At the time Larry Foote really didn’t know that his life could be heading down a dangerous path. He was attending Pershing High School in Detroit, Michigan, but school was not a priority. Hanging out on the streets, being with his friends, that was what life was all about.
That was until he met the man that changed things for him, that changed the direction his life was heading. That is when he met the man that would be his mentor, Pastor Joel Gregory, a youth pastor in Southfield, Michigan.
“I met him when I was in high school in the midst of when I was my craziest,” said Foote. “My future wasn’t looking bright. I don’t think college was an option. I was playing sports, but I was in the streets too and following a group of guys I shouldn’t have been and wasn’t taking life seriously.”
Foote had met others before who tried to steer him away from the streets and put his faith in God in an effort to turn things around. But Gregory was different, and Foote immediately connected with him.
“Not only did he preach the word of God that got my attention, but during that time I wasn’t attracted to the church life and doing things the right way, I was doing what the streets were doing,” said Foote. “He was the first guy that was cool that made it attractive. I had never seen anyone that looked like me, talked like me, and had my kind of swag that loved God too. I thought this guy is cool like the neighborhood guys, he is just preaching a different message.”
Foote would attend youth bible study and soon the results started to show. He wasn’t spending time on the streets, he was focusing on school and even teachers noticed a difference in him.
“He saved my life,” said Foote. “It was at a crucial time. I had to get out of the neighborhood. I was gifted, could play ball, but I wasn’t taking life seriously. I was still caught up in the street life. When God got my attention at that age I put my priorities in line just in the nick of time. I started taking school and sports seriously and colleges started calling. My life took off at that point. I started leaving my foolish things alone and my life took off because of the example Pastor Gregory showed me.”
Foote is one of several Steelers who recently shared their story of who his mentor is with the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern Pennsylvania (MPSWPA) in celebration of January being National Mentoring Month. And in his case, his relationship with Gregory is one that was definitely life changing.
“Who knows, with what I was doing I could have been shot at any time,” said Foote. “Even when I go back to the neighborhood today I see guys on the street, on the corner begging for change, hear about guys who were murdered. There are guys I went to school with dead or in jail. It’s the reality. When you are in high school you hear people say that guy is going to end up in jail or dead, but you haven’t lived through it. It’s just rhetoric. But as every year goes by I hear about that happening to someone.
“Pastor Gregory got me in line. I took things seriously with God, and he took care of my stuff and my heart. Pastor Gregory showed me how to act, how to pray. That is why I am where I am today, he showed me that example.”
Tags: Larry Foote
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As Brett Keisel walked into Kyla Ruffing’s room at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, the shy eight-year old looked surprised, and then broke into a sweet smile as she looked at the big guy standing beside her hospital bed.
When asked who it was, she didn’t say Keisel, but instead gave a much simpler answer, “The Beard.”
“It was amazing,” said her mother Danielle Nagel. “I was really blown away. I wasn’t expecting him to walk through the door. It was great to see him.”
Ruffling quietly talked with Keisel, showing him what she was building with Lego’s. Then she slowly started coming out of her shell, pulling out the reason she knows him as “The Beard,” her own oversized beard she put on to compare to Keisel’s. Keisel admired the look, the two smoothed out their beards, and he even signed a team photo for her that read, “You have the best beard I have ever seen.”
“It was awesome,” said Keisel, who also enjoyed seeing other patients on the floor play with their beards. “To see them play along with it, they had so much fun with it. Kyla was so filled with life and joy. When so much is happening that she could be filled with negativity, she was exuberant and joyous and lifted me up. Seeing them run around with their beards and turning around and making them into mullets, it was awesome.”
It’s Keisel’s beard that has incredible meaning for the kids at Children’s Hospital, particularly those on the oncology floor where he visited. In another week he will shave off the beard at his annual “Shear Da Beard” event, and all proceeds go to cancer programs at the hospital.
“It’s great,” said Dr. Jake Cooper, the attending physician in hematology and oncology. “Our floor is full always. We do our best to keep the kids happy and distracted when they are going through some tough medications and serious diagnosis. Having a local hero like Mr. Keisel show up is a wonderful surprise for the kids to have.”
Keisel went room to room, giving the kids Steelers teddy bears, bracelets and signed team photos, but also giving them smiles, hugs and love. And they gave him something much more.
“Every time I go in there I can’t help but get filled with emotion,” said Keisel. “The things these families and kids have to go through with their treatment, it’s very tough. It does fill me with emotion, but it fills me with pride at the same time knowing I am helping in a small way.”
He is helping in a much greater way than he realizes. It’s not just the financial impact that shaving the beard has, it goes far deeper.
“It’s a symbol, it’s a yearly tradition and the people here know it’s for them,” said Cooper. “The people here view his huge mammoth beard as a sign of his affection for Children’s Hospital and his support for all of our patients. They love it. You see a lot of fake beards being worn by the kids for solidarity and team spirit.”
And they are beards that will lovingly be worn long after Keisel shaves his off.
Keisel and Kyla Ruffing.
Keisel and 15-year old Jeremy Coast.
Keisel and 11-year old Jetta Moore
Tags: Brett Keisel
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Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch is a finalist for the Byron “Whizzer” White Award, an honor given by the NFL Players Association to a player for their work in the community.
“It’s humbling,” said Batch. “To be a finalist for the highest award you can receive from the NFLPA is special. To be considered one of those guys is special.”
Batch started his Best of the Batch Foundation 12 years ago, serving those in the Pittsburgh area, including Homestead where he was raised. The foundation provides an array of services, from computer literacy programs to summer basketball leagues.
“I am blessed to play here for this organization and be this close to home, allowing me to be hands on with everything I am doing with the foundation and have people believe in me,” said Batch. “I can’t do this by myself. We go out there and try to change lives and when people see that, it’s even more humbling.”
Batch has been able to see the impact the foundation has had on kids and looks forward to continuing to develop and grow the foundation.
“A lot of kids started with us when they were seven or eight years old and we see kids graduating from high school and heading off to college,” said Batch. “When you see the kids growing up, and them getting the opportunity to go out and live their dreams, that is what we are all about. We want to have them reach beyond their expectations.”
Batch is one of five finalists along with Chad Greenway (Minnesota Vikings), Charles Tillman (Chicago Bears), Benjamin Watson (Cleveland Browns) and Jason Witten (Dallas Cowboys). All of the finalists will receive a donation to their charity and the winner, who will be announced by the NFLPA next week in New Orleans, will receive an additional $100,000 donation.
Tags: Charlie Batch
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Athletes are often looked upon as role models for young children, but in some cases the athletes that kids look up to, teammates do as well.
That has been the case for defensive end Brett Keisel. During his first 10 seasons he had the perfect role model and mentor in teammate Aaron Smith, and he still looks at Smith in the same light even after Smith retired last year.
“When I first got here he was someone I looked up to,” said Keisel. “He played the game the right way with pad level, technique. He wasn’t a dirty player. He was someone who was down to earth and came to work and worked his tail off every day.”
When hearing that Keisel viewed him as a mentor, Smith was taken aback. Smith always led by example, but he never tried to force his method of doing things on anyone.
“I am honored and a little shocked,” said Smith. “I always had a way of doing things and you always hope that someone catches on to doing things that way, what I would consider the right way. I think he has done that and expanded on it even more.
“That is something professional athletes should always hold on to. You don’t know whose life you will impact. I always just tried to lead by example. I always felt you would get more done by your actions than just by saying words. I am a big believer in that. It’s nothing I was looking to do, I just believed there was a way to conduct myself and be an example, especially for the younger guys.”
Keisel is one of several Steelers who recently shared the story of who his mentor is with the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern Pennsylvania (MPSWPA) in celebration of January being National Mentoring Month. In addition to Aaron Smith, Keisel’s uncle, Ben Smith, who coached a rival football team also served as a mentor.
“He was someone who was always very encouraging to me,” said Keisel. “Every time we saw each other he helped me out with technique, with things off the field as far as being a good person and someone people could look up to. It meant a lot to me that even though we were rivals, he would help me out with the possibility that I could beat his team, which didn’t happen. He was a great man and someone as I grew up I truly appreciated.”
Keisel is grateful to both of his mentors, for his uncle for helping him along the way, and for Aaron Smith for providing an example that led to success with the Steelers.
“Since I got here I tried to be in his shadow,” said Keisel. “I tried to do everything he did. It’s got me 11 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, two Super Bowl rings, a Pro Bowl. I owe him a lot.”
Tags: Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel
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Safety Will Allen doesn’t hesitate when it comes to helping out today’s youth, especially trying to provide them guidance through the Quest for Real Life Success program which strives to build awareness and help young people in the community as a part of the Will Allen Foundation,
The after school mentoring program, which he ran this year at North Hills High School in Pittsburgh and Wayne High School in Dayton, Ohio, was set up to discuss topics to help the students prepare for life after high school. The programs place emphasis on test taking skills, resume writing, job interview skills and also stress community service.
“I wanted to do something to help them be more proactive about their futures, to help them think outside the box and thinking more about being a young professional going into college,” said Allen of the program he began when he played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “I wanted to bridge the gap going from high school to college so they can be better decision makers, be more cognizant of opportunities and tools and resources that are available.”
Allen learned the importance of being a mentor from his father, Keith Allen, and is one of several Steelers who recently shared the story of who his mentor is with the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern Pennsylvania (MPSWPA) in celebration of January being National Mentoring Month.
“We’re grateful to continue our partnership with the Pittsburgh Steelers to learn more about how mentoring has impacted players’ lives,” said Kristan Allen, director of marketing and communications for MPSWPA “The Steelers organization is a defining part of our region’s history and we’re so fortunate that it is built on a foundation of giving back to the community.”
For Will Allen, having his father a part of the community when he was growing up made him realize the importance of giving back. His father coached youth sports and Allen has always taken pride in seeing others benefit from his father’s leadership, as well as himself.
“He always taught me how to be humble,” said Allen of his father. “He would always teach me right from wrong, leadership, respecting others around me.
“I saw him be a role model and mentor in my neighborhood, helping kids become a better person. To see people come back and remember what Coach Allen said to help them means a lot. As a youngster I didn’t pay as much attention to him because I was hearing it every day. Once I got older I realized he had an impact on people’s lives from encouraging words.”
His father also stressed the importance of education to him, part of the reason he graduated from Ohio State University.
“One of the key moments I will remember in my life is when he sat me down as a youngster and would tell me about education, and the importance of education,” recalled Allen. “He would never let me bring a C in the home. Even though he was a diligent worker, he didn’t have a college education but he wanted one for me. He pushed me in sports, but especially in academics.”
The Mentoring Partnership serves 140 youth mentoring programs in the Pittsburgh region, including working with United Way agencies, and Allen hopes that others will reach out and become mentors.
“I ask you go out and pay it forward and mentor someone, especially a young person and teach them about life skills and how they can become better,” said Allen.
Tags: Will Allen
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If there was an NFL award given to individual position coaches, Ryan Clark has no doubt who should be the recipient of the secondary coach of the year, none other than his own coach, Carnell Lake.
Lake, in his second season coaching the Steelers’ defense backs, has guided the unit to be the number one pass defense in the NFL for the second year in a row.
“I told him he is the defensive backs coach of the year this year,” said Clark. “When you think about the different people and lineup combinations he has had to use this year and us to finish No. 1 in pass defense is a huge accomplishment not only for us, but for Coach Lake.”
The Steelers were without safety Troy Polamalu for nine games this season, while Ike Taylor missed the final five games of the year with an ankle injury. Cortez Allen started for Taylor and continued to grow, but he too was sidelined for a game while Taylor was out, and Josh Victorian, who spent most of the season on the practice squad, started against the Cowboys.
Through it all, though, the secondary was consistent allowing just 185.2 yards per game, and the players give much of that credit to Lake.
“He is an intelligent guy,” said safety Will Allen. “Just his wisdom of the game and how he approaches it, his mentality, he is a tough guy. It’s crazy because if you didn’t know him, he hardly says anything about playing. He is a competitor. He exudes that throughout the room.
“He prepares each player for what is to come. He prepares the group very well. He believes a lot in technique. He doesn’t necessarily harp on the schematics on defense. He is more about technique. That helps us tremendously. If you look at the technique of the cornerback play the last 3-4 years alone, you can see how the level has been tremendous, even the safety play. He talked to us more about tackling and covering, attention to details, and eyes. He stresses on it and harps on it. I think that has helped us become the best in the league for two straight seasons.”
While the secondary would like to have been more opportunistic this year as far as turnovers, they have a lot of pride in being the top ranked passing defense for the second year, especially after they were ranked 12th against the pass in 2010, the year before Lake’s arrival. What Lake did upon taking over was not overhaul the secondary, but instead he works with everyone’s strengths, while bringing his understanding and style having played both cornerback and safety for the Steelers.
“He played old-school, hard-nosed hitting football,” said Taylor. “He understands. He didn’t force anything on us. He didn’t say I am the coach and this is how it will be. He asked how we did things, and then told us how they did things. If it worked the way we did it, he will let us go with it, but if it doesn’t work he will step in and tell us this is how we are doing it. When he has to put his foot down and say we are doing it this way, we are cool with it and go with what Coach Lake says. He understands us and we understand him.”
Clark credits Lake with the development of the team’s young corners, including Keenan Lewis who had a breakout season in his first year as a starter, as well as Allen and Curtis Brown.
“Looking at those guys, that is a lot of Carnell Lake’s influence,” said Clark. “If those guys don’t play well for us this year we don’t finish where we finish. Also he allows us to be individuals, allows us to play to our strengths. He implements the program and then he listens. He is the type of coach that will say how do you guys see it?
“When you have a coach you already respect because you know he played the game at a high level, but he also respects you, when you get that kind of camaraderie in the room it’s contagious.”
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Former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis and linebacker Kevin Greene are both finalists for the 2013 Class for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Bettis has been a finalist each of the three years he has been eligible and Greene, who played three seasons with the Steelers, was also a finalist in 2012.
Bettis wasn’t aware the finalists were being announced on Friday morning, and was surprised and thrilled upon hearing the news.
“It’s an honor to be considered a finalist. There are some great names on that list,” said Bettis. “If you do get your name called, it’s an honor. If you don’t it’s an honor to be associated with those great names. You can’t be mad if someone else gets in because it’s all great players on the list. It can be frustrating at times because you want to be in, but those they put in there are more than deserving of the honor.
“When you understand it’s a process and it may not happen for you, it’s not tough. You have to be comfortable with your place in history and what you were able to accomplish. That is what I am. I am comfortable with my place in history and what I have been able to do.”
Bettis began his career with the Los Angeles Rams in 1993 but had his best days once he was traded to the Steelers on draft day in 1996. Bettis was the Steelers leading rusher from 1996-2001 and 2003-04, amassing 50 100-yard games with the team. Bettis rushed for 10,571 yards with the Steelers, and 13,662 career yards, ranking him fifth overall in NFL history when he retired.
Bettis’ first year of eligibility he was on the list with running backs Marshall Faulk and Curtis Martin. Faulk was elected in 2011 and Martin in 2012, and this year Bettis is the only running back on the list of finalists.
“I hope it goes like you want it to, but you can never be sure,” said Bettis. “You can’t assume and I won’t do that. Hopefully this is the year.”
The Class of 2013 will be announced on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, the day before Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The following is the complete list of the Hall of Fame finalists.
• Larry Allen – Guard/Tackle – 1994-2005 Dallas Cowboys; 2006-07 San Francisco 49ers
• Jerome Bettis – Running Back – 1993-95 Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams; 1996-2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
• Tim Brown – Wide Receiver/Kick Returner/Punt Returner – 1988-2003 Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders; 2004 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
• Cris Carter – Wide Receiver – 1987-89 Philadelphia Eagles; 1990-2001 Minnesota Vikings; 2002 Miami Dolphins
• Curley Culp* – 1968-1974 Kansas City Chiefs; 1974-1980 Houston Oilers; 1980-81 Detroit Lions
• Edward DeBartolo, Jr. – Owner – 1977-2000 San Francisco 49ers
• Kevin Greene – Linebacker/Defensive End – 1985-1992 Los Angeles Rams; 1993-95 Pittsburgh Steelers; 1996, 1998-99 Carolina Panthers; 1997 San Francisco 49ers
• Charles Haley – Defensive End/Linebacker – 1986-1991, 1999 San Francisco 49ers; 1992-96 Dallas Cowboys
• Art Modell – Owner – 1961-1995 Cleveland Browns; 1996-2011 Baltimore Ravens
• Jonathan Ogden – Tackle – 1996-2007 Baltimore Ravens
• Bill Parcells – Coach – 1983-1990 New York Giants; 1993-96 New England Patriots; 1997-99 New York Jets; 2003-06 Dallas Cowboys
• Andre Reed – Wide Receiver – 1985-1999 Buffalo Bills; 2000 Washington Redskins
• Dave Robinson* – 1963-1972 Green Bay Packers; 1973-74 Washington Redskins
• Warren Sapp – Defensive Tackle – 1995-2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers; 2004-07 Oakland Raiders
• Will Shields – Guard – 1993-2006 Kansas City Chiefs
• Michael Strahan – Defensive End – 1993-2007 New York Giants
• Aeneas Williams – Cornerback/Safety – 1991-2000 Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals; 2001-04 St. Louis Rams
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Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney was honored by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday when she presented him with the Chief of Mission (COM) flag for his service as the United States Ambassador to Ireland. Rooney served as the Ambassador from July, 2009 until December, 2012, when he returned to Pittsburgh.
Clinton welcomed Rooney and his wife Patricia to the State Department and thanked him for his work in Ireland, before presenting him the COM flag and Mrs. Rooney an American flag.
Rooney became the first U.S. Ambassador to visit all 32 counties in Ireland, both North and South, and worked toward the peace efforts and bolstering the economy.
“Madame Secretary, before I left for Ireland, you asked me to strengthen the friendship and ties between Ireland and the United States,” Rooney said after accepting the flag. “You charged me to keep a special watch on the peace process and to look for ways we could better partner with the Irish government to advance the cause of peace. This is what I have always tried to do. And I believe that is what I have done.
“The peace in the North is still a process. It is an ongoing effort. But we have hope. Things are better and they will continue to get better, despite issues needing to be resolved.”
Rooney also presented Clinton with an official game ball that he signed as an appreciation for her service as Secretary of State.
“I am an American of Irish heritage,” said Rooney. “Ireland has always been special to me and I have a deep love for the Irish people. I have had a lifelong commitment to advancing the relationship between the American and Irish people. I thank you and President (Barack) Obama for your trust and for the privilege of serving as Ambassador of the United States.”
Tags: Dan Rooney
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Brett Keisel has one of the most famous beards not just in sports, but in existence, but it won’t be around for much longer.
Keisel is ready to cut it all off when he hosts the third annual “Shear Da Beard” on Thursday, February 7 at Jergel’s Rhythm Grille.
Fans can watch as celebrity barbers take the scissors to the beard, with all proceeds from ticket sales benefitting the cancer programs at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh at UPMC.
And once the beard is gone, rest assured in due time he will start to grow it back in time for the 2013 season. He might even try and inspire some of the young players to partake in the beard growing, including Cam Heyward who Keisel said could eventually carry on the beard torch.
“I would love to take over the mantel one day, but I think it’s more genetics than anything,” said Heyward, sporting stubble but not a beard. “I don’t know if I have the genetics to pull it off.
“The last time I had a beard was during training camp. It was too itchy. I think when Keisel wants to pass it on I am going to make a statue of his beard and say this is what it should look like and never show my face.”
In addition to seeing Keisel’s beard go, guests will be treated to live performances by Chris Higbee and Donnie Iris, and can bid on some unique items in a live and silent auction.
Tags: Brett Keisel, Shear Da Beard
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Art Rooney, Sr. was a story teller, always sharing an anecdote with those who crossed his path, always having a good story to tell about his life, from his days growing up on Pittsburgh’s North Side, to his boxing career, to purchasing the Pittsburgh Steelers and seeing them grow into four-time Super Bowl champions.
That is what makes The Chief, the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s one-man play about the Steelers’ founder, so special. It’s simply Rooney telling stories, sharing his life, through the brilliance of actor Tom Atkins, with the audience.
The setting for the play is Rooney’s office at Three Rivers Stadium in March, 1976. The office is a replica of what it was like back then, from his actual desk, to a box filled with his favorite cigars, to photos that adorned the wall and much more.
In the play, Rooney is trying to avoid heading off to a dinner that is set to honor him by doing what he loves to do most, tell stories. And it’s not just football the play focuses on, as it allows you the opportunity to really know Rooney, and what his life was like.
The only problem Rob Zellers and Gene Collier, who co-wrote the play, had was finding a way to keep the play to only 90 minutes, as the stories could go on for hours.
“There were so many good stories,” said Zellers. “This was a real Pittsburgh character that not only was a lot written about him, but he still had a lot of friends around the city when we did our interviews for it.”
Among those who shared stories were family members who gave their blessing for the play, friends, and many who knew him as the Steelers loveable owner.
“I think he is the kind of colorful character that perhaps we don’t see as much now as we saw 30, 40, 50 years ago,” said Zellers. “I think people miss that kind of character. A lot of depth, a lot of dimension, a lot of core Pittsburgh values. I think people look at the man and think back very positively about the city and learn more about themselves.”
It’s that character, the stories, and the love Steelers’ fans have for him, that have made the play, which debuted in 2003, return to the stage this year after a brief hiatus. This year celebrates the 10th Anniversary of The Chief, and gives insight into the man who not only was the founder of the Steelers, but truly was one of the most beloved men in Pittsburgh sports.
“It’s amazing for any play to come back,” said director Ted Pappas. “You get one run of a great show and you feel fortunate. It’s pretty wonderful. It’s a play about a lot of things, the City of Pittsburgh, the founding of the Steelers, but most important it’s about family.
“If the story is true, and the person telling the story is fun and exciting, I think that story telling pulls everybody in no matter what their age is. We have people coming from all over the country and world to see the show. You are sitting with veteran theater goers and football fanatics.”
Time is running out, though, to catch The Chief as it will be presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods at the O’Reilly Theater only until Saturday, Jan. 12. Steelers’ chairman Dan Rooney took in the play last week, as have many Steelers’ fans recently.
“You will never see more men at a show than at this one,” said Zellers. “I was listening to two guys talk about it, and one said, ‘what did you think?’ and he said ‘awesome,” and turned around to his friend and said, ‘dude, we’ve got to see more plays.’”
Tickets can be purchased by calling the Pittsburgh Public Theater box office at 412-316-1600 or visiting www.ppt.org.
* * *
Steelers.com got a behind the scenes look at The Chief. Check out the photos and video that shows the set, featuring some great Steelers history.
Tom Atkins as Art Rooney, Sr., “The Chief.”
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Steelers’ center Maurkice Pouncey and long snapper Greg Warren were named to the USA Football All-Fundamentals Team. The team honors 26 NFL players, 11 each on offense and defense and four on special teams, who exhibit the fundamentals and techniques of football that provide proper examples for youth football players.
Pouncey, who was just voted to his third Pro Bowl, has continued to grow in all areas since his rookie season, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“He’s a football player,” said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “I mean that in a way – when he came out of college, if you just relied on his timing, speed and his combine numbers, he’d be just another guy. But when the pads are on, he’s special. His football playing ability at his position doesn’t add up to the measurables, so to speak. It comes down to, when you are evaluating these guys, they better be good football players. He is just that. I didn’t know that about him. That’s even more impressive.
“We see it every day. You just don’t want to take it for granted, because he is special. He is a really smart player. He helps a bunch of other guys. He is very athletic. When his pads are on, he allows you to do things you wouldn’t be able to with other players at his position.”
Warren, in his eighth season out of North Carolina, has been a stabilizing force on the Steelers’ special teams unit, working with several different place kickers and punters during his time with the Steelers.
Pouncey and Warren will receive a $1,500 grant from USA Football to donate to the youth or high school program of their choice.
The two are also eligible to win the All-Fundamentals Team Captain award, which will be determined by a fan vote. Fans can vote for one captain on offense, defense and special teams and each of the three winners will receive a $3,000 equipment grant for them to donate. Fans can vote now through Jan. 21 at www.facebook.com/usafootball.
Tight end Heath Miller, safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker LaMarr Woodley have all been named to the All-Fundamentals team over the last three years.
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If Will Allen had his way, he would be spending this week in team meetings, on the practice field and watching film through the night, getting ready for a playoff game this weekend or next.
But unfortunately things didn’t go as planned this season, and instead of practicing he is preparing to head off into an offseason of uncertainty for the free agent safety.
“I still feel like I have to get ready for this week,” said Allen. “I am kind of at a loss for words. I think we missed out on a lot of opportunities this year. We had some very strong points but some very low points as well. We have to evaluate and get better this offseason. We need to press hard and come together as a team, so we can face those adverse situations better, and those critical moments in games where we didn’t execute well.”
Allen was called upon heavily this season not just to play in situational defenses, but to start seven games when Troy Polamalu was injured and saw extended playing time as Polamalu was slowly worked back into the lineup.
“I was able to help the team the best way I could,” said Allen. “That’s what I am here for, to help the team win and help the team the best way I can. I am thankful for the opportunity. There are still many ways I can get better and this team can get better. We just have to get better in the critical moments of a game.”
The defense finished ranked No. 1 overall in the NFL, first against the pass and second against the rush. But they weren’t satisfied. The defense was 12th in the AFC with 20 takeaways, an even mix of 10 interceptions and fumble recoveries, and 25th overall in the NFL. It’s an area Allen knows has to pick up next year.
“The lack of turnovers on defense this year, we didn’t make enough,” said Allen. “We didn’t make enough at all. We started getting them later this season. That helped our offense be more opportunistic. Next year, I think we need to focus on that from day one. To have the number-one defense and number-one pass defense two consecutive years is tremendous. I just think we need to get our turnover ratio up.”
Allen is one of 18 players who will become a free agent in March and knows there could be opportunities for him to potentially be a full-time starter elsewhere, but also knows what he has in Pittsburgh.
“The Steelers organization is great,” said Allen. “I really have enjoyed my time here. I’ve enjoyed the team. It’s a lot of fun. I love to compete here. I love the fans. It’s a hard place to leave. Even if they let you go it’s a hard place to leave. When that time comes, when March comes, I will sit back and think about what decision to make.”
Allen said he doesn’t have to talk to other players who have left via free agency, including linebacker Larry Foote who left and came back, to know how special it is to play for the Steelers.
“It’s very hard to leave you once you’ve been here,” said Allen. “I really don’t know what will happen. I want to talk like I will be here, because I love it here. I love playing here and playing for Coach Tomlin.
“I know what it is like to be away from here. I played in Tampa for six years. There were some good years, and there were some horrible years there. I know what it’s like to play for a great organization here in Pittsburgh. To leave would be difficult.”
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Jerricho Cotchery reflected on the 2012 season and there was one thing that stuck out in his mind – missed opportunities.
“I think it was kind of the whole season,” said Cotchery. “You look at the Oakland game, you look at the Tennessee game, games that we pretty much had in control and for some reason they slipped away. You look at things like that and kill yourself the entire night or the entire offseason looking back at those games.
“Hopefully they’ll be good learning moments for us and teaching moments that show that we have to take advantage of our opportunities and make those plays when necessary.”
Cotchery, who finished the season with 17 receptions for 205 yards as the team’s fourth receiver, said he would have liked to have done more to help an offense he described as inconsistent.
“We were very inconsistent as an offense,” said Cotchery. “We just made a lot of critical errors. I’m a part of the offense and it’s just disappointing. I think every guy is going to put in the necessary work this offseason to make sure that inconsistent play doesn’t show up again next year.”
The Steelers had a slew of injuries this season, which included losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for three games. And while nobody had blamed injuries for the 8-8 finish, Cotchery knows losing a franchise quarterback for any amount of time is going to have an impact on the team.
“You never want to use that as an excuse, but it’s Ben,” said Cotchery. “I remember in the Oakland game we were on the sidelines and we were looking at the pictures and it was like we got everything we wanted. We were moving the ball so well and things of that nature, so I felt like we were growing. Then all of a sudden Ben gets hurt and that slows the progression a little bit. That’s just the reality of it.
“Once Ben got back in, we were just trying to recapture what we had earlier on in the year, but it just didn’t take place. I think the progression would have been a lot better if Ben wouldn’t have gotten hurt, but those things happen over the course of the season and we just have to deal with it.”
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Linebacker Lawrence Timmons led the Steelers in sacks this season with six, the first time an inside linebacker has every led the team in sacks, but he is quick to admit he would have liked to have done more.
“I feel like I did okay. I could have done better,” said Timmons. “I wish I would have started the year better. I felt like I finished strong toward the end. My thing is not about how you start, it is how you finish.”
Timmons finished strong with six tackles and two sacks, as well as a forced fumble and fumble recovery against the Browns, helping the Steelers secure the NFL’s No. 1 defense.
“I guess we ended on a positive note,” said Timmons. “That’s the way I look at it.
“It’s definitely good to finish number-one in the league. It’s a tough league. We wish we were in the playoffs, but that’s life. We are just being optimistic. We need to get everybody healthy and get ready for next year.”
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