Why I Still Love Football – and the Steelers
A week and a half ago I wrote one of my patented Momma’s Mock Drafts. I was out of town from the Monday through Wednesday before the draft, so I wrote a post encompassing Rounds 4-7, planning to then publish Rounds 1-3 on Thursday.
Strangely, I returned to discover no trace of my Round 4-7 post, and had to incorporate what I could remember into a 7-round draft on Thursday. One of the problems with this was that I had such a great ending for the Monday post. It didn’t fit in the middle of a 7-round draft, though, so I axed that part of it, with the intention of expanding upon the idea.
Said ending was triggered by my choice of James Conner for my 4th-round pick. I wrote something to this effect:
I joke a lot about the eyestrain I get looking at all the pictures and my hope that the Steelers will pick young men with an eye to more than just their football prowess, but I’m a bit of a fraud. Because the thing I love about football, the thing which keeps me watching despite the concern about CTE and my disgust with the hypocrisy of the league in so many areas are the stories.
Make no mistake, I like to see the Steelers win, or more accurately, I hate to see them lose. But in the end what I care about the most is the many examples of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
This can be adversity in the form of lack of early advantages, adversity in the face of people telling a player he isn’t big enough or strong enough or smart enough, or even the sort of adversity faced by an Antonio Brown when kicked out of his home at age 16 in one of the worst neighborhoods in the country and left to find his own way through the maze of discouragement and temptation and even physical danger.
The stories can be about players who never actually played for the Steelers, like WR David Nelson, who signed with the Steelers in the summer of 2015 and promptly got hurt. While on a trip to Haiti in 2012 he developed a burden for helping the many orphans there and began a foundation to find children, assess their needs, and find a place for them in a home.
The stories can be about players like Troy Polamalu, whose community service was a much better-kept secret than his prowess on the field. Or players like Baron Batch, who didn’t make a major impact on the Steelers but went on to make a much bigger impact as an artist after leaving football. Or the stories can be about guys who use their time in college to prepare themselves for their lives after football, not just during it.
There are so many stories, and they are what keep me coming back. Because a beautiful spirit is much more interesting to me, ultimately, than anything as ephemeral as mere good looks, or even as fleeting as a football career is for the majority of draftees.
So I’m going to be looking for the stories behind these newly-fledged Steelers in the weeks to come. And of course training camp is all about stories. I’m well aware that some of these are illusory. This can be in one of two senses.
The first is in the “Redzone Redman” sense. Running back Isaac Redman, an undrafted free agent in 2009, developed a sort of cult following among many in the fan base, so much so that for those of us at Behind the Steel Curtain he had his own superhero persona. Baron Batch was, for many, the heir to the Isaac Redman Story. And yet, there is a reason a player is drafted in the late rounds or goes undrafted. As a result, their chances of ultimately having an NFL career are rather slim. But we love to see these underdogs over-achieve. It gives us hope for our own lives.
The second is in the sense of what we want to believe about the upstanding character of the guys that play for the Steelers. This is, naturally, in contrast to the sort of teams (cough, cough, Bengals) who like to draft guys with major character red flags because they get an A-list talent on the cheap. This tactic does, of course, come with its own set of potential difficulties.
As proud Steeler fans we like to think that our ownership and coaching staff are interested in character. And I do believe that the Steelers care more about it than perhaps some teams do, but ultimately they are in business to win games. Jarvis Jones was reportedly off the charts in terms of character, although I was never able to find out exactly what that meant in his particular case. But he was ultimately a disappointment as a football player. But there’s more to it than that.
A disillusioned friend of mine, who once upon a time was the one who first told me about the culture of community service in the Steelers organization, now believes that community service initiatives are a cynical attempt on the part of the NFL to put a veneer of respectability on what they do and distract attention from the guys getting into trouble. (My words, not hers, but sort of an abstract of all she had to say.)
And of course she’s right, to an extent. But the fact that the league encourages community involvement from (presumably) primarily business and “branding” motives doesn’t mean that individual players who are involved in them are necessarily frauds. Far from it.
Troy Polamalu went to Children’s Hospital, week after week, with no fanfare, cameras, or publicity. He went because he wanted to make a difference. David Nelson had trouble getting a team to sign him because of how involved he was with his foundation, and in the end the Steelers were the only one who would take him without questioning his commitment to football.
And I’ll be very honest here. Part of why this all fascinates me is that many of the young men playing football would quite possibly, were it not for football, have much more limited opportunities in their lives, including the opportunity to attend college. I expect this to be the case with an ever-increasing percentage of the young men in football as parents in the more affluent levels of society refuse to allow their sons to participate in youth football.
256 young men were drafted this year, and an additional 300+ guys signed as UDFAs. The majority will play little to none in the NFL. If you do the math you can see that by the time a team has to cut down to a 53-man roster (and, I suppose, a practice squad,) and given that most teams signed a bunch of free agents before the draft, there really isn’t room for another 15 guys on the roster. In fact the Steelers have to make some cuts, because they are already over the limit, and in fact did already make their first one – QB Zach Mettenberger.
He has already disappeared from the official roster on Steelers.com, and there are still 97 guys on it. They have to, by some painful process, get it down to 90 players. (I assume that the players they drafted don’t count against the roster limit until they actually sign a contract, but I don’t know that.) I’ve always been glad I’m not the one making these decisions.
But like last season, I will try to get some of those stories out there, especially for the marginal guys, because they may not be long for the Steelers world, at any rate.
I have found that every year over the past several I have had to make a very conscious evaluation as to whether I should continue to follow this game, much less write publicly about and be more complicit in its promotion.
There is so much that is difficult for any thoughtful person to defend, from the very real and severe physical costs to the cynical corporate exploitation of players and other employees, the fans and indeed, entire communities.
I keep coming back to a conversation with ex Steelers Randy Grossman who pointed out that there aren’t very many boxing gyms in the affluent Fox Chapel community where he lives. His point was that people there have alternatives those in too many other places don’t. Some pursue football for the same reason that others mine coal, risk their lives in the military or do other things that we might judge as being dangerous or demeaning.
This game is not the unalloyed path to the good life and glory that so many want to imagine. I suspect that what powers the illusion to an extent is that we need to believe in it as much as the participants.
In the end, there are enough wins, quality educations that would otherwise be unobtainable, successful escapes up the socioeconomic ladder and so many other opportunities to compensate in part (but not completely) for the failures, exploitation and carnage so many others experience.
But finally it comes down for me to how the Rooney family conducts themselves in what is a tough, somewhat nasty and potentially corrupt business. In the final analysis there is no human endeavor that cannot be either corrupted or redeemed by the intent and actions of the participants. Few things are clearly black and white.
For now, with eyes wide open i continue to support what I see as redemptive about professional football, and specifically the Steelers.
As usual, Ivan, you have expressed my thoughts better than I can. I really hope something like what you proposed in your “If I were the commissioner” post comes about in the next CBA which would bring about a better balance between cost (to the players) and opportunity
Don’t forget the one reason that so many people play football for that has nothing to do with money or other real or perceived opportunities in life: love of the game. I have two nephews that played at a high enough level that they were scholarship players in college. They both knew that while they were good, they weren’t pro prospects. Neither of them really needed the scholarship either. One had baseball offers and the other had plenty of money for school as his father was/is a very successful business man. They were going to college football or not. They chose football because they loved the game.
Yes, and that too. Almost impossible to get to higher levels of anything without a genuine affection for what you are doing.