The Steeler way — Aaron, Da Beard and Cam. DEs, part 2.
We continue the “Steelers Way—Good Guys” series with a look at three defensive ends from the present and recent past. I admit to a bias toward the old school players, but these three men would be heroes in any era.
I was never a big Aaron Smith fan. I don’t mean that in the sense that I didn’t like him. It was more that I didn’t take much notice of the guy. He was quiet, almost morose and rarely quoted. He wasn’t gregarious like Keisel. He didn’t have the gravitas or a nickname like Big Snack. If Smith had a nickname, it would probably be John.
TV broadcasters didn’t talk about Smith much. He was busy eating up blockers while the Steeler LBs got all the tackles and sacks. That’s how you play Coach LeBeau’s 3-4 defense. The defensive line has no glory position. Although he excelled at his position, Aaron went to only one Pro Bowl, primarily because he played in the 3-4 scheme. Usually, Pro Bowl defensive ends are chosen from 4-3 defenses because they get to make plays. Smith toiled in relative obscurity, doing his job, doing it well and doing it quietly.
The last time I laid eyes on Smith was at training camp on a hot, muggy August afternoon. It proved to be Smith’s last camp as a player. No. 91 was coming back from a torn rotator cuff in 2009 and a torn triceps in 2010. Having missed 23 games over those two years, Smith was working like a field hand in the hot sun. The 35 year old veteran hitting the blocking sled, trying rebuild his strength in order to play a 13th season.
Oddly, my eyes were riveted on Aaron Smith. Though I took little notice of him before that day, I was mesmerized by the veteran, doggedly pounding his body into the sled over and over. Smith’s grimace showed no trace of joy or satisfaction, yet he kept at it, even as the other players left the practice field. Looking back, I can only imagine how much Aaron wanted to keep playing ball.
Smith sealed the deal as a good guy in the way he went out. Unfortunately, he suffered a neck injury in 2011, after playing in only four games. For the third consecutive year, Aaron finished the season on injured reserve. The following March, Smith was released.
Bitterness, or at least awkwardness, might be expected with the release of a player who played thirteen years for the same team. There was none of that from Aaron Smith. Upon his release, he took out a full page ad in the Post-Gazette to publish an open letter to the Steelers fans. The letter, linked in full here, said in closing:
You cheered for me for 13 years and now I cheer for you for the rest of my life. You will always be in my heart, thoughts and prayers. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to have the job of a lifetime. You will always be in my heart.
Aaron Smith embodied the concept of team. He willingly did the dirty work essential to the success Dick LeBeau’s defensive scheme. As he celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Steelers win in Super Bowl XL with his line mates (full article linked here), he said:
“That was a pretty good group,” Smith said of himself, Keisel and Hampton. “We did what we were asked, and took pride in it.”
I love his observation — no “I.” He took pride in the “we.”
Aaron Smith was black and gold, all the way. Mostly gold.
For much of his career, Smith’s bookend on the defensive line was no. 99, Bret Keisel. Smith and Keisel were similar players in that they excelled at doing what the scheme required—they held their ground and used up blockers, creating room for the linebackers to make plays.
Keisel attended Brigham Young University after graduating from Greybull (WY) High School. Pittsburgh selected him in the 7th round, the 242nd player taken in the 2002 draft.
Early in his career, Keisel played on special teams. It is unusual for DEs to play on the kickoff team, but Keisel loved it. He had a ball as a 6’5″, 285 pound wedge buster.
Da Beard was not a quiet man like Smith. Keisel was gregarious, with a quick, easy smile. He loved to fire up the crowd, waving a terrible towel and exhorting the yinzers to raise the noise level.
Jim Wexell recalls one of Da Beard’s breakout games in the run-up to Super Bowl XL. In an article linked here, Wexell wrote:
The Steelers had a 27-17 lead when the Broncos got the ball back with 6:12 remaining. On third-and-3, Keisel sacked Jake Plummer for a seven-yard loss. Back in the huddle, Joey Porter exhorted the unit to stick the dagger in. “This is the game. This is the game,” Porter kept repeating, and Keisel responded. He sacked Plummer again by forcing a fumble which Travis Kirschke recovered, and the Steelers were off to the Super Bowl.
Keisel was still a backup, playing behind Kimo von Ohlhoffen, Wexell recalled. His brilliant play down the stretch signaled the beginning of his career as a starter alongside Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith, the Steelers’ best ever 3-4 defensive line.
Many remember Da Beard’s signature arrivals at training camp. In 2012, he showed up at training camp in a huge red tractor, announcing he was ready to work. Keisel upped the ante in 2013, when he drove a black and gold dump truck, pictured here, to the St. Vincent training facility.
I’ll always look at Keisel as sort of the bridge from the recent Super Bowl teams—SB XL, XLIII and XLV—to the present era, which hopefully will have its own Super Bowl history. He was a very large part in the development of Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
In 2014, it looked very much like the Steelers were ready to move on. Keisel’s contract had expired and training camp started without him, even though he expressed a interest in playing another year.
Recognizing that the young defensive line was not yet ready to forge ahead without veteran leadership, Keisel was signed at age 36 on August 19, 2014, much to the delight to his fans and his teammates. Keisel’s play and leadership were critical to the Steelers’ 11-5 season and return to the playoffs. His mentoring of Tuitt and Heyward was invaluable.
Keisel, like many Steelers, was very involved in Pittsburgh charities. Keisel’s epic beard grew out of a 2010 summer hunting trip with his father. For the last four years, Da Beard was sheared to raise funds for Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. This popular event has raised over $100,000. Bret is also active with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Homeless Childrens Education Fund and the Glimmer of Hope breast cancer research fundraiser.
Keisel’s contribution the Steelers cannot be quantified by his statistics or even his overall play. Da Beard was larger than life, reminiscent of the legendary heroes of the 1970s.
Cameron Heyward was the Steelers’ first round draft pick in 2011. Heyward is a Pittsburgh native and the son of Ironhead Heyward, a successful NFL running back, who had a great college career for the Pitt Panthers.
The defensive line, which was so good for so long, was showing its age. Smith had missed the better part of the previous two seasons with major injuries. Keisel was 33, Casey Hampton was 34 and Ziggy Hood, a first round pick in 2009, was not developing as hoped. The Pittsburgh brain trust pinned its hopes on Heyward to anchor the defensive line.
Heyward played as a reserve his first two years. In 2013, he became a starter, replacing Hood and playing well enough for the Steelers to show Hood the door at the end of that season. (Surprisingly, at least to me, Ziggy hasn’t started a game since leaving Pittsburgh).
Before training camp this year Heyward signed a 6 year contract worth nearly $60 million, making Cam the cornerstone of the defense being constructed by Coach Tomlin and new Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler.
Heyward’s career is just starting. In only his fifth year he has become a leader of the defense, both physically and vocally. His intensity and high motor is valued by his coaches and fans.
Heyward credits Smith and Keisel for teaching him the ropes. Ron Cook wrote an article in the Post-Gazette, linked here, quoting Cam:
Even when I wasn’t playing, Keis was teaching me and getting me ready,” he said. “I sat next to him in the meeting room every day. I’m still sitting next to him. He’s still teaching me.
Heyward is known as one of the hardest workers on the team, not necessarily content even with a win, as evidenced by his comments after the 35-32 win over Oakland. In Dan Sagar’s article on Steelers Wire, linked here, Heyward said:
“We played like crap on defense, the offense put up way too many points for us,. . . They ran it, they threw it. You name it, they did it. We have to get a lot better, quick.”
Heyward’s leadership extends off the field with his community projects. Cam was named the Steelers’ Walter Payton Man of the Year for 2015. Each team nominates a player who combine playing excellence with community involvement. Cam’s charitable work includes acting as the Steelers’ United Way representative since 2013. He founded Heyward House, which helps kids in need. He has also been active with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
In October, Heyward was fined by the NFL for wearing eye black with “Iron Head” inscribed on it to honor his father, a cancer victim, and to raise awareness for all types of cancer. The NFL drew considerable and deserved criticism for fining Heyward.
The extent of Cam’s legacy is unknown due to his youth. He’s made a fine start and is obviously a role model for the Steeler way on our young defense. He is the logical successor to Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel in leadership on and off the field. His teammates recognized his willingness to lead by electing him defensive captain this year.
Cam is a credit to Ironhead and to all the great Steeler linemen who have gone before him. He’s a Steeler forged in iron with a heart of gold.