Meet the New Steeler: Safety J.J. Wilcox

photo via insidethestar.com

The Steelers are killing me here. I sincerely hope the spate of new signings stops soon, because I can scarcely keep up!

The latest signing has some interesting antecedents. He was born and raised in Cairo, for one thing! Which is less exciting when you realize that’s Cairo, Georgia. But it still has a tinge of the exotic about it, especially when you discover his high school team was the Cairo Syrupmakers. I’m willing to make a small bet that no other high school team in the entire country is called the “Syrupmakers.”As a Syrupmaker Wilcox was a wide receiver, and was on the 2008 State Championship team. He went to Georgia Southern and continued as a wideout. He did not switch to the defensive side of the ball until his senior year. Nonetheless his senior season was sufficiently impressive that the Dallas Cowboys selected him in the third round.

And this is where the Steelers Circle of Life comes into play, because although the Cowboys were sufficiently impressed with him during his rookie camp that they planned to start him, he took a body blow, if you will, when his mother died. This knocked him back a bit and the Cowboys decided to name Will Allen—the self-same Will Allen who came to the Burgh in 2014—as the starter. Wilcox did eventually win the job, making Allen expendable in the end.

In his four years with Dallas Wilcox was a solid if unspectacular player, although he lost the starting position in 2015. Wilcox was also a core special teams player, and I’m sure that aspect of his play was attractive to the Steelers.

Chris Carter of DK Pittsburgh Sports analyzed his play and concluded that he was a safety who could be relied upon to keep to his assignment and make the tackle, although he was unlikely to make a lot of spectacular plays. And although Mike Mitchell practiced on a limited basis yesterday, I for one am happy to have someone available who can be relied upon to do his primary job.

I don’t think I was the only person to be disappointed in the preseason by Robert Golden’s tendency to look for the bit hit and consequently miss the tackle. In fact, on one pass play in the third preseason game, I think it was, another player had the receiver wrapped up already when Golden blew in looking to make a hit and possibly dislodge the ball. Which is all very well, except that he knocked the would-be tackler off the receiver, who then scampered downfield for a 55-yard gain. Furthermore, I’m guessing more and more of those big hits are going to be legislated out of the game—as I personally think they should be—and players like Golden are going to have to change their focus or be out of a job.

And as we saw in the last preseason game, when Cobi Hamilton would have had a touchdown had he not had the ball punched out from behind, it is entirely possible to force fumbles or drops without blowing up the offensive player. Interestingly, we have seen Mike Mitchell morph from a guy looking to put a big hit on people to a guy who is careful to secure the tackle—mostly, anyhow…

Wilcox was not re-signed by Dallas after his rookie contract expired, and was signed by Tampa Bay. However, when T.J. Ward was cut the Buccaneers picked him up immediately, and thus Wilcox was expendable. I can’t ever recall a year in which there was so much horsetrading after training camp, and assume it must be at least in part due to the new cut-down method. But however it happened, and however uncharacteristic this flurry of free-agent signings may be for the Steelers, Wilcox is now a Steeler.

And as it happens, he is also a Steeler who, at least in college, did some kick returns, so it will be interesting to see if the Steelers throw him out there. Why not? As of now they don’t have any kick returners, since they cut everyone who took kick return duties in the preseason (and, for that matter, anyone who took punt return duties.) So this is one of the things I will be watching for, especially as Mike Tomlin noted in his press conference that they are still working to determine who will have those duties.

As for Wilcox himself, he appears to be a quiet guy, and most of what there is to know about him off the field surrounds his mother. She died after a long battle with lupus and the lung issues which come with it, but was very influential in her community, particularly in her work with the Boys and Girls Club. She asked her family to take care of “her” girls and boys, and they have responded by holding a 5K race each year to support the local club. Although it has typically been held when J.J. was unable to participate, in 2016 it was held in May, and J.J. was a full participant, as reported by the Times Enterprise:

J.J. went straight from the airport to the Boys and Girls Club Friday afternoon to meet with the children. He talked to the Cairo eighth-grade football team and mingled with students during the Red vs. Black spring game that night.

After Saturday’s race, he sponsored a community cookout to bring everyone together as children played on swing sets or collected his autograph on a Dallas Cowboys team photo.

“(It was) just to give back, (give) a piece of me,” said the 25-year-old. “A lot of people aren’t fortunate enough to get where I’m at. So I just wanted to show the community that I really appreciate them and to give a piece of me; That when I made it, they all made it, too.”

Here’s wishing J.J. a fantastic season with the Steelers!

And before I leave the subject of the new guys, hopefully for good this season, I have a few more comments.

One of the fun things I found out about Wilcox is that he had a poster of Ben Roethlisberger hanging in his bedroom as a kid. Life is odd that way…

I was struck by Joe Haden’s comments about his relationship with Mike Tomlin, who had worked him out along with Maurkice Pouncey prior to the 2010 draft. Haden said that before every Steelers/Browns game he would talk with Coach Tomlin. I find that a fascinating commentary on all three facets of this, if you will—what it says about Tomlin, that he would bother to spend time with an opposing team’s player, one who had never been a member of the Steelers—what it says about how Haden felt about Tomlin, that he would want to do that, and finally what it says (although this may be a reach) about the lack of a stable situation in Cleveland. There has never been any indication that Haden was anything less than a stellar teammate and member of the community in his time as a Cleveland Brown. I would sure be interested to know whether he developed that sort of relationship with any of the other coaches who worked him out before the draft.

It’s notable that every single one of the three guys the Steelers picked up have talked about how getting to the Super Bowl is a given. I guess everybody has to say that, whatever team they land with, but there is a ring of conviction in their voices.

One thing is obvious—the Steelers were not willing to stand pat with who they had. Blame this on bad drafting, bad luck, or what you will (and given that you can’t expect a 100% success rate with drafting at the best of times, I’m willing to put a lot of it on bad luck) the Steelers were not too proud to admit mistakes and move on. There have been various UDFAs who have chosen to sign with Pittsburgh in past years because, as they said, they see that you get a genuine chance to prove yourself with the Steelers. You would think it should be this way on every team, but part of what makes this actually true, in my opinion, is that the head coach isn’t constantly on the hot seat. Mike Tomlin has the breathing room to admit that a draft pick, for whatever reason, hasn’t worked out and to move on. You can only do that with a certain amount of job security.

2 comments

  • Rebecca – great insight into the newest new guy (caveat…at this writing). Thanks for keeping up! And great story about Haden. It sure does seem as if Coach T. really connects with players…even other teams’ players. I think one has to be a genuine (or ‘real’ in today’s vernacular) person to connect in that way. Looking forward to watching this 2017 version of Steeler football.

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  • Cairo, GA is also the hometown of #39, Bobby Walden, who was the punter for the Steel Curtain Steelers. And Mack Robinson, who was an Olympic Silver Medalist. You may have never heard of Mack Robinson, but you probably heard of his little brother, Jack Roosevelt Robinson. Yep. Jackie was born in Cairo, GA, before his family got the heck outta there and moved to the west coast.

    Homer was fascinated by the Syrupmakers nickname, because he remembers ALAGA syrup, from his boyhood, and remembers the print ads showing Willie Mays, which said, “I was raised on ALAGA syrup.” ALAGA was a combination of Alabama and Georgia, and Cairo isn’t far from the border, and they do grow a lot of sugar cane there, but it turns out Roddenberry’s was the brand manufactured locally. Legend has it that the high school team was the Cairo Tigers, but Roddenberry’s gave them ponchos to use when it rained, and they said “Roddenberry’s Syrup” on them. The story goes that a newspaper reporter from a neighboring town saw that and referred to them as “the syrupmakers from Cairo,” and it stuck. Of course, if you’ve ever tried sugar cane syrup, you know it sticks to everything.

    Anyway, everything you can find on Wilcox is positive. In Homer’s world of bricks and mortar, he’s not a brick. He’s not one of the stars who are the foundation of the team. But you can’t build a building with just bricks. You need mortar to hold it all together. And, if the standard is to be the standard, and you call, “next man up,” you absolutely depend on guys like JJ. Those are the guys who hold it all together, and, upon occasion, step up and become heroes.

    The Steelers really, really were in a bind last week and they needed Wilcox. Looks like a terrific acquisition. And a good guy. He’s gonna love it in Pittsburgh, and he seems like a perfect fit.

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