Character (Ac)Counts: Mentoring the Fledgling Steelers

via Post-Gazette, Peter Diana photo

by Rebecca Rollett

In my (many) years upon this earth, one of the things I’ve found to be universally true is that the toddler remains firmly entrenched in each one of us for our whole lives. The “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine too” attitude is part and parcel of our DNA. As we get older and smarter, we learn to disguise this in clever ways. We even, if we really work at it, come to see this as something which should be internally suppressed, as well as just tamed for company manners.

It’s All About the Pie

But it’s pretty hard for almost all of us to not view things from the “how does this benefit me” standpoint. After all, a great many of the things we want in life are part of a pie, if you will. It might be a really big pie, and it might even be an expandable pie, but once the pie has been divided up and shared around, it’s gone.

NFL roster spots are part of a very small, non-expandable pie. If the team decides to keep three quarterbacks or 11 linebackers or what have you, each of those 11 linebackers is reducing the number of other positions available.

But the calculation is even more stark than that. If the team will keep four running backs at most, and if two guys are locks for the position, then the other nine guys in the running backs room can see the writing on the wall. Simple math tells you every guy in the room represents one less chance you are going to get one of the two coveted remaining spots.

So it would be obvious to most of us that the last thing a veteran whose hold on his position is tenuous at best wants to do is mentor his possible replacement. And yet this is what the Steelers expect from their players, year after year, and it is what they apparently get as well.

Competition for places on an NFL team is not only unavoidable but desirable. This doesn’t mean the team culture has to be “nature red in tooth and claw.” As head coach Mike Tomlin put it at the beginning of the 2010 season when talking about Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, there were “two dogs and one bone.” However, Brown and Sanders forged a bond of what one might call co-operative competition. I believe this is at least in part because of the prevailing culture of mentorship.

Steelers-Style Leadership

This idea of mentorship begins at the top. Tomlin espouses a style of leadership he learned from his mentor, Tony Dungy. The essence of this style of leadership is to encourage and support the development of each person under one’s authority. To do so you have to know the people who work for you well enough to know what they need in terms of guidance and direction, and how they can best receive it.

As Robert Greenleaf said in a 1970 essay,  

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

An example of this approach can be seen in how Tomlin handled defensive back Curtis Brown. A searing 2011 interview by’s Teresa Varley revealed the dark times he came through to make it to the NFL. (I definitely recommend you follow the link to the full interview, but be sure to have plenty of Kleenex handy.)

After he was drafted by the Steelers, though, his life didn’t magically improve. As Brown said: 

“The walls were closing in on me. Since I didn’t know anybody, didn’t really know the players and coaches yet … who do you have? It takes me a while to get used to anyone. I don’t just open up to people like that. I have always been a sheltered type dude.”

From somewhere inside himself, Brown knew he would have to open up and trust others, but it wasn’t easy. He turned to Coach Mike Tomlin and Ray Jackson, who works in the area of player development.

“That helped me a lot,” said Brown. “I found out everybody here wants to help you. They don’t want to harm you. It’s a family atmosphere. It’s good people here.”

While Brown may not have had the career with the Steelers many of us hoped for, I am so glad he received help and care while with the Steelers organization. That the head coach would take time to help a young player in the midst of everything else he has to do speaks volumes.

Not everyone can get a “hat,” or even a roster spot, but the personal and professional development fostered by a servant-leader can help those who didn’t get one to find a place on another team, or use what they have learned in another field in “life after football.” Servant-leadership may not seem like the quickest or most direct way to the goal, but I believe it is the one which will pay the greatest eventual dividends, both for the organization and the individuals involved.

It is also interesting to contrast Tomlin with other coaches. I was struck by newly-signed cornerback Brandon Boykin’s assertion that Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly wasn’t good at relating to players, and that “[b]asically, he felt ignored.” 

Obviously, as Mike Tomlin would say, there are different types of men and different coaching styles, and my purpose here is not to try to prove that one is more effective than another. But I do believe the tone set by the head coach is likely to make a difference in the locker room culture. It’s hard to imagine Tomlin having fines for thin-skinned coaches and players, as Nicholas Dawidoff reports in “Collision Low Crossers” that Rex Ryan did as head coach of the New York Jets.

It is instructive to think about this on the day after new Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan named Richie Incognito as the starting guard for the season. Whether it’s fair or not to cast him in this role, Incognito represents the antithesis of locker room mentoring.

I was so pleased when, after news of the Miami Dolphins hazing scandal came out, I read a quote from an interview with former Steeler Willie Colon. Colon was then, ironically, playing for Ryan’s New York Jets, and presumably had no incentive to stretch the truth when talking about the Steelers: 

MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas asked Colon if “the right way” was a young player paying $15,000 for a linemen trip to Las Vegas. “When I was in Pittsburgh,” Colon said, “Mike Tomlin said something great: It’s unfair to make a sixth-round guy pay for a $15,000 trip to Vegas when you have your starting linemen making over two-point-something million [dollars]. [Martin was a second-round pick.] He doesn’t have that money. Guys don’t earn that money until later in their careers. To make a young guy pay, that is very unfair, and it’s selfish because that man has a family and people and other needs. So to take $15,000 out of any young guy’s pocket for a trip to get crazy is unfair, and it’s selfish. If you want to let a guy pay for dinner or a night on the town, that’s fine. It’s nothing that should hurt a man’s life or his way of living; that’s disrespectful.”

Legendary Safety Troy Polamalu had this to say about the issue:  

“I was actually worried coming out of college [in 2004] because you hear about stories, people getting their hair shaved or what not and I thought they would cut my hair when I came it Pittsburgh, but it was the exact opposite here,” Polamalu said on “The Herd.” “Guys accepted me with open arms. Anything I needed whether it was a car, whether it was to sleep at their house and we only return that favor now that I’m a veteran on the team. Any young guy, whether they need a car or a house or some extra spending cash, whatever it may be we try our best to help them…We teach them the best way we know on how to be professional, how to take care of your body, how to train, how to learn the defense, the offense, whatever it may be…”

Developing Mentorship

This year’s camp is replete with examples of such mentoring. A little item on demonstrated some entry-level mentoring, if you will. Running back Le’Veon Bell has taken it upon himself to mentor rookie linebacker Bud Dupree. This isn’t a huge deal, of course, in that it’s unlikely Dupree is ever going to impact whether Le’Veon Bell gets a roster spot. But it is still a man taking time he could spend on himself to help a new player. As Teresa Varley tells it:

Potential is something Bell definitely sees in Dupree, the Steelers’ No. 1 draft pick out of Kentucky.

“He has been out there making plays,” said Bell. “He has some things you can’t coach in a player. When you have that natural ability you just touch them up sometimes and let him go. He has been showing what he is able to do..”

Seeing that potential, seeing what Dupree is made of, has Bell staying close to the rookie, helping him in his adjustment to the NFL and giving him tips on how to take care of his body. And when a guy like Bell, who has 2.9% body fat offers you tips about caring for your body, why not listen.

“I took him by my side off the field, going in the cold tub, making sure he is going in the hot tub, taking care of his body because he is going to be a good player for us,” said Bell. “He is a guy who came around me, saw me in the cold tub. I told him 25 minutes. He has been sitting in there with me. I saw him struggle a few times, shivering a little bit, but is sticking in there. As a rookie it is hard to do that. As a rookie my guy was Jerricho Cotchery. He was the guy I looked up to. Now in my third year I am helping those guys out.”

And it’s something Dupree appreciates…

“It’s always good to have people who want to look out for you and help you be the best that you can be and see potential in you.”

Antonio Brown is probably not worried about losing his roster spot. But he has achieved his position by relentless work. Yet he also takes the time to work with the younger receivers, as noted by Martavus Bryant during training camp this year:

When I wasn’t playing at first, I’d always talk to him about how to stay focused, how to keep working, especially when you get down. But he’s been a big brother and a great leader the whole time.

James Harrison wouldn’t seem to be an obvious mentor type. He’s too intimidating, for one thing. Tribune-Review writer Ralph N. Paulk reports that Harrison is champing at the bit to get back to practicing, but Mike Tomlin continues to hold him out. In the meantime, though, he’s making good use of his time, both in his own conditioning and in developing the other linebackers: 

Harrison has been a player-coach and mentor during camp. Dupree and linebacker Arthur Moats view his insight as invaluable.

“James is a great help when it comes to physicality,” Dupree said. “For someone like me, who has played mostly on the edge, he’s teaching me how to take on different blocks. The blocks I didn’t see in college, (Harrison) helps me recognize them.”

“It’s bigger than the X’s and O’s with James,” Moats said. “He gets down to the little details that will make us successful.”

Another item, this time by Mark Kaboly, which appeared in the same issue of the Trib, was from the above-mentioned Moats:

There is an influx of talent at outside linebacker, with the re-signing of Arthur Moats and James Harrison to go along with former first-rounder Jarvis Jones and draft picks Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo. That has created competition among the group. “Still, nobody is so caught up in the competition that they won’t help somebody out or help somebody learn and get better,” Moats said.

Last season safety Shamarko Thomas was invited by the quiet, private Troy Polamalu to train with him. As Thomas said: 

“I texted him. I said ‘I want to be great.’” Thomas revealed. “And he explained what it takes to be great. He said, ‘You have to show me by your actions first, by being mature in the way you carry yourself off the field,’ and all that stuff.

“One day we just got in a conversation to come out there and train with him.”

Thomas wound up spending a week in San Diego with Polamalu after the Steelers wrapped up their three-day mandatory minicamp, in advance of the team reporting to Saint Vincent College.

“It felt like a month because he trained so hard,” Thomas said.

The pairing was unprecedented and, from Thomas’ perspective, unforgettable.

“I was the first person to ever work out with him,” Thomas said. “It was an amazing experience just to learn from that type of guy. Not just working out but his mentality, the way he goes about his days and how he takes care of his family.

“It motivates me. For a guy like him who’s going to be a Hall-of-Famer to take me out there and show me the ropes, it was just an amazing experience.”

Thomas likened Polamalu’s workouts to “a karate movie. It’s like some ninja stuff but it works for him,” Thomas continued. “It works for me, too.”

The objective is for the program Polamalu embraces to work on a number of levels.

“To me training is not only a football discipline,” Polamalu said. “It’s a very spiritual exercise for me. It’s about pushing your boundaries not only as a football player but a person. My goal in training and learning to train, it’s not necessarily to maximize yourself as an athlete only, but as a human being, spiritually, physically, emotionally.

Off-The-Field Mentoring

But while this mentoring is critical on the field, I was privileged to witness an example of mentoring off the field this past year.

For several years Brett Keisel has been the honorary chairman of the 65 Roses Sports Auction, which raises funds for cystic fibrosis research.  Part of the event is a “Fear Da Beard” competition.

Last November, suspecting the 2014 season was his last as a Steeler and wanting to make sure the event was taken care of, Keisel invited Cameron Heyward to be the co-chairman. Heyward isn’t a person who appears to crave attention, but he stepped up to the plate. It’s been great to see him bloom on the field under Keisel’s mentoring, and he’s obviously blooming off the field as well.

To me, this sums up what I love about the Steelers organization: they play hard on the field, give back to the community off the field, and take care of each other. That’s a beautiful thing!

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