt (Steelers second round pick in 2014) and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier (their first round pick). I had also called out Martavis Bryant in November as the player Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert left Tigers Stadium talking about upon a trip there. I felt dialed in; as close to seeing what the team is seeing as I ever will. Nevermind that I said Tuitt was a first round pick, or my prediction the Steelers would take Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller with the 15th overall pick (he went 14th to Chicago).

Amid all this preparation in mid April for the draft that began May 7, I was working hard on a game plan. I needed to start marketing myself as well as the site. There has to be a reason the traffic on BTSC has tripled in the two years I've been in charge of it. Probably a loose connection with the fact I've been laid off three times in that same time frame, but let's not miss the obvious here. Maybe I'm not a financial services manager (or whatever it is I do). Maybe I should give this whole writing thing a serious shot.

There was only one place to go - Pittsburgh.

My wife and I decided we were moving. As Billy Joel said, "close the shop, sold the house and bought a ticket" to Steel City. I felt that surge of adrenaline finally return - the combination of laser-focus and confidence drowns out fear of change and displacement. I'm gonna do the writing thing. That's it. All-in, all out, I'm yelling "Timber!"

I just needed to hang onto the job from January through probably mid-May to get enough money together to make it happen. I have family in the area, we could stay with them until we got the money together.

Thanks to the surprise signing of free safety Mike Mitchell, the release of LaMarr Woodley and the farewell of Ryan Clark, the site reached record highs in terms of traffic in March. If I could get through April, May's numbers would likely exceed those from March and I'd be riding a wave through June and July to training camp - something I could attend, and provide live news while releasing the 2014 Renegade.

That was the plan. I was working hard and doing well at a job I really didn't like. I kept my eyes down the field, though. I wasn't going to be there much longer.

On April 18, I was plowing through my usual workload, unable to attend my daughter's 15-month well-check because I wasn't allowed to take days off (per my boss's boss, a woman for whom I wouldn't brake if she crossed in front of my car).

My wife's series of text messages kept me up to speed on the progress of the day.

"We're heading to the clinic now, appointment is at 10." I was only slightly annoyed she sent the message at 9:51 a.m., making it our ninth consecutive late appointment.

10:08 a.m.: "We're here now, in with the dr"

10:51 a.m.: "Ok, dr said nothing is wrong, but she wants Josie to get an ultrasound. Nothing to worry about."

12:05 p.m.: "You're going to have to call me right away."

I was just about to go to lunch and was hoping to write another story in that time. Instead, as I stood next to the revolving door leading outside on a muggy Spring afternoon, my wife told me we needed to meet with an oncologist in St. Paul immediately.

I'm still struggling to put into words that feeling. Terror. Too dull to panic, too disoriented to think clearly. You can see it like a footprint on the site. Between 5:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. ET April 18 there were 10 stories posted. Between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. April 19, there were 10 stories posted. And it was beyond difficult to write that.

I wrote about this draft scenario, or what that prospect said. All it read to me was "My 15-month-old daughter had cancer." I could have cared less about anything draft or site-related.

This is the entry on her Caring Bridge site we set up:

Josie was happily engaged in her favorite activity - harassing the dog - the evening of Thursday, April 17. We got home from dinner with Nanna and Pops to celebrate Nanna's and Jenni's birthdays.

She would yell in enjoyment petting the dog. While Ogie probably wouldn't describe the experience as "enjoyable," he moved around in a manner that would prevent his leg from being grabbed but still partake in the activity.

She seemed perfectly healthy.

Not even 17 hours later, we would be sitting with an oncologist at Children's Hospital in St. Paul, hearing terms like "malignant," and "Wilms Tumor" and "surgery."

Her primary care provider, Dr. Manolis, noticed something during her 15-month check, which led to an ultrasound. The results of that ultrasound showed a tumor of approximately three inches growing on her left kidney. They believed it to be malignant, and said surgery would be required to remove the tumor, and her kidney and adrenal gland.

Time is a gradual ascent; change comes slowly. Dripping and rushing water can carve a canyon out of rock over a period of thousands of years. This news came immediately via a sit-down discussion that took about 10 minutes, and it will change the lives of at least three people - Jenni, Neal and Josie - forever.

While we stare down the physical manifestation of evil within the human system, we respect the awesome power of nature and how humbling the feeling of powerlessness creates. We also recognize, in life, staring down that evil, our greatest accomplishments are achieved when faced with adversity.

It's a question of how we respond to that adversity.

Josie has a three-inch tumor that has completely suffocated the functioning ability of her right kidney. She still smiles brightly and screams enthusiastically as a normal, healthy kid because, instead of succumbing to her affliction, she grew her right kidney and adrenal gland to handle the responsibility of their left-side counterparts.

At 15 months, she took her proverbial lemons and made lemonade. We will follow her example, now and forever.

She will survive. (Wilms Tumor has over a 90% cure rate) She will grow strong and thrive in this world. She likely won't remember any of this, not even the blood pressure machine she hates so much. When she encounters her weaker moments, we're going to tell her the story about the little girl who had a bum kidney. Instead of suffering with two, she made one stronger and kept living.

Doctors identified the Wilms Tumor, a surgeon will remove it, and her kidney and adrenal gland, on Thursday, April 24, and she will begin her rise back to full life status.

She'll probably do it quicker than doctors expect, too. She's got a dog to harass.

There's a huge image of Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway adorning the back wall of the Geek Squad station inside Children's Hospital in Minneapolis. In it, patients and families can rent X-Boxes and games through his "Chad's Lockers" program. We walked past it while hauling our stuff for what looked to be a four or five night stay. After bringing the first wave of stuff to the room, I went back to the car to get more, but stopped into the Geek Squad station out of curiosity.

The guy working there told me all about it, a cool program in conjunction with Best Buy, they supply the equipment for families to rent, but Greenway sunk a huge amount of capital in it to get it moving. He's known for this around Minneapolis and his native South Dakota. Childhood cancer seems to be high on his list of charitable priorities.

I've always applauded that sort of thing, much like I'm sure you do. Until you're met with it directly, you can't see the power such charity can produce. As BTSC's Bryan DeArdo recently wrote, Brett Keisel does something similar to this in Pittsburgh, and the enormity of his impact cannot be stressed enough.

Still in a funk, I walked to the car and back to the room thinking I was compelled to stop in there because I needed some kind of hope. I needed something to help push me forward. I walked down the hall to our room, and just happened to notice a sign on the door of one of the rooms.

It was a screen shot of Mike Tyson's Punch Out, with Little Mac decking Glass Joe with a Star Punch. Above Little Mac's head was a name plate, "Jonah." And above Glass Joe was another name plate.

"Leukemia."

At the top of the picture was a title, "Jonah's gonna knock Leukemia out!!!" signed by several people.

I peeked inside the room, and saw what looked like your standard family home living room. Comforters and colorful pillow cases. Boxes of crackers and candy. A Greenway-provided X-Box. On the table was a picture of who I assumed to be little Jonah along with his mom and dad, flanked to one side with Greenway. The picture was obviously taken inside the hospital.

I had to fight back tears and compose myself before someone noticed me basically entering what was essentially their home. This kid, no more than five years old, was battling Leukemia. In reality, Josie was the one fighting Glass Joe, Jonah had Tyson himself swinging those massive uppercuts.

We were checking in for a few days. This family was clearly checked in for the long term, and my family's issues paled in comparison.

We sat in a prep room for hours. Josie couldn't eat or drink anything, and was clearly famished by noon. She was supposed to go into surgery at 11 a.m. She took on her father's unpleasant demeanor when not properly fed and was getting to the point it was like she was channeling dad's rage when thinking about the officiating during the Steelers' win over Oakland in 2010, or Kris Brown's four missed field goals against Baltimore in 2001.

She was sedated and we were escorted out of the OR, leaving us free to do nothing. We had several hours to kill and no desire to do anything. We sat in the waiting room, dozed off, charged our cell phones, doing nothing at all.

Occupying one's mind to something other than the reason one is there is essentially impossible. Focus is granular, straying from that one topic of thought is impossible. Time didn't move slowly, but it moved deliberately, and you notice every tick of the red second hand on that sterile, generic hospital clock. Totally quiet, but far from at peace.

Just waiting. Life frozen in time for a moment yet to come. Nothing to do until then but watch the clock.

The surgeon, David Schmeling, came out a few hours before we were told to expect. I saw him turn the corner into our view, and relying on the instincts TV and movies have taught me, I knew the fact he was out of surgery hours before we were told it would last was a bad thing.

Instead, he told us immediately the surgery was a complete success. They were going to keep her for observation but the prognosis was now the absolute best it could be.

An entirely new perspective hit me. Joy, optimism but one giant, life-altering change. I can never unknow what I know now. Certain things in life push you to the brink of sanity, to the edge of meaning. When you get to that edge, you can only back away from it or leap into the abyss. Either way, you have no clue what you were doing before you got to that point.

I have backed away but I'll never be the same. Maybe Josie won't either.

Odd as this seems, my thoughts wandered to the 2013 Renegade. I had written the intro letter about me wanting to show my daughter her dad was capable of dreaming big and following through on the work it would take to make that dream a reality. Granted, the creation of The Renegade doesn't exactly stand tall among other accomplishments I've had in life, but I realized The Renegade wasn't what I was creating.

It was simply a byproduct of what I should be creating.

I wrote last year about wanting to show her to follow through. I wrote it a year too early. Maybe I wrote it subconsciously predicting the events that would unfold for me and my family over the next nine months. Was I supposed to show her to dream big by writing what's essentially a collection of the same kinds of things I write on BTSC every day? Or was it something more than that.

How can I show her to truly dream big unless I'm willing to take that risk? The story she'll hear won't be the one about me following through on a goal to create a season preview publication.

The one she's going to hear is about how her mom and dad buckled down at the absolute basement of our lives, packed up, moved to Pittsburgh and worked their asses off to realize their dreams.

We were moving to Pittsburgh.

With that, we are moving to Pittsburgh. Literally, as you're reading this, I am in a car trucking down the highway, Springsteen blaring on the stereo, ready to begin work with a new company for a job that, amazingly, was offered to me after we had decided we were moving.

With the decision to move made, with the offer letter in hand, I mentioned all of this to Todd Steward, a radio personality at 92.3 The Valley's Sports Leader ESPN Radio in Selinsgrove, Pa. He had asked how my daughter was doing, so I gave him the latest.

He then offered me a weekly radio show on the station, as well as credentials to cover the team for the station in 2014. This will begin in the near future, but not after I get my daughter settled into her new home.

I'm proud to announce, for the first time in site history, BTSC Headquarters will be within the Pittsburgh area, and it will greatly expand the amount of original content it provides. The plan is to work the site in concert with the radio gig, increasing the volume and the depth of content that already makes it the most read Steelers fan site on the Internet. Through the brilliant work of previous BTSC editor Michael Bean, we will provide unique video content as well, setting up the remainder of 2014 as easily the best year the site has ever had.

We're well on our way to that already, likely to surpass 2013's traffic numbers sometime during September.

Getting knocked on your ass can generate enough momentum and motive to rise up and punch back. Little Mac is punching Mike Tyson for little Jonah. We're going to punch too.

I thank God for Dr. Manolis, Dr. Schmeiling, amazing family and friends, those at SB Nation who helped me, readers who stumbled upon the Caring Bridge page and reached out to me with their prayers and support. And most of all, an extraordinary little girl who simply doesn't know what it means to struggle.

Most patients need three days to recover from surgery. Josie climbed out of her hospital bed not even 24 hours after surgeons removed her kidney. She was sick of the feeding tube snaked through her nose into her stomach, so she yanked it out.

Then laughed about it.

Whatever it is I'm teaching her isn't anywhere near what she's teaching me. Sometimes something stands in your way. You do something about it. It's as simple as that. The feeding tube sucks, so you yank it out. Momentary discomfort forcefully removed for the sake of long term laughter.

I don't know the fate of poor little Jonah. I don't want to know, although I think I do. Josie will hear that story as well. Even in bad luck, we are lucky. And even in crisis, a higher point can be reached.

We're excited to add more credentialed reporters to Heinz Field on game day (John Phillips will add to the fantastic work Dale Grdnic has done since last year). We're excited for a re-branding of sorts on our podcast, "The Standard is The Standard," which will be led by Jeff Hartman.

As for me, I'm excited to be moving. I'm excited for the direction of the site as well as my family. I'm excited to write The Renegade next year, hopefully telling a story of ginormous success. I'm excited to work with the new BTSC staff and excited to guide them toward another record-setting year that will end with BTSC, again, being the most viewed Steelers fan site on the Internet.

I'm excited.

It's going to be a good year. Thank you for all your support, we get the feeling we're going to be writing about the Steelers' next game well into January, 2015.

NEAL