Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Mike Prisuta: Same Old Steelers

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Mike Prisuta
Wednesday, May 31, 2006

If the Steelers are as distracted as the soap operas, mini-dramas and other headline-inspiring highlights of their Super Bowl offseason suggest, they're hiding it well.

Coaching sessions resumed Tuesday on the South Side.

It might as well have been St. Vincent College in August.

The steamy conditions contributed mightily to what was taking place resembling just another training camp practice, the type that has been integral to the Steelers going 13-3, 10-5-1, 15-1 and 11-5 in four of the past five regular seasons.

The exception in that run of double-digit victory totals and playoff appearances was the 6-10 disaster of 2003, an injury-plagued campaign that also was dragged down by soggy conditions that affected the Steelers' ability to practice in the preseason and, in retrospect, an overall attitude that fell short of the nose-to-the-grindstone approach Bill Cowher has since consistently gleaned from his team.

There was no evidence to suggest that commitment had waned yesterday afternoon.

Even though linebacker Joey Porter has had to offer an explanation/clarification of tongue-in-cheek comments directed at President Bush.

Even though wide receiver Hines Ward has had to clarify the context of quotes attributed to him relative to his relationship with Cowher in a national publication.

Even though No. 1 pick Santonio Holmes has been arrested and briefly detained in South Florida.

It's still all business on South Water Street as far as the Steelers are concerned, which includes the players entertaining themselves while going about the business of getting their work in.
It has been all along this spring.

"These have been the best coaching sessions since I've been here, unquestionably," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, acknowledging the "effort and focus" of the players he coaches.

Speaking for the offense, tight end Jerame Tuman allowed for a certain ragged character surfacing on occasion due to the preponderance of inexperienced newcomers taking part. Still, "When it's the No. 1's and No. 2's going against each other, it's been very competitive," Tuman said.

You'd expect them to say nothing less, not because of their ties to the team, but because LeBeau and Tuman know NFL titles aren't won in May and June.

When training camp cranks up July 28, the Steelers will begin to reveal how committed they are to repeating.

Until then, conspiracy theorists can deduce what they will from offseason developments that are about as relevant to the upcoming season as Ben Roethlisberger riding a motorcycle without a helmet ultimately was to the quest for Super Bowl XL.

In the meantime, the Steelers will do their thing, which includes linebackers paying for dropped interceptions with push-ups and injured players such as Mike Logan running individual sprints during team drills.

The Steelers are doing it this spring with an approach that suggests they're out to make a statement about winning The Big One having in no way, shape or form altered their resolve.

"I would hope so," LeBeau observed, although on this point he and Tuman disagree.

"I'm not consciously thinking about that, and I don't know if the rest of the guys have," Tuman said. "It's just something that's in the character and the makeup of this team.

"When it's a work day we come to work."

Film at 11.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Ron Cook: Dr. Casey Makes House Call, Cures Some of Pirates' Ails

Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Of the countless ways to delineate the Pirates' rotten season, this might be the most instructive:

It took until Memorial Day for Sean Casey -- the team's highest-paid player -- to play in a win.

And Casey thought his pain from a broken back was excruciating.

"It's kind of hard to believe it took this long," Casey said after he and the Pirates provided one of their more entertaining performances at PNC Park by thumping the Milwaukee Brewers, 14-3, last night.

"[Teammate] Roberto Hernandez was kidding me before the game. 'It's time to get your first win.' It was good to get back in there."

It's hard to say how many more games the Pirates would have won if Casey hadn't gone down in a heap after a collision at first base April 14. A cynic would say not many. The team lost all nine games in which he played before his injury.

But Casey is a professional hitter, a .305 lifetime batter. That's why the Pirates were so eager to trade for him in the off-season and pick up $7.5 million of his $8.5 million contract. You have to think he might have made a difference in a few of their 12 one-run losses without him. Certainly, he had a sudden and dramatic impact in his return last night. It wasn't just his run-scoring single in the first inning, his two-run double in the fourth and his lashing single in the sixth. "He lengthens our lineup," manager Jim Tracy said.


Casey took the third spot in the batting order, dropping Freddy Sanchez to the No. 6 hole. Sanchez is a dirtball player who is easy to love, but he's no No. 3 hitter. Jose Castillo and Ronny Paulino, both of whom have been swinging hot bats, hit No. 7 and No. 8.

"Our lineup is fairly deep again," Tracy said.

It's funny, there has been plenty of angst about that lineup in recent days, which is surprising because these are the Pirates of the dismal 17-34 record, not the '27 Yankees. Much of it has centered around Casey's return to first base. What is Tracy going to do with Craig Wilson? More of it, implausibly, has centered around Joe Randa's return to third, still several days away. What is Tracy going to do with Sanchez?

Easy, people.

It doesn't make sense exerting a lot of worry about Wilson, Randa and Jeromy Burnitz at this point. None will be with the Pirates next season. Nor probably will Casey, for that matter, because he's 32 next month, will be a free agent, makes a big buck, has had to fight through a ton of injuries and doesn't hit many home runs. That isn't to say he doesn't deserve the most playing time of the group. He gives the team its best chance in any given game.

The best part of Tracy's lineup last night was that Jose Bautista was in it, batting leadoff and playing center field. It's true, he came in with a .212 batting average, but he's an intriguing player and should be a big part of the Pirates' future, although there are no guarantees with this cursed team. (Can you say Chris Duffy?) He hit his fourth home run last night in just his 55th at-bat of the season and just missed another when he doubled off the left-field wall an inning later.

You bet Bautista is an intriguing player.

He's also the one name that should be in the Pirates' lineup almost every game, either in center field, right or at third base, his likely long-term position.

Tracy started Wilson in right last night against Brewers left-hander Doug Davis. It's smart to platoon Wilson and Burnitz, even smarter to give some of Burnitz's at-bats against right-handers to Bautista. Wilson also will get some starts at first base to give Casey a rest as he plays his way back into game shape.

Like Bautista, Nate McLouth is a young player who has to play. The Pirates need to find out if he's their answer in center, especially now that Duffy has disappeared -- literally -- from the team picture.

As for Sanchez, he has to stay at third base until he stops hitting. It looked like it might be happening over the weekend when he went 2 for 17 against the Houston Astros, dropping his average from .341 to .315. But he had three singles and a sacrifice fly last night.

It's hard to imagine Randa coming back to take the position. At 36, he might be all but finished.

But it's not hard to imagine Bautista taking over at third. He appears to have the pop that's necessary at a power position. Sanchez doesn't. The day Bautista claims the position for good and Sanchez becomes a valuable utility player is the day the Pirates will have a chance to be a winning team.

"Basically, it's a pleasant problem to have," Tracy said of his lineup options.

It's all possible, at least for now, because of Casey, who was like a little kid after his successful return. Growing up in Upper St. Clair, he dreamed of playing for the hometown Pirates. His first win with the team tasted especially sweet.

"You can expect this every night -- 14 runs and 3 for 4," he said, grinning.

Not really, but it's nice to think Casey and the Pirates won't have to wait until the Fourth of July for the next win.

(Ron Cook can be reached at or 412-263-1525. )

A Night...and a Morning...That the Pirates Never Will Forget

Monday, May 29, 2006
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In the aftermath of the delight and delirium of one of the Pirates' great games in recent memory, the 8-7, 18-inning triumph of wills against the Houston Astros that ended at 12:55 a.m. yesterday, the players gathered in a circle at the center of the team's clubhouse.

A few words were spoken, but not many were needed.

"We've been through a lot, man, and most of it hasn't been good," reliever Mike Gonzalez would say later. "We have to be there for each other. We have to stick together, find a way to make this thing work."

Some players hung around to watch highlights, but most filed out at about 1:30 a.m., hoping to catch a few winks before the afternoon game that would follow in about 12 hours.
Most, but not all.

Jim Tracy thought about driving to his home in the South Hills, realized he would have to be up by 5:30 a.m. to head back, and decided against it. He asked equipment manager Roger Wilson for a blanket and camped out on his couch in the manager's office.

When he awoke, he still could not stop thinking about all that had occurred.

"Amazing," Tracy said. "Especially when you start recalling all the special things that took place over the course of that game."

The most special, of course, was the longevity itself.

The length of 5 hours, 49 minutes is believed to mark the longest game played in Pittsburgh, which has been home to a National League team since 1887. The 18 innings were the most since 1989, another 18-inning marathon against the Chicago Cubs at Three Rivers Stadium.

The most recent game in Major League Baseball to last 18 came July 28, 2005, when the Toronto Blue Jays beat the visiting Los Angeles Angels, 2-1.

Other figures:

* 45 of the 50 total players were used, including every reliever on each side. The only Pirates who did not participate were starters Zach Duke and Oliver Perez, although Duke had been ordered to head to the bullpen in the 18th in case eventual winner Victor Santos could not hold up.

* 595 pitches thrown, including 55 in five exceptional innings by Ryan Vogelsong, working his third consecutive game.

* 158 men came to the plate and produced 33 hits and 21 walks while stranding 37 on base.

Beyond the numbers, there was drama aplenty.

The Pirates overcame three deficits, in the fifth, eighth and 17th innings. All came on home runs, too, off the bats of Jason Bay, Jeromy Burnitz and Jose Castillo.

"Look at all the big hits we had, time and again," Vogelsong said. "You don't see one of those very often, much less that many."

They made several outstanding defensive plays, too.

In the eighth, shortstop Jack Wilson nailed Chris Burke at the plate with a relay throw from out in left field.

In the 13th, Bay reached above the fence in left field to take a home run from Morgan Ensberg. A few fans standing in the area helped Bay by clearing out of his way.

In the 14th, Wilson ranged deep into the hole on a bouncer by Taylor Buchholz and made an acrobatic throw across his body to first, his finest effort of the season.

As general manager Dave Littlefield put it, "There were a lot of moments that led up to the final outcome."

To be sure, though, what likely will be remembered from this one was the finish.

The Pirates had runners at the corners with nobody out in the decisive 18th, and Jose Bautista stepped to the plate looking to hit a fly ball.

"Yeah, but I wanted to hit it a lot deeper than I did," he recalled.

It went high but not far, coming down in shallow center field, where strong-armed Willy Taveras readied to throw home.

No matter what, Tracy revealed yesterday, Bay was coming home.

"You have to take that chance there," he said.

This was the thinking: Castillo was on deck, and the Astros surely would walk him. That would bring up Santos with bases loaded and bring the excellent possibility of a double play, although Tracy and bench coach Jim Lett had considered forbidding Santos from swinging.

It would be moot.

Tracy gave third base coach Jeff Cox a slight nod before Bautista's at-bat, a sign he should think aggressively. But the call still belonged to Cox, and he decided immediately after the ball went up that Bay would go.

"You've got to take a shot," Cox said. "Nothing to lose."

Taveras' throw was a good one, taking a straight path and arriving to catcher Eric Munson in plenty of time. But Munson, inexperienced behind the plate, appeared to glance to his left to see Bay barreling toward him, then never fielded the ball cleanly.

By the time Bay leveled him with a lowered shoulder, Munson had no chance to recover.

"It was one of those games, one of those moments you'll never forget," Bay said. "A really special night, from start to finish."

Friday, May 26, 2006

Another Look: Kent Tekulve

Former Pirate pitcher still contributes to team as advanced scout

Bob Barrickman, Beaver County Times Sports Correspondent

It's been 21 years since Kent Tekulve last wore a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform and 27 years since he threw the final pitch of the 1979 World Series. The former long-time reliever remains in baseball these days, currently in his first season as the Pirates advance scout. "I look at the teams that the Pirates are going to play in the near future," said Tekulve, a 6-foot-4 right-hander who was signed by the Pirates as a free agent in 1969. "I get an idea of what the pitchers and hitters will try to do in certain situations.

"I also scout the managers," said Tekulve, 59. "Do they play small ball or do they play for a big inning? (Pirates manager) Jim (Tracy) asks me how we can score one more run or give up one run less. There's a lot of travel but I love the job."

A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Tekulve made his debut in the majors with the Pirates in 1974 and stayed with the team until early in the 1985 season. He wrapped up a 16-year career with Cincinnati in 1989 with 184 saves. With a career record of 94-90, he led the NL in games pitched four times.

Tekulve has called Pittsburgh home since the Pirates memorable World Series-champion season in 1979. He and his wife, Linda, live in Upper St. Clair. They have sons, Chris, 28, Jon, 26 and Brian, 21 and a daughter, Beth, 24.

Tekulve was a set-up man in the Pirates bullpen for closer Rich Gossage in 1977. Tekluve didn't assume the closer's role immediately after Gossage signed with the New York Yankees as a free agent the following year. "Jim Bibby was the closer but he was much better suited as a starter," Tekulve said.

Tekulve took over as the closer and led the National League with 91 appearances and was second with 31 saves.

"We were never a good early-season ballclub and we fell way behind the (Philadelphia) Phillies in 1978," he said. "We couldn't quite catch them." After another shaky start in 1979, the Pirates rose to the top.

"The trade for (Bill) Madlock was the final piece to the puzzle," said Tekulve of the third baseman the Pirates acquired from the San Francisco Giants in June of '79. "That allowed Phil (Garner) to move to second (base). He was much better at second." After winning the National League East, the Pirates swept the NL West champion Reds in three games to win the pennant.

Next up were the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Tekulve was the losing pitcher in Game 4 of the series at Three Rivers Stadium, but did his better pitching on the road.

Tekulve saved Game 2 and Game 6 in Baltimore as the Bucs won two straight decisions to knot the Series at 3-3. Tekulve entered Game 7 in the eighth inning at Memorial Stadium with the Pirates leading 2-1 thanks to Willie Stargell's two-run homer in the sixth.

The Pirates tacked on two more runs in the top of the ninth inning to lead, 4-1.

Tekulve closed it out.

He struck out the first two Orioles batters.

"The infielders were throwing the ball around the horn and then Madlock was about to throw it back to me. I approached (Madlock) halfway and said, Dog, there were (26) teams in spring training looking for this 27th out, but we're the only ones who are going to find it."

The next Orioles batter was Pat Kelly and Tekulve's next pitch ended in center field. It was caught by Omar Moreno and the Pirates became world champions.

Tekulve had 31 saves to place second again in the National League in '79 and had the most appearances again with 94. He made the All-Star team in 1980 and remained with the Bucs until being traded to the Phillies for reliever Al Holland early in 1985. Tekulve signed with the Reds as a free agent in 1989 and was the oldest player in baseball at 42 when he retired after that season.

©Beaver County Times Allegheny Times 2006

Shero's Orders: Restore Pens to Premier Status

Friday, May 26, 2006
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Ray Shero didn't just get a five-year contract when the Penguins hired him as general manager yesterday.

He received -- on the 15th anniversary of their first Stanley Cup championship -- a mandate to restore the Penguins to their place among the NHL's premier franchises.

And all the power he should need to make that happen.

Shero will be the ultimate authority on every aspect of the team's hockey operations. If he's not happy with a player, he can get rid of him. If he doesn't like a coach's work, he can fire him. If he doesn't care for how injuries are treated, he can replace the medical staff.

But Shero, coming off an eight-year apprenticeship as assistant general manager of the Nashville Predators, probably hadn't accepted the offer to succeed Craig Patrick when he settled on the first thing he should do upon taking over: Nothing.

Not right away, at least.

Not until he has had a chance to talk to and observe the people under him. To learn about their work habits, attitudes and ideas. To assess how their philosophies and priorities mesh with his.
"I don't want to come in here with any knee-jerk reactions, any preconceived notions," Shero said. "I just want to evaluate things and take a little time to do that."

Some of those assessments must be completed more quickly than others. The Penguins, for example, must decide by Thursday which junior players drafted in 2004 and which European prospects selected in 2002 or earlier they want to sign. They will surrender the rights to those who do not receive contracts by June 1.

Shero, 43, said he will discuss that issue with assistant general manager Ed Johnston today and will rely heavily on what Johnston and the Penguins' scouts tell him.
"I have to trust their instincts," he said.

Although Penguins CEO Ken Sawyer gave Shero clearance to structure the hockey operation to his own specifications, Shero said he has not decided who merits consideration for the assistant general manager's job or whether he will hire a director of player personnel.

Indications are that ownership will set the Penguins' payroll for 2006-07 in roughly the same range as last season, when it crested around $34 million.

That could change if the club is sold -- something a person with knowledge of the situation said might well happen this summer -- but it's hard to imagine the Penguins flirting with the upper reaches of the league's salary cap.

Shero acknowledged that the Penguins are unlikely to pursue big-ticket free agents this summer, but noted that rosters can be reshaped by various means, including trades and waiver claims.

"There are all different ways to build this team," he said. "We have to look at all of them, not just [unrestricted] free agents."

There are, however, potential complications. At the moment, Shero said, the Penguins have the league maximum of 50 players under contract.

"If someone offers us Daniel Alfredsson for a seventh-round pick, we can't even pick him up," he said. "That doesn't make any sense. I'd like to get that down, clean it up a bit if we can."

Two of those 50, forwards Jani Rita and Niklas Nordgren, have signed to play in Europe next season and the departure of veterans such as defenseman Lyle Odelein should open up a few more spots. It also is likely the Penguins will not try to retain all their restricted free agents.

Those judgments must be made by mid-June. Free agency is scheduled to begin July 1, and Shero said that under the labor agreement negotiated last summer, players cannot be signed from June 15-30.

In an early conversation with Sawyer, Sawyer raised the issue of being "saddled" with a coach he did not pick because the Penguins already had committed to keeping Michel Therrien.

But even though he is a staunch backer of Nashville associate coach Brent Peterson -- a candidate for several coaching vacancies with the Penguins over the past decade -- Shero was adamant yesterday about the merits of retaining Therrien.

"There's been so much change here," he said. "I think we need some stability."

Therrien said recently that he has settled on "three or four" possibilities to join Mike Yeo on his staff, and Shero said that, while the decision will not be unilateral, his coach's preference will carry a lot of weight.

"I will certainly have a hand in that," Shero said. "But at the same time, I want to give the latitude for people to hire people they can work with."

The Penguins have the second choice in the June 24 entry draft, and Shero said it is "ultimately, my decision" about who they will select. Defenseman Erik Johnson is widely regarded as the top prospect, but St. Louis, which has the No. 1 choice, has given no indication about whether it will take him.

Likewise, Shero wouldn't commit on who he'd like to get in the second spot -- "Even if I had a guy, I wouldn't [publicly identify] him" -- or whether he likes one prospect enough to make a serious effort to acquire the Blues' pick.

Building through the draft takes time and, while Shero stressed that the Penguins will use "every available measure" to construct a competitive team, he was adamant that he's not interested in short-term fixes. Instead, he spoke of the importance of vision and patience, and said, "I think I have that."

Shero accepted the Penguins' offer after being heavily courted by Boston. Despite the prestige of working for an Original Six team such as the Bruins -- and the possibility that the Penguins will relocate after the coming season -- he said the job here was simply too attractive to turn down.
"For the openings around the league, this is like a gem, really," Shero said. "I really feel this is the best place for us."

(Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144. )

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Joe Starkey: Foote Fires Back at Palmer

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

OK, it's not quite as advanced as Steelers-Raiders of the 1970s.

Not yet, anyway.

We haven't seen anything like the time Raiders safety George Atkinson sued Chuck Noll for slander after Noll accused Atkinson (who'd knocked future Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann cold) of being part of the Raiders' "criminal element."
But we're getting there.

The Steelers-Cincinnati Bengals rivalry has reached a boiling point. In May. We're two months shy of training camp, three shy of the teams' first clash of 2006 and six shy of the season finale New Year's Eve at Paul Brown Stadium (bring your party hats).

The latest salvo came from an unlikely source -- injured and normally mild-mannered Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who told Sports Illustrated that he "hates the Steelers" and was upset when they won the Super Bowl.

Not exactly lawsuit material, but eye-opening nonetheless.

"I keep thinking about how much, back in college, I hated UCLA," Palmer told SI's Michael Silver. "I hate the Steelers more than I hate UCLA. Yeah, it's because I'm jealous and want what they have. ... It's how everybody in our locker room feels."

I dutifully brought this quote to the Steelers' attention Wednesday.

"Carson Palmer only beat us one time, so he should hate us," said linebacker Larry Foote, who knows the Steelers are 4-1 against the Bengals in the Palmer era. "I'd hate a team, too, if I only beat them one time and (lost) in the playoffs."

I asked Foote to gauge the Bengals' bitterness toward the Kimo von Oelhoffen hit that blew out Palmer's knee early in the Steelers' playoff victory.

"They self-destructed and started crying," Foote said. "But, you know, that's the game. People get hurt. You just have to get yourself together, get your composure. They lost it. ... When teams are forcing your will on you, it's going to make you do crazy stuff."

Cornerback Ike Taylor didn't know quite what to make of Palmer's comments.

"Wow," Taylor said. "He said he hates the Steelers? That's pretty much a strong statement, but, hey, everybody's entitled to their own opinion."

Here's one: The Steelers-Bengals rivalry has become the hottest in the NFL. Its official launching point, I'd argue, was when Troy Polamalu plastered Palmer -- his former USC teammate and housemate -- at the goal line to clinch a 28-17 victory Oct. 3, 2004, at Heinz Field.

It heated up in training camp last year, when Bengals receiver Chad Johnson insulted the entire Steelers' secondary, and continued through a Steelers' victory in Cincinnati and a Bengals victory at Heinz Field, one that all but clinched the AFC North title.

After that one, you'll recall, Johnson compared the Steelers to a black-and-white TV.

A little more than a month later, immediately after the Steelers gained revenge in the playoffs, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis took an indirect shot at Roethlisberger, and NFL Films captured Steelers coach Bill Cowher performing a version of the Bengals "Who Dey" chant in the locker room.
He would do the chant again -- repeatedly -- at the Super Bowl parade.
Think that'll be replayed in Bengals camp during Steelers week?

"They can do whatever," Foote said. "They know deep down inside what we bring to the table.
They know it, and they're just not ready yet. Our coaches and our players were just a step ahead of them. Hopefully, we keep it going. We're going to play them twice again and maybe in the playoffs. I'm looking forward to it."

Who's not?

Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Crosby's Star Shines at Worlds

Tuesday, May 23, 2006
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Penguins rookie center Sidney Crosby didn't get to participate in the NHL playoffs. He wasn't chosen to play for Team Canada in the Turin Olympics earlier this year.

He no doubt made hockey fans wish he had been involved in both after his performance in the hockey world championships in Riga, Latvia.

At 18, Crosby was one of the most dominant players in the tournament. He became the youngest player to lead the world championships in scoring with 16 points in nine games and led all players with eight goals for Canada, which finished fourth.

Crosby yesterday was named the top forward and made the tournament all-star team along with forwards Alex Ovechkin of Russia and Dave Vyborny of the Czech Republic, defensemen Niklas Kronwell of Sweden and Petteri Nummelin of Finland, and goaltender Andrei Mezin of Belarus.

After being taken first overall in the 2005 NHL draft, Crosby became the youngest NHL player to record 100 points and finished with 102, breaking Mario Lemieux's team rookie record for assists and points.

Penguins prospect Evgeni Malkin, 19, the second overall NHL draft pick in 2004, tied for fifth in scoring at the world championships with three goals, nine points in seven games for Russia.

The Penguins and Malkin are hopeful he will join the NHL team for the 2006-07 season, something that is primarily dependent on the NHL and Russia coming to terms on a transfer agreement.

(Shelly Anderson can be reached at or 412-263-1721.)

Joe Starkey: Gentle Jim

Joe Starkey
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Jim Tracy just can't bring himself to criticize his veteran players, even when their lack of execution or effort warrants a good ripping.

The latest example occurred Sunday, when Jose Hernandez's blown sacrifice cost the Pirates dearly in a 3-2 loss at Cleveland.

Tracy pinch hit Hernandez for Craig Wilson in the top of the ninth of a 2-2 game, with runners on first and second and nobody out. It's not clear why Tracy thought Hernandez could move the runners with a bunt, as Hernandez had zero sacrifice bunts for Tracy's 2004 L.A. Dodgers.

That was Hernandez's third consecutive season without a sacrifice bunt, though he did manage to strike out an impressive 426 times during that span. Then again, he had three sacrifice bunts with Cleveland last year, and, as a 36-year-old major leaguer, should be able to execute such a simple play, correct?

No way, Jose.

Hernandez put the ball in the worst possible spot -- hard down the first-base line -- and Jeromy Burnitz was thrown out at third. Jose Castillo promptly hit into a double play.

Television analyst John Wehner and radio analyst Bob Walk both emphatically said the ball should have been bunted down the third-base line in that situation, seeing as the third baseman was covering the bag.

Walk said it's something you learn in high school.

"How can we bunt the ball right at the first baseman?" Walk said on the air.

Here's what Tracy said: "You can't fault him for not getting the bunt down. It was just that the bunt was firm. It was fair and to the first-base side, but it was firm."


Why is Hernandez here, anyway?

Only the Pirates would willingly bring back a living reminder of one of the worst trades in franchise history. What's next, a spot in the rotation for Matt Bruback?

You probably don't need to be reminded that Aramis Ramirez was shipped to the Cubs on July 22, 2003, in exchange for Bobby Hill, Bruback and Hernandez, who was hitting .149 before last night's game.

Hernandez was brought back because Tracy wanted him. Criticism of Hernandez would imply that Tracy messed up, and we all know that Don't Blame Him Jim never messes up.

Which brings us to Tracy's defense of the infamous "Burnitz Quits" sequence May 10 at PNC Park. Burnitz led off the eighth, with the Pirates trailing, 6-3, and lazily jogged out a grounder to second -- one that was fielded by Arizona's Orlando Hudson several feet onto the outfield grass.

Remember, this is a franchise that has only one thing to sell, besides its ballpark. It's called effort.

We Will. Try Hard.

The Burnitz stall was a flagrant violation of that pledge. Tracy should have been on the top step of the dugout, waiting to ream him out the way he yelled at Castillo in the dugout the other day.

At least, Tracy should have admitted that Burnitz -- who makes $6 million -- hurt the team by dogging it.

Instead, we got this little gem from the manager: "Obviously, he hit a ground ball to the second baseman. I don't know ... do you think he's going to be safe?"

Well, maybe, if there's a glitch on the throw or catch. Do you think a younger player -- say, Chris Duffy -- would have gotten away without retribution on a play like that?

No way, Jose.

Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Cowher's Club

By Joe Starkey
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

As minicamp ended Monday with a grueling series of sprints, strong safety Troy Polamalu looked to his left and saw Bill Cowher, ballcap spun backward, trying to keep up.

Yes, the 49-year-old head coach was doing wind sprints.

Polamalu recognized the act as genuine, not as a contrived ploy to loosen up the troops.
"It's just who he is," Polamalu said.

Somebody asked free safety Ryan Clark if he could picture Joe Gibbs, his former coach with the Washington Redskins, racing his players.

"Coach Gibbs is more of a treadmill walker," Clark said, laughing.

A newcomer, Clark likes what he sees.

"One thing about this team," he said, "it's a close-knit group."

Cowher makes it so. That doesn't mean everyone likes him. He wouldn't be much of a boss if that were the case.

Openness and mutual respect are the keys to Cowher's success.

The Rooneys have created an atmosphere in which the head coach has the authority -- and security -- to run his program. The head coach, in turn, has created an atmosphere in which players know their roles and coaches can freely do their jobs.

There are no secrets -- and Cowher doesn't ask people to do anything he wouldn't do.

Including run sprints.

"Pretty much what you see is what you get," says defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "You never have to wonder where you stand with him. He's a good, honest coach -- very secure in what he's doing."

A sure sign of that security: Cowher's cravings for micromanagement have all but disappeared.
Not that he's lost his bite.

"It's still not too hard to get on the wrong side of him," LeBeau said, smiling.

At one time, Cowher was viewed as a tyrant who made life miserable for his assistants. There might have been some truth to that, but it seems like a ridiculous notion now, as his staff -- perhaps the NFL's finest -- has returned intact for a third consecutive season.

Don't discount such continuity as a critical factor in the team's bid to repeat as Super Bowl champion. It allowed Cowher to recharge his battery without having to conduct job searches and interviews, and it allowed everyone else to pick up where they left off in February once minicamp began.

"We're not coaching coaches, and there's a lot to be said for that," Cowher said. "You worry about coaching players, but sometimes you find yourself coaching coaches."

When LeBeau left in 1997 to run Cincinnati's defense, some figured he'd simply had enough of Cowher.

"I've never quite understood where all that came from," LeBeau said.

The theory crumbled when LeBeau chose to return two years ago, instead of taking a job in Buffalo or elsewhere. Cowher, for his part, never held it against LeBeau for having made a lateral move to a divisional opponent.

LeBeau enjoys his autonomy here.

"(Cowher) has never come into the room too often when I've been running the meetings," he said. "I guess, in a way, that's a compliment. I take it as such."

Quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple, integral to Ben Roethlisberger's development, feels the same sort of freedom.

"(Cowher) hires you to do a job, and there's respect there," Whipple says.

One of Cowher's underrated qualities is choosing top-notch assistants. He has the perfect mix of veterans such as LeBeau, Russ Grimm (offensive line), Dick Hoak (running backs), Bruce Arians (wide receivers) and John Mitchell (defensive line), plus bright young assistants such as offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and secondary coach Darren Perry.

It's funny how people keep speculating on who'll replace Jerome Bettis as "the new face of the franchise."

The new face is the old face, the same face as before.


Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at

Polamalu a Reluctant Media Star

Commercial success not part of Polamalu's world
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Coming soon to a television near you ...

A Troy Polamalu commercial for Nike.

You gotta see it to believe it.

"I was pretty much forced into doing it," Polamalu said the other day at Steelers minicamp, his voice barely more than a whisper.

That's Polamalu away from football: shy, almost timid, the last guy in the world you would figure for an All-Pro.

You see him making fabulous plays all over the field and taking the occasional personal foul or unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he momentarily loses his mind and control of his emotions.

But off the field?

Just say he's a very reluctant football hero.

Ben Roethlisberger has capitalized on his fame from Super Bowl XL and turned it into a small fortune. Hines Ward. Jerome Bettis. Joey Porter. So many of the others.

Polamalu could be bigger than all of 'em except for Big Ben -- quarterbacks, you understand -- for a couple of reasons. One, he has a distinctive look with that long, flowing black hair. You know it's him when you see him. And two, he might be the most unique talent in the NFL.
Remember how Lawrence Taylor redefined the outside linebacker position? Polamalu is doing it for safeties.

And all he has done since the Super Bowl is one Nike shoot?

After his agent, Marvin Demoff, twisted his arm?

"I don't like prestige," Polamalu said. "I could go off and live in the mountains and raise my family."

You laugh.

Polamalu is serious.

He must drive Demoff crazy.

"People can define themselves in different ways," Polamalu said. "I don't define my life by winning a Super Bowl. I'm not saying it's not important. It is because it's a blessing. It just doesn't define who I am as a person. My faith does that."

It has been a long time since Pittsburgh has had an athlete like this. Jeff King is the last one who comes to mind. The Pirates made him the No. 1 overall selection in the 1986 draft and he went on to have a fine career. But he never was comfortable in the spotlight. He had a hard time with the media scrutiny and the fan adulation. He was almost painfully shy.

Today, King lives about as far from civilization as possible, on a cattle ranch in western Montana.
Maybe Polamalu will be his neighbor one day.

It's funny, there has been an e-mail going around about Polamalu buying dinner for everybody at a local restaurant. You probably received it. Everybody else has. Anyway, the story goes, Polamalu was so grateful that the dinner patrons allowed him and his wife to enjoy their meal in peace that he stood up afterward, called for everyone's attention, thanked them for their courtesy, picked up all the checks and signed autographs to boot.

It's a wonderful tale.

Too bad it isn't true.

Polamalu has been known to pick up a check or two -- even for strangers -- but always right before he quietly sneaks out the door without the lucky party knowing about it. It's hard to imagine him standing in front of a group and calling attention to himself.

"Oh, my, no," he said, quietly again. "That didn't happen."

Polamalu said he doesn't go out in public much because he's uncomfortable with the attention. It's not as if he can sneak out and go unnoticed. Not even the scruffy full beard he has grown since the Super Bowl can disguise him. That long hair, tied back in a ponytail except during games when it flows freely in the wind, is a dead giveaway.

"People are always so nice and I appreciate it," Polamalu said. "But I would prefer it to be genuine, not someone just shaking your hand and telling you that you're a good football player."

Actually, they tell Polamalu he's a great football player, which makes him squirm even more.
It's true, though. There's not another player like Polamalu in the NFL. No one else can hit like a linebacker and cover like a cornerback.

The Steelers' defense was successful last season because coordinator Dick LeBeau used Polamalu in so many different ways. Opponents never knew where he was going to be or what he was going to do. You saw his pass-rush ability when he tied an NFL record for a safety with three sacks at Houston. You saw his coverage skills in the Indianapolis playoff game with his controversial interception that was, then wasn't and, as the embarrassed league office admitted afterward, should have been. You saw his toughness in the Denver playoff game when he blew through a block by tackle Cooper Carlisle to make a flying tackle on running back Tatum Bell after a 9-yard gain on a third-and-10 play. And you saw his amazing closing speed in that Denver game when he covered about 10 yards in the blink of an eye to blow up a screen pass and tackle back Mike Anderson for a 2-yard loss.

It's going to be fun to see what Nike does with that extraordinary package.

Well, fun for all of us.

Not for Polamalu.

(Ron Cook can be reached at or 412-263-1525. )

Missing Jerome

Missing the Bus
Saturday, May 13, 2006
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Somehow, it just didn't seem right. Since the Steelers moved into their South Side headquarters in 2000, the same name had hung over the locker in the corner. BETTIS. Sorry, but it was more than a little unsettling to check it out yesterday at the first day of minicamp and see 15 REID.

No offense to rookie wide receiver Willie Reid, who couldn't possibly know what Jerome Bettis meant to the team or this city.

It's funny, all of us have spent a lot of time and energy wondering how the Super Bowl champion Steelers are going to replace Antwaan Randle El and Chris Hope. Hardly anyone has asked about replacing Bettis' estimable presence.

It is not an insignificant issue.

The Steelers are lucky. They have a great coach -- safe to say now, a Hall of Fame coach -- in Bill Cowher, who always sets the right tone for the team. They have proven, respected veterans in Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings and Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward, who show how to be a professional by how hard they practice and play. And they have emerging superstar Ben Roethlisberger, who has come so far and done so much since he first stepped on the field for a minicamp practice two years ago.

They also have Joey Porter.

"It's Joey's team now," Bettis said in the wee hours after Super Bowl XL, not long after he parked the bus for the final time in Detroit.

Endorsements just don't come any better than that.

"I'm ready to fill that role," Porter said yesterday.

"I asked Jerome for the blueprint a long time ago. If you're going to learn, why not learn from the best? I watched Jerome. I saw how he handled himself. He got along with everybody. You can't just think about the guys on your unit. You have to be there for everybody. I think I can be that guy. I'll be there for all my guys, setting the tempo. Even the kickers."

You read that right.

Even the kickers.

Porter also learned about leadership from Levon Kirkland and Dermontti Dawson early in his career. "Everybody followed Levon," he said, the respect still obvious in his voice. "He always had the final say about everything."

As solid as Kirkland and Dawson were, they didn't have the locker-room impact that Bettis did. You have to go back to the 1970s -- to Joe Greene and Willie Stargell -- to find a player who was so respected and admired.

You saw that during the Steelers' march through the playoffs last season, the goal seemingly every week to win another game for Bettis, to give him a chance to go out as the ultimate winner in Detroit, his hometown.

You also saw it before Super Bowl XL when the Steelers gave Bettis the incredible tribute of sending him out alone for the pregame introductions. It was Porter's idea. You can see him on the tape of the game coverage, No. 55 standing with his arms outstretched, holding back his teammates who couldn't wait to play the biggest game of their life, yet thought so much of Bettis that they gladly allowed him one final terrific moment in the spotlight.

It turns out Porter -- who often comes across to the rest of the NFL as a big-mouthed jerk -- has a heart.

Not that he wants other teams to know.

"It wasn't a hard sell to the other guys," Porter said of his Bettis tribute. "They love Jerome, too."
Porter should be so lucky to be so loved when he retires.

It is a natural progression, Porter becoming more of a leader. He long has provided the emotional energy for the Steelers. His face -- usually snarling and yapping at opponents at the 50-yard line during the pregame stretch -- has been a prominent face of the team, almost as much as Cowher's with that glare and big jaw.

Sometimes, Porter doesn't even wait until game day to snarl and yap.

It happened before the Indianapolis playoff game last season when he insinuated the Colts were soft. He then walked the walk, playing a marvelous game, sacking Peyton Manning twice late in the fourth quarter.

It also happened before the Super Bowl when he used the word "soft" -- the heck with insinuations -- to describe Seattle tight end Jerramy Stevens because he thought Stevens had disrespected Bettis and his wonderful homecoming story. It's fair to assume, after watching Stevens drop several passes, that his head wasn't in the game.

That part of Porter's persona won't change.

"I've got to play angry to play good," he said.

But Porter's role must expand, especially now that Kimo von Oelhoffen has moved on, too. It's instructive that Bettis and von Oelhoffen were the two players who spoke to the team the night before the AFC championship game in Denver.

Like Porter said, he has to be there for everybody.

Even the lowly kickers.

"We've got a beautiful opportunity in front of us," Porter said. "We have a chance to win it all again.

"We'll be getting a lot of accolades from now until the season starts. People will be telling us how great we are. We can't buy into that because, once we get playing again, teams will be coming after us. We've got to show up and play."

Look for Porter to lead the way.

(Ron Cook can be reached at or 412-263-1525.)

Friday, May 12, 2006

Ward Backs Off on Statements

By Kevin Gorman
Friday, May 12, 2006

Steelers receiver Hines Ward has a reputation for nasty downfield blocking, but the Super Bowl XL Most Valuable Player has proven proficient in backpedaling.

In a feature in this week's Sports Illustrated, Ward said of his relationship with Steelers coach Bill Cowher: "I don't have anything to say to him. After what he did to me, after how he treated me, no. The numbers I put up? The seasons I had, for them to keep on bringing in guys...?"

In an exclusive interview with WTAE-TV (Channel 4), Ward backtracked. He tried to clarify the context of his comments, which were made in reference to the organization using first-round draft choices on receivers Troy Edwards and Plaxico Burress.

"It was a good article, but everything got taken out of context," Ward said. "The question to me was about what was the lowest part of your contract holdout, what were some things going on in your mind."

Ward told WTAE's Sally Wiggin that, during his 15-day training camp holdout, Ward asked Jerome Bettis for advice and was told not to take it personal. Ward couldn't resist, calling Cowher to ask "man-to-man" how the coach felt about the Pro Bowl receiver "as a player."

In September, Ward signed a five-year, $27 million contract with $17 million guaranteed. It's the richest deal in team history. And it paid dividends.

"Once we had our talk, that was it," Ward said. "That's the reason why I came back to camp: I needed to hear that from him. That was the question, how it was set up and asked.

"So, the quotes that was said to that was speaking to the contract negotiation. So, it all got blown out of proportion."

It was nothing a Lombardi Trophy couldn't solve.

"I had to call coach Cowher and let him know kind of how it all got (this far)," Ward said, "but we're fine."

Kevin Gorman can be reached at or (412) 320-7812.

Minicamp Begins Tomorrow For the Steelers

Friday, May 12, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Related information
Steelers Mini-Camp roster

They will gather tomorrow for the first time as a team since they paraded down Fifth Avenue more than three months ago. They will swap stories, high-fives and relive those moments of yesteryear when a late-season surge nudged them into the playoffs, where an unprecedented run on the road brought them their first Super Bowl victory in 26 years.

It will culminate June 2, when the Steelers visit the White House and, later that day, receive their Super Bowl rings in a private ceremony.

That will be it. The celebrations will end, and the 2006 season will begin. Little will be done after that to celebrate their Super Bowl XL victory, certainly not when the season opens Sept. 7 against Miami at Heinz Field.

The Steelers, starting with their three-day minicamp tomorrow on the South Side, can relive their Super moments for the next several weeks, but after that, coach Bill Cowher, along with Dan and Art Rooney, wants their focus on the 2006 season and a possible repeat.

Ownership and the coaching staff believe they have the talent to win another Super Bowl, and they don't want to celebrate that chance away. It's up to Cowher to set the tone, and he must do it without the locker-room leadership of such veterans as Jerome Bettis and Kimo von Oelhoffen.

"We're going to have a lot of new faces," Cowher said. "We're losing guys like Jerome Bettis and Antwaan Randle El and Chris Hope and Kimo. Kimo, Jerome and Antwaan Randle El in the locker room had a presence, they had a personality that exuded confidence, that exuded purpose, and some people are going to have to replace them. It's a process -- who it is remains to be seen, and what kind of identity we can re-establish remains to be seen."

The minicamp is mandatory, and everyone is expected to attend. There are dual practices tomorrow and Sunday and one Monday morning. After that, the voluntary portion of spring drills begins Wednesday with 14 sessions spread over the coming weeks until June 8, when Cowher sends them home until training camp.

They've done their best to fill the losses. Wide receiver Santonio Holmes was drafted in the first round to address the loss of Randle El. Duce Staley will get a crack at Bettis' short-yardage job at halfback. Ryan Clark was signed from the Washington Redskins to replace Hope at free safety and another, Anthony Smith, was drafted in the third round. Brett Keisel was retained in free agency to move into von Oelhoffen's spot at right end.

"There's a reality that we have a lot of people coming back," Cowher said. "There are some voids there, don't get me wrong, but there's a lot more foundation there that we can build from. It's going to take hard work and sacrifice and dealing with adversity, but, if we can do that, we'll be in the hunt."

It is supposed to be difficult to repeat as Super Bowl champion for many reasons, starting with the fact the team plays into February while most others had several weeks to lick their wounds or take a vacation. It not only delays the healing process and/or promotes fatigue, but it also delays the time when players resume their workouts for next season. Hines Ward, for example, acknowledged he's behind in his workout schedule but promised it won't be a problem for him.
There's also the matter of how every team on the Steelers' schedule should have more incentive to knock off the Super Bowl champion.

"Everyone's going to be gunning for us," Ward said. "I remember when we played Baltimore when they were champions; we wanted to mess them up every time: 'Look, ya'll [are] good but ya'll ain't going to make it to the Super Bowl again because y'all going to be hurt.' It all depends on the mind-set of each individual. Are you still living off that Super Bowl year?"

Cowher has emphasized the past few months that the Steelers were not a dominant team in 2005, so they cannot get too heady about themselves.

"I don't think we'll take ourselves too seriously," Cowher said. "I'm not so sure we were the best team in the National Football League last year. I think we were playing our best football at the right time.

"I think our guys understand that. It's a challenge. We have a lot of players back. We lost a couple of key players and we'll have to fill those voids, but, when you realize what you accomplished and you're part of history and you have an opportunity to do it back to back, it would be an unbelievable feat.

"It's going to be an unbelievable challenge in front of us as well. But I think our guys kind of want to separate themselves. We have a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice and a big commitment we'll have to make to get it done. But I think we're all relishing that opportunity, and until we get knocked out of the playoffs next year or we don't make the playoffs, we're the defending champs."

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at or 412-263-3878. )

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Book Captures Clemente's Greatness

Pirates legend shown to be worthy of hero status
10 May 2006

Clemente's statistics
Maraniss to hold Clemente book signing at PNC Park

This is what can happen when a great reporter finds a tremendous subject.

"Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero," by David Maraniss, is one of the best baseball biographies you will ever read. It is one of the best biographies you will ever read, period.

Roberto Clemente is not an easily categorized subject. His heroism is a matter of public record, but he was also a man of seemingly contradictory emotions and personal traits. Fortunately, Maraniss, as usual, is up to the task.

Maraniss, an associate editor at The Washington Post, has won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. He has written the definitive Bill Clinton biography, "First in His Class." He has written the definitive Vince Lombardi biography, "When Pride Still Mattered." He has written an epic Vietnam era book, "They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967."

With the progression from Clinton to Lombardi to Clemente, it could be argued that Maraniss is moving up the evolutionary ladder of biographical subjects. In any case, the topic of Clemente requires extreme diligence in reporting from the author, and the baseball legend receives that from Maraniss.

Just about anyone reading this Web site understands the greatness of Clemente as a player. There is plenty of baseball in this biography and a keen understanding of the game as well as Clemente's place in the game. If this were the only part of Clemente's story being told, this would still stand as a fine baseball book. But what is striking here is the quality of Maraniss' reporting, and the depth of his understanding of Clemente, the human being.

What you see unfold in this book is not merely Clemente's emergence as a true star of the game, but his personal growth.

"He was that rare athlete who was slowly achieving grace, not just as a ballplayer but as a human being," Maraniss writes. "The reality of many athletes, even those who become hailed as deities, is that they diminish with time; Clemente was the opposite, becoming more sure of himself and his larger role in life."

And it was not easy. As a Latin American pioneer in the Major Leagues, Clemente encountered prejudice in many forms, from the third-class living arrangements for non-Caucasian players in Spring Training to the sportswriters who, early in his career, delighted in quoting him in broken English and either underestimated or ignored the quality of his play. It was often, even with his growing success on the field, a lonely existence. The slights ate at Clemente, but he rose above them, as a player and as a man.

"He was shy, yet bursting with pride," Maraniss writes. "He was profoundly humble, yet felt misunderstood and undervalued."

In a recent interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, Maraniss said of Clemente: "He had what I call a beautiful fury about him, not unlike Jackie Robinson in that characteristic. Very proud, dignified, could be a pain in the butt, particularly to sportswriters, but a lot of them deserved it.

"There were so many different aspects to him; contradictory, but fascinating. He wasn't a saint, he had his flaws, but you could see him growing as a person and that's quite extraordinary."
Maraniss grew up in Wisconsin with a baseball-loving father, as a full-fledged fan of the Milwaukee Braves, but says that his favorite player was Clemente. "This book touched a part of me that none of the other books had," Maraniss said in the radio interview.

His fascination with Clemente was shared by many fans who normally would have had no rooting interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates. Clemente had the quality of greatness about him, visible to the eye and understood on sight. As is so often the case, numbers could not tell the story of Clemente's greatness.

"The rest of us were just players," Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass said. "Clemente was a prince."

As his playing reputation expanded, so did his understanding of what the role of a public figure could be. When asked to list his heroes, Clemente placed Martin Luther King, Jr. first. His own experiences taught him to view people as an individuals, rather than stereotyping them into a group. It was this understanding that was at the heart of his personal greatness.

The story of the circumstances of Clemente's death, in a plane crash, while bringing humanitarian relief from his home in Puerto Rico to earthquake-devastated Managua, is told here in painstaking detail. The plane in question was overloaded and under-maintained, a tragedy waiting to happen. And the tragedy happened.

What did it all mean, this spectacular player, this focal point of Latin American baseball, this emerging humanitarian, dying while still in the prime of his life? Maraniss places a clear and concise perspective around Clemente's life and death.

"The mythic aspects of baseball usually draw on cliches of the innocent past, the nostalgia for how things were," Maraniss writes. "But Clemente's myth arcs the other way, to the future, not the past, to what people hope they can become. His memory is kept alive as a symbol of action and passion, not of reflection and longing. He broke racial and language barriers and achieved greatness and died a hero. That word can be used indiscriminately in the world of sports, but the classic definition is of someone who gives his life in the service of others, and that is exactly what Clemente did."

There are not enough athletes, or enough human beings, for that matter, who rise to the legitimate level of hero. It is a term that has often been distributed too freely in our culture. But in this case, the usage is fully warranted.

"The word 'hero' sort of makes me cringe, because it is overused," Maraniss said in the radio interview. "But I thought I could defend it. I thought it fit for what Clemente was."
The word fits. This entire book fits. Clemente lived a complex, fascinating, and ultimately inspirational, life. This biography rises fully to the level of its subject.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Ed Bouchette: WR Ward Will School Rookies...If They Ask

Thursday, May 11, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Santonio Holmes made a good first impression on Hines Ward, personally when they met last week at the Steelers' training complex and professionally from what the veteran receiver has seen on highlight tapes.

Ward also wants to help the rookie receiver assimilate into the Steelers' offense, though he learned a lesson about offering such help from the previous two receivers the Steelers drafted in the first round. So, if Holmes wants his help, starting with minicamp this weekend, he'll have to ask for it.

"If he wants to be helped and asks, I'm more than willing," Ward said this week. "But for me to go out of the way to try to help somebody, I'm not going to do it. I did that before, and it didn't work."

Ward said he was rebuffed in his efforts to help Troy Edwards, drafted in the first round in 1999, and Plaxico Burress, drafted in the first round in 2000. Ward felt those two receivers did not respect him because he was drafted in the third round in 1998.

Their reaction, he said, was something like this: "How can a third-round guy who doesn't even start -- I'm here to take your job -- help me?"

Eventually, Ward reacted this way: "All right, help yourself. You're a first-rounder anyway, you're here to beat me out."

"So, I stopped doing that," he said.

Nevertheless, he took Antwaan Randle El under his wing when the Steelers drafted him in the second round in 2002, he said, because Randle El asked for his help. He would do the same for Holmes or wide receiver Willie Reid, a third-round draft choice this year. He also believes that, with the loss of Randle El to the Washington Redskins in free agency, the rookies can help the offense.

"I think it's great. From what I've seen, they're playmakers. Does that mean we'll throw the ball more? I hope so. But ... probably not.

"I really don't know much about Reid other than what I've read about him. I know he's from Georgia. Santonio, I know he's a playmaker, and we need that in our offense because you only get so many opportunities, and the opportunities you do get you have to make something happen. If you want to be our stretch-the-field guy, you may get two opportunities a game. You're not going to get many."

It's unlikely any young receiver joining the Steelers would have less than abundant respect for Ward, 30, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, a four-time Pro Bowler, three-time Steelers MVP and holder of most of the club receiving records. The dynamics of the situation today also differ from that of six and seven years ago when the Steelers lacked depth at receiver and still were unsure of the young Ward.

Ward, though, apparently still harbors resentment over what he perceived were the team's attempts to push him aside in favor of Edwards and Burress. Sports Illustrated quotes him this week as saying he has never had a warm relationship with coach Bill Cowher.

"I don't have anything to say to him," he told the magazine. "After what he did to me, after how he treated me, no. The numbers I put up? The seasons I had, for them to keep on bringing in guys ...?"

Ward led the Steelers in receiving in each of the past six seasons and tied Edwards in 1999 for the lead with 61 receptions. Ward holds the team record with 574 receptions and has the top three receiving seasons in Steelers history. Edwards eventually fell out of favor and was traded in 2002. Burress signed with the New York Giants as a free agent last year.

Said Cowher: "Our decision to draft wide receivers in the first round of the 1999 and 2000 NFL drafts was not a reflection on Hines Ward. We had lost a couple of our top veteran receivers to free agency over the previous couple of offseasons, and drafting receivers in the first round of those two drafts was more a reflection of us trying to strengthen that position."

Perhaps Ward can still use that as his personal motivation, or somehow believe that another receiver, Holmes or Reid, was drafted to replace him. "Maybe one of those guys are supposed to take my job when I get older," he said.

He admits he thrives on such motivation. He says he was driven last year to prove wrong those people who thought he could not flourish without Burress and to show he was worth his new $27 million contract.

"How do I follow up?" Ward asks. "What can I do? Every year, I had motivation to do something. People said I couldn't do this, yet we won the Super Bowl and I'm Super Bowl MVP. Now, what's my next goal to try to set for myself?

"Every year, you have to prove yourself, there's nothing guaranteed. Jerry Rice said every year you get younger guys coming in and trying to replace you. You're Super Bowl MVP. My god, what's the next goal? I'm in new territory. I'm still looking."

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at or 412-263-3878. )

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Ed Bouchette: Ward Still Basking in the MVP Glow

Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's tough being Hines Ward, Super Bowl MVP, these days.

"I'm sick of these Super Bowl commercials you see for Sports Illustrated," Ward said yesterday, smiling widely for a man so ill from seeing himself on TV. "Everywhere I go, in a bar, people look up, they look at me, they look up, they look at me: 'Hey, that's Hines!'

"They have the camera phone. They're right here in your face. I'm like oh, geez, I can't do anything."

Then, the thought hits him.

"Hey, Peyton Manning isn't doing that now."

There's a price to pay for winning the Super Bowl and the game's MVP award, and Ward is delighted to pony up. If he's dreaming, don't pinch him, even though he's had little time for sleep. People say, 'What's it like?' I can't even describe it because it's been that phenomenal. It's been amazing, just everything.

"This is fun. I love the treatment. When you can walk in and see all the players from other teams, there's nothing they can say to you. You're on top that whole offseason. I've been all over, to L.A., to Vegas, to Miami and seen all the players from all over. Hey, Peyton Manning, I know you're great and all, but you don't have a ring. You can be all this, all world, but you don't have a ring. I have a ring. There's nothing you can say to me right now."

There were four golf tournaments, the trip to South Korea with his mom, the parade at Disney World, ESPN's Battle of the Gridiron Stars, Regis & Kelly, judging Miss USA, magazine covers and television interviews. Ward is featured in a Sports Illustrated story this week. His home town of Forest Park, Ga., honored him with a parade and named a street after him, Hines Ward Pass.

He will return to South Korea, this time with his whole family, on Memorial Day Weekend to help organize his The Helping Hands Foundation to benefit biracial children in his native Korea and the United States.

There also are many endorsement offers from companies in both this country and overseas.
"It's been wonderful, it's truly been," Ward said. "I'm really capitalizing on my opportunities as much as I can because it's truly a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It's a great experience. I'm going to enjoy it all I can. But once I get that ring, my season starts then."

The Super Bowl rings come June 2, the same day Ward and the rest of the Steelers visit the White House. He arrived in Pittsburgh last week to begin workouts with his teammates that become more formal with the start of a three-day minicamp Saturday, followed by 14 coaching sessions through June 8.

It feels good, Ward said, to get back to the game itself.

"I want to enjoy being with my teammates and reflecting on the year, and what a great year, and what are we going to do this year? Working out with your teammates, going through battles together, the camaraderie with teammates, that's what you need to be successful. That's why I'm here early."

In his wildest dreams, back to his days as a schoolboy, Ward never thought it would feel so good to win a Super Bowl. He also never dreamed he could use the game and his newfound celebrity as a platform to promote societal change in an entire country. His April visit to South Korea, scheduled long before the Super Bowl, was to be a quiet trip where his mother could introduce him to the land where he was born.

Then came the Steelers victory against Seattle and Ward's Super Bowl MVP award, and he became Korea's rock star. There, he discovered disturbing racism. He wants to seize the moment to help kids like himself, biracial, who are shunned, often officially, in that country.

"Because of the way the society views biracial kids, you can't get a job, nobody's going to accept you," said Ward, the son of a Korean mother and an African-American father who was stationed there. "If you do play athletics, your teammates treat you like [dirt]. For kids, me being over there helped provide a sense of hope. If I can do anything, as far as using my status, my accolades to help give them an opportunity, hopefully society will change its views."

Ward asked South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun to work on changing some laws and rules that affect biracial people.

"You can't even get into the military if you're biracial," Ward said. "That is their rule, 100 percent pure, you have to be pure Korean, it's the only way to be in the military. Korea's a great country, but it would be even a greater country if we could do things to help biracial kids because you may have the next Hines Ward, the next Tiger Woods waiting there, but he's never given an opportunity to do anything."

Ward said he saw such racism in effect.

"I met a young soccer player. By word of mouth, he was a pretty good soccer player. But his teammates treated him like crap, called him 'nappy-haired boy.' Coaches tell him he'll never have a chance, don't want to play him because he's biracial. Well, maybe you guys would win if he played. That's just their views and ways. That's the negative side of our culture that my mother hid from me so much. She still had animosity toward it and didn't want me to know."

Instead of getting angry, though, Ward became energized to help. He hopes it will be a lifelong crusade for him in honor of his Korean mother, Young He Ward, that elicits real change in Korea.

"It was a tribute to her, that's what I made the trip to Korea about, using the MVP award as a tribute to opening up opportunities and giving her something. I need to do something to help those biracial kids out and provide them with a sense of hope."

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at or 412-263-3878. )

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Mike Prisuta: Tough to Watch

Mike Prisuta
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

When the Pirates begin another homestand tonight, Billy Gardell will be watching from three time zones away thanks to the magic of DirecTV.

He'll also will be repeatedly throwing his pillbox Pirates cap on the floor in disgust if things continue against Arizona as they have throughout much of this 9-24 disaster.

"They say smoking takes 10 years off your life," Gardell said. "Try being a Pirates fan."

Gardell, a Swissvale native, has remained obsessive in his support of the Pirates, Penguins and Steelers, despite spending 15 years on the stand-up comedy circuit and compiling a television resume that includes "Yes, Dear," "Lucky," "The Practice," "The Dennis Miller Show" and "The Heist."

At 37, Gardell remains much more Swissvale than SoCal, even if his career has taken him to the Left Coast.

And like Michael Keaton, the guy who upstaged the home opener with his "Write A Check" declaration, Gardell has become frustrated from afar with the Pirates' inability to compete.

In the past, he's channeled that frustration into his act. One of Gardell's signature bits examines the dangers of certain trigger words or phrases.

"Whatever you do, don't mention Sid Bream," Gardell will warn a local audience.

The laughter that erupts eases his pain, but only slightly.

"That's completely me," he said. "Every time (Barry) Bonds hits a home run, I think I lose some hair."

Like many Pirates fans, Gardell has had it with the perpetual losing.

"I wouldn't be so frustrated if I didn't love 'em so much," he said. "I'm cursed and have been ever since the days of Bob Prince.

"My grandmother used to makes us sit on the back porch and listen to the radio. She always said, 'If you can follow the game on the radio, you'll have a good attention span later in life.'

"She used to get us out of school to take us to Three Rivers Stadium. Can you believe that? My grandmother let me cut school to see a doubleheader against the Phillies. Now, I'm not so sure I wouldn't stay in school."

In reality, Gardell would do no such thing.

His 3-year old son, Will, was named in honor of Willie Stargell.

He catches the Pirates at Dodger Stadium -- the only time he's "ever at Dodger Stadium" -- and on the road whenever their itineraries intersect.

And he plans to be at PNC Park for games against the Astros and Cubs when he returns to work The Improv in late August.

"That's how sick I am," Gardell said. "I know their schedule that far in advance."

That's as die-hard as it gets.

Still, he's not taking this latest capitulation lying down.

"I'm writing DirecTV a letter," Gardell said. "I want a refund on that baseball package.

"I mean, if they don't win 20 games, there ought to be a rule or something."

Mike Prisuta is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Bob Smizik: Desperate Pirates Sinking

Pirates' desperate bid to win this season a losing proposition
Monday, May 08, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There is outrage across the region as the sad-sack Pirates slink lower than even the most pessimistic fan might have expected. They lost again yesterday, 5-4, to the almost-as-hapless Washington Nationals. No one expected this. No one expected 24 losses in the first 33 games.
Those who fervently follow the team thought this might be the year the Pirates would challenge for a .500 record. Instead, they are careening toward a 100-loss season.

It's not just the losing. It's the lack of anything resembling a plan and the continuing inability to evaluate.

In the offseason, Freddy Sanchez, despite a strong finish in 2005, was deemed not the answer at third base, as was Ty Wigginton. This required the team to badly overpay for journeyman Joe Randa, who finished the 2005 season on a decided downturn. Randa, whose $4 million salary is almost twice as much as he earned last year, was plugged into the sixth spot in the batting order. After a disappointing start, he's on the disabled list. His replacement is Sanchez, once considered a bench player, but suddenly good enough to bat third on a daily basis. Wigginton, who was released, has nine homers and 30 RBIs for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Although the team acknowledged that, other than pitching, catching was its deepest position (talk about damning with faint praise), it gave no serious consideration to switching the glaringly deficient Ryan Doumit to first base or the outfield either in the offseason or spring training. After a panic prep course, Doumit started at first base Saturday and might have been there again yesterday if not for an injury.

Ronny Paulino, given no chance to make the team in spring training, is the starting catcher and so seemingly entrenched he caught a day game after a night game yesterday.
If the present is depressing, the future could be worse.

There's a reason the Pirates overpaid for Randa; there's a reason they gave Jeromy Burnitz a 33 percent raise to $6 million although his offensive numbers declined significantly over the previous season; there's a reason they traded for Sean Casey and are paying most of his $8.5 million salary; there's a reason they outbid the New York Yankees and are paying about $2.75 million to 41-year-old reliever Roberto Hernandez.

The reason? Ownership is desperate to win in 2006 and proof of that desperation is its willingness to plunge some of its profits into a higher payroll. Ownership's preferred method of handling profits is to plunge them into its pockets.

This is a crucial year for Pirates ownership. Season-ticket sales, boosted by the opportunity to buy All-Star Game tickets, are up by more than 20 percent to over 11,000. Season tickets are the financial lifeblood of a franchise like the Pirates. The only way to keep those ticket buyers happy and coming back is to win, which is why the Pirates added payroll.

But it goes much deeper than that. There is reason to believe the Pirates might soon be on the market. Kevin McClatchy has hinted he might want to sell after the All-Star Game.

Sellers would not normally be lining up to purchase small-market franchises with a history of losing. But a winning season puts a different spin on the Pirates. A winning season wipes out so much. It puts those 13 losing seasons in the background. Instead of a dismal recent history, the Pirates would have a bright future. They'd be a young team with a winning record and a thick season-ticket list playing in the best ballpark in America.

That might attract a sale price in excess of $200 million.

If McClatchy could get that, he might be willing to leave. The Nutting family, which has the greatest financial stake in the team and which makes most of the major decisions, would gladly follow. They're not baseball people, they're business people.

A losing season changes that. A losing season, particularly one the Pirates seem to be heading for, would send season-ticket holders fleeing. And not just those who signed on for the All-Star Game but many who have been on board for the long haul. They've had enough.

Buyers wouldn't be lined up. There would be no fat profit from a sale of the team.

There would, instead, be retrenchment. With the season-ticket base depleted, payroll would be cut back to ensure a continuing profit.

In other words, same old Pirates.

(Post-Gazette sports columnist Bob Smizik can be reached at or 412-263-1468. )

Monday, May 01, 2006

Steelers Tempted by Reid's Speed

Team likes potential of WR/kick returner

Monday, May 01, 2006
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It wasn't as if the Steelers were looking for a punt returner to replace Antwaan Randle El, especially after they traded up in the first round of the NFL draft to take Ohio State wide receiver Santonio Holmes.

With Holmes, the Steelers found the perfect answer for Randle El's departure in free agency -- a receiver with the speed (4.38) to stretch defenses and a punt returner who was among the best in college football.

But, after trading with the Minnesota Vikings to get two third-round picks, the Steelers couldn't pass up the opportunity to draft another punt returner in the third round -- one who might be better than Holmes.

That's why they couldn't resist snatching Florida State wide receiver Willie Reid, a player Penn State coach Joe Paterno referred to as "terrifying" just two weeks ago.

Paterno should know. The memory of Reid returning seven punts for 180 yards, including an 87-yard touchdown, against the Nittany Lions in the Orange Bowl is still fresh in his mind. Reid's performance was a record for any bowl game.

"When coach Paterno would ask [special teams coach] Larry Johnson every day about Willie Reid, you know he was on coach Paterno's mind," Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "But what [Reid] did to us in the Orange Bowl is nothing he didn't do to other people."

That's why the Steelers took another receiver, another punt returner, with the 95th pick overall.

And they did it with an extra pick in the third round, just as they were hoping.

"To get a guy like Willie Reid was really a bonus," said Kevin Colbert, director of football operations.

"He was a guy who intrigued us," coach Bill Cowher said. "Santonio was more impressive as a kick returner and Willie was more impressive as a punt returner."

Indeed, Reid's numbers as a punt returner are staggering. He averaged 17.5 yards on 31 returns last season with the Seminoles, returning three for touchdowns.

One of those was in the Orange Bowl loss to Penn State. Another came in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game upset against Virginia Tech, an 83-yard return that helped Reid win game MVP honors. Those returns helped elevate Reid's draft stock.

"It was a pretty big game for me," Reid said. "It followed the ACC championship game that I performed well in, and I did well in the Orange Bowl, as well. I think that helped put me in the position I am in today. It was a great bowl game overall."

OK, imagine the possibilities.

Holmes and Reid, two of the best punt returners in college football, each going back to return punts for the Steelers. Dual safeties -- reverses, fake reverses. The possibilities are endless.

"I don't know if I would have done that before," Cowher said, when asked about using two safeties on punt returns, "but it certainly was a thought going through my mind [Saturday] night after we picked Willie Reid."

If nothing else, the addition of Holmes and Reid might allow special teams coach Kevin Spencer to be creative and start designing plays as if he's an offensive coordinator.

"He needs to be," Cowher said, smiling.

Reid has the look of a Steelers player. At Florida State, he was recruited as a running back because of his 4.35 speed, but was switched to wide receiver before his redshirt freshman season. He was moved back to tailback as a sophomore because of injuries and didn't become a full-time starter until last season. In 45 career games with the Seminoles, he started only 15 times -- and never complained about his role.

That's something Cowher has asked of his players -- buy into the system and accept their roles, however diminished.

"The things Reid has done for our team during his career, you can't measure," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said last month. "He's one of the most unselfish players I've ever been around."

The Steelers think Reid is still developing as a wide receiver. He had 50 catches for 634 yards and one touchdown last season and 15 receptions for 186 yards as a junior. In three seasons, he caught only three touchdowns.

"He is a little bit of a project," wide receivers coach Bruce Arians said. "[But] I think he is ready to play there. He has excellent hands, big-time speed and a great run-after-the-catch guy with his return ability."

In the end, the Steelers might have managed to replace Randle El, the only player to return two punts for touchdowns in 2005, with two players who are just as explosive.

"It's interesting because you never got a shot at Randle El, either," said Bradley, who coached against Randle El when he was a quarterback at Indiana. "This kid is the same way. It's hard to get a shot at him. He has exceptional speed and great vision. That's what separates him."
Then Bradley paused.

"Let it be someone else's problem," he said.

That's what the Steelers are hoping.

"It's going to be a real honor to be in the same locker room with Santonio," Reid said. "He's a great athlete. We just happen to be on the same team right now. I think we'll cause a lot of defenses havoc."

And why the Steelers couldn't resist.

(Gerry Dulac can be reached at or 412-263-1466. )

Closeup: The No. 1 pick, Santonio Holmes

Once left with the important responsibility of taking care of his younger brothers, Santonio Holmes believes he can handle taking over the role that once belonged to Randle El

Sunday, April 30, 2006

By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Patricia Brown was a single parent who raised four boys, and her oldest son, Santonio Holmes, had to play many roles.

"There wasn't anybody but me and him," Brown said. "I left for work at 4 or 5 in the morning, so he had to be big brother, mommy and daddy all at once."

Brown has four kids, ages 21 to 7, and she relied on her oldest son to take care of things at home while she worked as a medical assistant. And Holmes, the Steelers' No. 1 pick in the NFL draft yesterday, obliged, with nary a complaint.

He played three sports in high school -- football, basketball and track -- and still managed to help his mom with his brothers, Kenneth (19), Devontae (14) and Javen (7). With so much responsibility thrown at him, Holmes learned to multitask, an ability he took with him to Ohio State, where he became a multitalented wide receiver/return specialist with the Buckeyes.

"It was very hard," Holmes said. "My mom would get up at 3 in the morning and have to go to work and she left me with the responsibility of getting up at 5:30, getting my brothers dressed and getting them ready for school. When they came home, I had to make sure they had something to eat because she wouldn't get home till 5 or 6 o'clock."

And he never complained.

"He never grumbled, never once," Brown said. "If he did, he never let on. I always gave him time to do things, whether it was talk on the phone or do his homework, but everything would always be done."

Now it is Brown's turn to help her son.

Holmes is a single parent, too, with two sons -- Santonio III (4) and Nicori (23 months) -- who live with his mom in Belle Glade, Fla. He also has a daughter, Shaniya (2 months), who lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Holmes' experience growing up has taught him how to handle his new family, handle everything that surrounds him. That includes being selected with the 25th overall pick by the Steelers -- the first wide receiver selected in the draft.

"I use it as motivation right now," Holmes said. "I don't say I shouldn't have done this or I shouldn't have done that or that I have regrets. I want my kids to grow up like me and my brothers did. I'm able to make a big difference in their lives."

That seems to be a catchword for just about everything that has happened to Holmes.

He made a difference in high school, where he was a three-year starter and helped lead Glades Central High School to the state title as a sophomore and junior. As a senior, he had 10 touchdowns on 33 receptions, averaging 29.3 yards per catch, when his high school was 12-1.

And he made a difference at Ohio State, where he was a two-year starter and a first-team All-Big Ten Conference selection as a junior in 2005. He led the Buckeyes with 53 catches, 997 yards and 11 touchdowns, third most in a season in school history. What's more, 19 of his catches were for 20 yards or longer.

"He was always going to outwork everybody to get what he wanted," said Willie Bueno, who was the head coach when Holmes played at Glades Central. "He was one of those first-to-practice, last-to-leave kids."

The Steelers started thinking about making a deal to move up and take Holmes once the Philadelphia Eagles, at No. 14, passed on a wide receiver and drafted defensive tackle Brodrick Buntley of Florida State. And once he was still available when the San Diego Chargers drafted a cornerback (Antonio Cromartie) with the 19th pick, the Steelers tried to make a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs to move up to No. 20.

But the Chiefs weren't interested in making the deal, nor were the San Francisco 49ers with the 22nd pick. But the Steelers found a willing trade partner with the New York Giants at No. 25, and they shipped a third- and fourth-round pick to the Giants to swap draft spots in the first round.

Holmes was the only player the Steelers were going to trade up to acquire in the first round, and they got him.

"We really had our eyes on him," director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "He was someone that we talked about. If he was going to be available, then we'll go get him."

The Steelers liked Holmes' speed (4.38) and his ability to stretch the field with deep routes, but they also liked that he possessed another dimension: He was an elusive punt returner at Ohio State, averaging 10.1 yards per return for three seasons with the Buckeyes. Holmes averaged a career-high 12.8 yards on 11 returns in 2005.

That made him even more attractive to the Steelers after the loss of Antwaan Randle El -- the only player in the NFL to return two punts for touchdowns in 2005 -- in free agency.

"I'm ready for it ... I've been looking forward to it," said Holmes, whose is the cousin of Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor. "I couldn't be at a better spot right now than to fill in and be able to return kicks and be a wide receiver for those guys."

Holmes said he has been a Steelers fan since 1995 because he admires "the things they accomplish together as a team, as a family." His favorite receiver and the player to whom he most compares himself is Marvin Harrison of the Indianapolis Colts because "he really gets the job done and that's the same thing I do when I'm on the field."

To be sure, Holmes was a productive receiver with the Buckeyes. Last year, he caught 10 passes for 224 yards and touchdowns of 80 and 47 yards against Marshall -- the second-most productive day by an Ohio State receiver in school history. The only more productive performance was by former Buckeyes receiver Terry Glenn in a 1995 game against Pitt (253 yards).

Holmes, though, did the same thing in high school, where he also helped the track team to a state title as a junior and started for the basketball team that was a Florida state runner-up as a senior.

"He definitely was a blessed kid," Bueno said. "Not only that, he was a great student in school. Even when he came out as a freshman, he was a leader. He had a great work ethic and he was committed that he was going to use football to get to school. He did all the right things asked of a player."

And a big brother, mom and dad.

(Gerry Dulac can be reached at or 412-263-1466. )