The Good Guys: Roxanna Firehall tackles the receivers
This week, I tackle the wide receivers. Through the seasons, the Steelers have been blessed with wideouts who are winners in the game of life and have what it takes to earn a spot on Going Deep’s Good Guys:
(5). Sammie Coates.
Yes, I know. Sammie Coates has caught one ball in the NFL. His resume as a player is shorter Danny Woodhead standing in a sinkhole. You know what, I don’t care. I love this kid. The whole point of this series is to celebrate the character, the characters and the great players who have impressed me as men. Sammie is a man of character.
Sammie was a third round draft choice in the 2015 draft. He is fast and appears to be motivated to get better. He’s worked hard, both at the college level and now with the Steelers. But that, my friends, just scratches the surface.
No doubt, it’s too early to glean much about Sammie the player. However, Sammie is already an all-pro human being. I’d love to write a whole article on Sammie, but Rebecca beat me to it. In her piece, Character (Ac)Counts: Wide Receiver Sammie Coates, she describes how he became a “big brother” to Kenzie Ray, an 11 year old girl battling leukemia. Sammie met her my chance outside the locker room after a game. They became close friends, with Sammie calling and visiting her regularly. When Kenzie contracted pneumonia and was in danger of dying, he went to her bedside and stayed for hours. Sammie checks in regularly with Kenzie, providing her with support and encouragement.
According to a Sports Illustrated feature, Sammie graduated from Auburn in 3 1/2 years, earning a degree in public administration. He is currently working on his Masters while playing for the Steelers. Impressive stuff from a kid who had to scrounge food from classmates and use scholarship checks to pay for food and bills, a kid who lost his father to an industrial accident when he was eleven years old.
I am rooting for Sammie to make it big for the Steelers. Whatever may happen, he’ll do well. He already has.
(4). Antwaan Randle El.
Some call him ARE. Some call him El. Nobody seems to call him Antwaan (why is that?). I call him terrific.
The Steelers drafted El in the second round of the 2002 draft. He was a 5’10” quarterback from Indiana University who also played basketball for Bobby Knight and was drafted to play baseball by the Chicago Cubs. Because of his height (or lack thereof), he developed as a receiver and a kick returner. ARE had great hands, great speed, and intelligence. Bill Cowher and later, Mike Tomlin utilized all of his skills, using him to return punts and kickoffs, and playing wide receiver.
While El was with the Steelers, he was the master of the “gadget” play. Any time he was on the field, he was a threat to run or pass the ball. His most famous play came in Super Bowl XL; a 43 yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward off a reverse handoff. He became the first and is still the only receiver ever to throw a TD in a Super Bowl.
ARE was so accomplished at so-called trick plays, that he has the highest QB rating of any player attempting twenty or more passes—156.1.
El was the epitome of grace and class. I had the chance to meet him at one autograph show and observe him at another. He was gracious and accommodating to his fans, as well as being quite the entertainer, trading barbs with Hines Ward, who was signing at the next table.
Since his retirement, he has worked as a sideline reporter for the Big Ten Network. He has also earned a Master’s degree from Washington University. He now spends a good deal of time operating the El (Everlasting Love) Foundation, based in Pittsburgh, which offers a hand up to underprivileged young people. ARE sees his charitable work as a natural extension of his religious faith and his success as an athlete.
1. Antonio Brown, John Stallworth and Hines Ward.
The above three names are listed alphabetically, because I cannot do it. I can’t. I cannot choose my favorite Steeler wideout. Typically, I’m opinionated, especially on my Steelers, but choosing one of these guys over the other is impossible. They are three extraordinary human beings. They are all my favorite.
If you are reading this, you are likely already acquainted with the football accomplishments of these three men. Antonio Brown is an all-pro, touted by many as the best receiver in the game today. John Stallworth, a Hall of Famer, played for all four Super Bowl teams in the 1970s. Hines Ward broke most of Stallworth’s career receiving record and played in three Super Bowls, winning two.
It occurs to me that, had this trio all been journeymen receivers, they would still be my favorite Steeler receivers. Each in their own way, has distinguished himself through his character and accomplishments, exclusive of the receptions and touchdowns.
Antonio Brown is still writing his middle and final chapters as a player. His stature as a man is already firmly established. AB grew up in Liberty City, an area of Miami infamous for for its drugs, crime and violence. At age 16, he was told to leave his house by his new stepfather, who didn’t want him around. Though he lived on his own, AB refused to fall victim to the mean streets. He persevered, making the football team as a walk-on at Central Michigan and rising to stardom with the Steelers. Rebecca did her usual excellent job in telling AB’s story in an article which you can read here.
Amazingly, AB refuses to resent his family issues. He has repaired his relationships with his father and his mother. His willingness to forgive and to understand the failures of his parents is indicative of his strong faith in God and a wisdom which belies his youth.
Antonio was a sixth round pick in 2010. After only two years, the Steelers signed him to a lucrative five year contract. At the time, the move looked risky, a signing motivated because Pittsburgh was unable to sign their star receiver, Mike Wallace. Whether it was accident or design, the contract was the bargain of the century, as AB is outperforming his deal and surpassing Wallace by far.
Antonio is spectacular; I think he’s the best wide receiver in the NFL. He is the leader of the young receiving corps and has been a positive influence on Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Sammy Coates. He plays aggressively, with passion and joy. If he maintains his health, he may prove to be the best receiver to ever play.
John Stallworth was a prolific pass catcher in the days when the running game was the prime offensive weapon. The fact that Stallworth was able to amass over 8,700 yards while playing with Lynn Swann, Louis Lipps, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier in a run oriented offense in impressive. Had Stallworth played in the offenses of today, he might still own most of the Steeler career receiving records.
Like AB and Hines, he is an accomplished man, much more than a great football player. According to a Sports Illustrated article, he contracted a viral infection when he was eight. The illness left him temporarily paralyzed on the left side. Even when he recovered young John was clumsy and uncoordinated. He overcame these obstacles, becoming a star at Alabama A &M, before a 14 year, Hall of Fame career in Pittsburgh. Upon retirement, he founded Madison Research Company, a multi-million dollar corporation. In 2009, he became a part owner of the Steelers at the invitation of Dan Rooney.
Stallworth was blessed with intelligence and judgement which he used to build a highly successful business. His business acumen enabled his philanthropy. John’s foundation has provided more than $350,000 in scholarship funds for students to attend his alma mater and other schools. Stallworth continues to be active in charitable causes in Huntsville, Alabama, his hometown, where he is recognized a a community leader.
John carried himself with grace and dignity. For years, he played in the shadow of Lynn Swann, a flashier and more heralded receiver from USC. I gravitated more towards Stallworth, quieter and less celebrated. Both were supremely talented, but I really admired John’s placid, humble personality. In the end, Stallworth had the longer and more productive career.
Pretty much all of Stallworth’s career records were broken by Hines Ward, the Steelers’ third round pick in the 1998 draft. At the University of Georgia, Ward played receiver, tailback and quarterback.
Hines worked tirelessly for charitable causes. His foundation, Helping Hands, promotes literacy for underprivileged kids in America and helping biracial children in Korea, who often face discrimination. Hines credits his mother with inspiring the foundation. You can read a NBC interview on the foundation.
When he retired, Hines had 1000 catches, eighth all-time among NFL receivers. On the field, Number 86 was a fan favorite. We all enjoyed, not just the catches, but the bone-jarring blocks. There were many, among them, the jaw breaking hit on Bengals’ Keith Rivers in 2008 and the crushing downfield blocks on Ravens Ed Reed and Bart Scott.
No. 86 played with an uncommon intensity and joy. He wasn’t the largest or fastest receiver, but his ability to get open, catch the ball in traffic and fight off tackles made him a legend. He was named MVP in Super Bowl XL, catching a TD pass thrown by WR Antwaan Randle El and sealing the victory over the Seahawks.
The fans loved Hines Ward. That wide beaming smile was always evident whether he made a catch, delivered a downfield block or absorbed a jarring hit by an opponent. He wore his emotions on his sleeve. There were tears of sadness when Jerome Bettis retired and when he announced his own; tears of joy celebrating the SB wins over Seattle and Arizona.
In retirement, he won Dancing With the Stars. Not my cup of tea, but he won. He now works as football commentator for NBC.
These three men, each different, yet each is sublimely successful. No one would be surprised if Ward and Brown joined Stallworth in Canton. All three have proven their mettle as men of character, compassionate people who came up the hard way and now give back to their communities.
If you can choose among them, have at it in the comments. I’m content to savor the character and careers of AB, Hines and Stallworth. As a fan, that’s pure gold.