Fresh out of the football powerhouse that isn't, Hofstra University, Steelers fourth-round draft pick Willie Colon got on the practice field as a right tackle in 2009. The Steelers had left the last field they were on as Super Bowl champions, having defeated the Seattle Seahawks and captured the franchise's fifth Super Bowl title.
Across from the rookie Colon was Aaron Smith, the quiet, working-man's leader of a defense spurred on by several leaders and a boat-load of talent.
Colon always followed Smith. Colon kept quiet, wanting to learn from the experienced veterans of that well-balanced Steelers team. The 2006 season went south quickly, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger having nearly been killed in a motorcycle accident followed by an emergency appendectomy that cost him Week 1. As that team transferred out of the Bill Cowher Era in Pittsburgh, the reloading process was underway with Colon being one of the figureheads. The team moved Max Starks from right tackle to left and Colon was inserted on the right side to protect Roethlisberger.
The Steelers' offensive line had perhaps its best day ever in pass protection in Week 8 vs. the Colts.
The two would eventually become close friends, with Colon even serving as a groomsman at Roethlisberger's wedding. If Colon and Roethlisberger were fast friends, Smith made Colon sweat. Day after day, pounding away on him in practice.
Colon spoke with NJ.com writer Darryl Slater in advance of the Jets game vs. Colon's former team, the Steelers, Saturday. In a very telling Q&A, there's a sense of nostalgia in Colon's words, as well as excitement to be playing so close to his hometown. Ultimately, the lessons Smith taught him stick with him to this day.
"He was just a man’s man," Colon said of Smith, who retired after the 2011 season. "The man was just all heart and guts. I played against him every day in practice and he’d never take it easy on me. If I got after him, he got after me even harder. He was just the ultimate guy of taking his work seriously. To this day, there are times when I think about him. I think about the lessons he taught me. I think about how he approached the game."
Colon may be finished after this season. After spending a season with the Steelers as their left guard, he suffered a season-ending injury toward the end of the 2012 season (one of three season-ending injuries he'd suffer as a member of the Steelers). Then, he signed a one-year deal with the Jets. They brought him back for the 2014 season, but it isn't going well in terms of his play on the field. Colon is part of a porous Jets' pass-protection unit that has surrendered 25 sacks in nine games - the fourth-highest total in the league (Pittsburgh is tied for seventh with 23).
The 1-8 Jets host the 6-3 Steelers at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in a game that's more for the Jets' coaching staff to showcase something for what likely will be an off-season of job hunting. The Jets are a capable team, as all teams are in the NFL, but their goal is different than that of the playoff-hopeful Steelers. Colon is a mirror of that. He may perform well enough to earn himself another year in the NFL, but it likely won't be in New York if another coaching staff is hired (which is expected at this point). It ended similarly for Smith, who was released and didn't find anything enticing enough in free-agency to continue his career.
At least he can know the impact he made on Colon who, if not for injuries, could have continued a career as one of the better right tackles in the game. Now, he'll protect the A-gap from the Steelers' high-energy blitz scheme. He may not get the same challenge as he did from Smith back in the day, but his former team won't take it any easier on him than Smith did.
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