Life, Death, and Steelers
This year’s training camp has been quite a roller-coaster ride. The hopes of Steeler Nation rise high as we see Ben putting the ball wherever he wants, whether that is in a garbage can, the crosspiece of the goalpost, the stomach of a recalcitrant cameraman*, or to be gently cradled in Antonio Brown’s arms. Then they crash to earth as we look at the list of injured players sitting out practice—a sort of Who’s Who of our best defensive players. Not to mention the League playing Whac-a-Mole with Martavis Bryant and the Steelers, seeming moving the bar every time Bryant thinks he’s hurdled it. (I realize that was a mixed metaphor, but it’s morning, people…)
There have been some highs and lows for the players themselves as well, of greatly varying import. You have the on-field sort, like Tyler Matakevich, the guy Mark Kaboly felt had a ceiling as a great special-teams player, getting more first-team defensive reps than any other player and making the most of it. You have guys desperate to make an impression in a very crowded wide receivers room dropping passes in drills, perhaps partially because they want so badly to succeed.
Then you have the hard luck cases, like Senquez Golson and Sammie Coates, who, at least in the case of Coates have flashed tremendous potential, but can’t get a break with the injuries—no pun intended. (Golson hasn’t seen the field enough to flash much of anything—in two and a half years.) But there are the guys who get a chance because of this and run with it, like undersized CB Mike Hilton, who has benefitted from former Old Miss teammate Golson’s bad luck and impressed everyone with his instinct for where the football is and hard-nosed play.
All of this is what makes the pre-season interesting, or perhaps I should say bearable. But we must never forget that these 90 men (and it’s been a good bit more than 90 at this point, counting the various “roster transactions,” which is a sanitized way of saying one guy gets a chance to realize his dream at the expense of another) are men, each with a story.
The story was a good one for #97 and #84. Both have been participants the entire camp, except when given days off. Both were given time off to welcome the birth of a child—Antonio’s fourth, Cameron Heyward’s second. In the greater scheme of things, family is a far bigger thing than football. UPDATE: I just read that Sammie Coates and wife Kailey had their first baby yesterday.
Which is something Ben Roethlisberger realized a few years ago, when he self-reported a concussion in a game at Seattle. The game was not meaningless by any stretch of the imagination. The Steelers were only behind Seattle by two points, in a game where the lead had shifted back and forth several times. Could the Steelers go on to win it with Landry Jones at quarterback? The answer in that case was no. But when asked why he self-reported a concussion no one had noticed, he said “For the first time, I thought of my family.”
He hasn’t stopped, either. As he told reporters earlier this week, when he told his wife that he wanted his children, the youngest of whom is one, to be old enough to remember seeing him play football, his wife’s rejoinder was that he should also consider whether he would be able to remember his children by the time he quit playing.
This is another thing it is easy for us to forget as we watch the players on the field—that there are people in the stands who care deeply what happen to them, whether they are the star quarterback or the lowliest special teams guy. I’ll never forget the face of Kurt Warner’s wife durig the Super Bowl vs. the Steelers when he took a big shot which looked possibly worse than it was. The cameras immediately panned to her, and the sick look on her face was branded into my brain. I still can’t decide whether this is an unconscionable invasion of privacy or something we need to see. I kind of think it is both.
Another aspect of this it is easy to forget is that the star quarterbacks will have access to the highest standards of care after their career is over, because they can afford it, unless they have been exceptionally foolish with their money (which many star players are, alas.) What about the UDFAs who are “waived injured” during camp? Do we ever give a thought to them or what happens to them? What was the injury? Is it something they can recover from, and perhaps go on to get a chance with another team? Or does it compromise their ability to function for the rest of their lives?
And then there is actual death. I just read this morning that Keion Adams, the Steelers’ 7th-round pick, six spots before Mr. Irrelevant, lost both his cousin and his best friend in a shooting which occurred in his hometown of Salisbury, NC at the beginning of training camp. He isn’t AB or Cam. He couldn’t afford to go home, in the sense that he couldn’t afford to lose the reps and the time.
I’m glad to be able to report that there is a very strong support system for him at camp, including Mike Tomlin, the team chaplin, and his fellow players. One who has been particularly supportive is fellow Salisburian Javon Hargrave, who also knew both of the victims. Adams told Kevin Gorman of the Tribune-Review:
I’ve got family and friends back home that are suffering and don’t have the support system that I do. I’m trying to feed off of being here and give that energy back to them.
He admitted it has been very difficult:
You never really want to get a phone call that that…it’s tough. It’s hard. I just keep my faith in God to do the best I can.
Around these parts, Steeler football appears to be all the life some people have. If they win, the world is a wonderful place. If they lose, anger, frustration, and even less attractive emotions are front and center. Perhaps a better balance could be achieved if we all remembered that these are not pawns, or robots, or avatars—they are men, with fears and joys and sorrows just like all of us. There is no money that can bring Adams’ cousin and friend back. There is no victory that can mask the pain of it. At least for now he has what Arthur Moats termed “the beauty of the brotherhood.”
But let us never forget, these are men, and there are a lot of things more important than football.
And since this article turned into rather a downer, here is possibly the best under-the-radar story of training camp. It was reported in DK Pittsburgh Sports, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else:
On a routine one-on-one passing drill, [Canaan] Severin lined up to the left, broke forward, then cut hard to the left. And as he approached the sideline, it was evident to pretty much any of the several thousand at Chuck Noll Field that this route would take Severin right into a young TV cameraman just outside the chalk. And as any media member who’s covered camp for even a solitary afternoon can attest, it’s incumbent on the media member to, you know, get out of the bleeping way.
The cameraman didn’t budge, and Severin crashed into him and the giant TV camera.
This was just to my left. And it didn’t appear either man got hurt. But someone, for sure, was plenty sore.
“Hey, camera guy!” Ben Roethlisberger barked that way. “You want to move a little?”
Camera guy did move. Maybe a step or two. That was it.
So the next snap, which was supposed to go to one of the Steelers’ lesser quarterbacks, instead was snapped up by the franchise quarterback.
“Give me the ball,” Roethlisberger would say, barely audible, to whoever had the ball. And you want to talk about an audible: Antonio Brown, through an astonishing coincidence, ran a sideline route right to that same edge of the field. And Roethlisberger’s pass, through an astonishing coincidence, sailed well above a receiver he seldom misses. And AB’s arms, through an astonishing coincidence, made minimal effort to reach upward.
And the ball, through the last of the coincidences, nailed camera guy right in the gut.
So he moved.
And Ben, more than 25 yards away, raised his right hand for an oops-my-bad gesture that, based on everything I heard, fooled no one.