Sunday, July 30, 2006

Bob Smizik: Steelers Won't Lack Leadership

Sunday, July 30, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The dictionary definition of leadership -- "the ability to guide, direct or influence people'' -- doesn't begin to describe the role Jerome Bettis had in the locker room and on the field with the Steelers.

The dictionary presents a cold grouping of words, as it should, that doesn't even put leadership in a positive light. In truth, leadership can be a negative, although when it exists in such a form it usually has other designations. For example, a negative leader on a baseball team would never be accused of leadership but rather would be a "cancer in the clubhouse.''

Bettis, by contrast, was an antidote that could wipe out any bad feelings that might infect a team. He had a personality that engulfed the room. It not only spread cheer but sent out a message of what it took to be a winner.

Some men lead by word, others by deed. Bettis led by both. In that respect, he brings to mind two great leaders of Pittsburgh's past, Joe Greene and Willie Stargell. Other great leaders, Roberto Clemente and Mario Lemieux come to mind, led more by deed than word.

Bettis was even more rare than Stargell and Greene. So powerful were his leadership genes that unlike so many others he still led when his skills had faded.

Invariably, a leader must perform to get others to follow. In his final season, last year, Bettis certainly had his moments, but he was a backup, in no uncertain terms, to Willie Parker. But he had been such a force on the team for so long, that his status on the depth chart was irrelevant. He was not only a man that players looked to, he also was a man for whom they played.

If there's a picture in the dictionary beside leadership, it should be one of Bettis.

Which means there will be a gaping leadership void within the Steelers, one so large it could jeopardize their chances of repeating as Super Bowl champion.

Not really.

Leadership and the positive chemistry it can help generate within a team are important, but are secondary to talent.

There's a belief in sports that chemistry, which good leadership helps build, is the key ingredient in winning. That's not so. It's actually the other way around. Winning builds good chemistry.
Be it a pickup basketball game at the YMCA or the highest level of professional sports, winning makes the participants feel good. The more they win, the better they feel, the more they like their teammates, the more they're willing to sacrifice for the good of the team. That's good chemistry.

Losing generates the opposite feelings. It makes players unhappy. It causes them to think more of their own personal goals than those of the team. It makes them want to be part of another team. That's bad chemistry.

For all of the immense leadership skills Bettis possessed, it didn't mean a thing when the Steelers, a 15-1 team in the regular season, played the superior and equally leadership-laden, New England Patriots in the AFC title game.

Better yet, Bettis was a key leader for the Steelers in 1998, 1999 and 2000. The team was a combined 22-26 those seasons and never made the playoffs. His leadership could not overcome a lack of talent.

In any event, the Steelers hardly will be devoid of leadership this season. In any professional locker room, there is an abundance of leadership. These men didn't achieve their status on the athletic totem pole by being locker room wallflowers in their climb to the top. Almost all were key leaders at one time or another in their athletic careers.

As they moved up the ladder, just as they found there were players as good or better, they found there were leaders as good or better. When that happens, the lesser leader steps back and becomes a follower. But the leadership skills remain.

There are many qualified leaders ready to fill the void left by Bettis. None might have all the qualities of Bettis, but there will be no absence of leadership on this team.

Even when Bettis was with the team, other players emerged as leaders. Certainly, Hines Ward aspired to that role and filled it admirably. He'll probably step up even more this season. So will offensive linemen Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings, men who lead by action more than word.

Like Ward, Joey Porter already has exhibited leadership skills with the defensive unit. He's a verbal leader, who backs up his trash-talking with his play on the field. The defense will miss the elder-statesman leadership of Kimo von Oelhoffen, but others will fill his place.

The Steelers have a chance to repeat as Super Bowl champion. Whether they do or not, depends more on how they play rather than how they lead.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at or 412-263-1468. )

Ron Cook: Holmes Shows Little Remorse in News Conference

Steelers' top pick shows no remorse on arrests, says Big Ben didn't call
Sunday, July 30, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

This is how badly Santonio Holmes' welcome-to-Steelers-training-camp news conference went yesterday:

The kid essentially called Ben Roethlisberger a liar and it wasn't the worst part of the session.

The worst part was that Holmes showed absolutely no remorse for his two arrests in a three-week period late in the spring.

"I don't think I have anything to prove to anybody," he said, almost defiantly, his first public comments since the arrests. "People know what I can do on the field and they know the type of person I am off the field."

Actually, we don't.

We know Holmes was a special player at Ohio State. That's why the Steelers made him their No. 1 draft choice in April and signed him to a five-year, $8.11 million contract Friday, including a $5.42 million bonus. It's also why he could comfortably wear a red Buckeye Football T-shirt around the St. Vincent College campus yesterday with "Da Man" on the back.

But we don't know Holmes as a person. All we know is he was arrested on Memorial Day weekend in Miami on a disorderly conduct charge and again June 18 in Columbus, Ohio, on a domestic-abuse charge.

That's why it would have been nice if Holmes had pulled a Floyd Landis yesterday and asked us to wait to judge him until all the facts of his incidents are out. Remember, he hasn't been convicted of anything yet. It also would have been nice if he had said something like, maybe, "This isn't the way I wanted to start my career in Pittsburgh, but if you give me a chance, I'll prove to you the type of character I have."

But Holmes didn't do that.

He didn't even come close.

"I haven't gotten any negative feedback from one person since I've been in town the past month-and-a-half," Holmes said, leaving the impression he thinks it's perfectly normal for a guy to get arrested twice.

The whole scene was bizarre.

That's the only word to describe Holmes' response to a question about why he didn't return Roethlisberger's telephone calls after Big Ben reached out to him to show his support after his second arrest. "I called him a bunch of times and left a bunch of messages for him, and he never called me back, so I don't know how to take it," Roethlisberger told the Post-Gazette's Paul Zeise earlier this month. "The ball is in his court ..."

Responded Holmes: "I didn't get any calls from him."

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

That Holmes and Roethlisberger really do need to talk?

Maybe there's a logical explanation there. Maybe Roethlisberger had the wrong number for Holmes. Or maybe Holmes had a bad cell phone day and never got the messages.


But, no matter the circumstances, Holmes' answer made Roethlisberger look bad. Call me crazy, but I just don't see the wisdom in a rookie wide receiver making his quarterback look bad. Holmes' timing seemed especially jarring because, just two hours earlier, Roethlisberger had stood on the practice field after the team's grueling conditioning run and gushed about how glad he was that Holmes made it to camp on time without contract problems and how eager he was to work with him.

It's unclear when Holmes and Roethlisberger will chat, but Bill Cowher had a sit-down planned with Holmes last night. Wouldn't you have loved to be a fly on the wall during that conversation? Presumably, Cowher made clear his displeasure with the negative attention Holmes brought the Steelers and gave him a little unsolicited advice about the responsibility that goes with being a professional athlete. For Holmes' sake, here's hoping he showed a little more humility with the boss.

Hey, it's tough to be too hard on the kid. Holmes is 22 and, as he put it, "a young guy stepping into a great deal of things ahead of me." It's also understandable why he was on the defensive when he met the local media for the first time under these circumstances. There weren't the usual queries that a No. 1 pick gets about how it feels to suddenly be a multi-millionaire or how soon he expects to contribute to the team. Virtually the first question for Holmes was about the possibility of him having to miss camp time because of an Aug. 15 court date in Columbus on the domestic-abuse charge. He shrugged it off and indicated he plans on being on the practice field on Aug. 15.

"All of that is behind me," Holmes said. "As far as I know from talking to my attorneys, there's nothing more that I have to do."

That was the good news to come out of the session.

The only good news, unfortunately.

Young, immature and nervous or not, it's still hard to get by Holmes' complete lack of contrition.
That's why you'll have to forgive me if I'm not willing to share in his joy when he said, "It feels good to be a Steeler."

At this point, I'm not ready to say I'm happy that Holmes is a Steeler.
And the two arrests are only a part of it.

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

Friday, July 28, 2006

2006 Steelers Training Camp Guide: Five story lines to watch and more

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger congratulates Cedrick Wilson after the receiver caught a 12-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second quarter. After Jeff Reed kicked the extra point, the play gave the Steelers a 10-0 lead on their way to the AFC title (1/22/06).

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Friday, July 28, 2006

The Super Bowl XL Champion Steelers report to training camp in Latrobe today. For those planning to make the pilgramage, or just looking for some more background to the wall-to-wall media coverage ahead, the PG's Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette pinpoints five key story lines to watch at camp this year. Plus, his annual guide to the team players and tips for those planning to visit the scene at St. Vincent.

Also in this Guide:
Ron Cook:
Don't be foolish, but don't bet against Steelers repeating
The Offense
The Defense
Coaching staff
Tips for your training camp visit
Map to camp, open practice schedule

The Five Story Lines:

1. Big Ben's towering presence

The interest in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this summer would have been intense had he not had his near-death experience riding his motorcycle in June. Now, it promises to be Mick Jagger-ish. Big Ben turned into Pittsburgh's rock star when he became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl; he rose above that level the day he survived his frightening bike accident.

He and Bill Cowher have said he's ready to go, healed from his broken jaw, nose and orbital bone. Nevertheless, Cowher will try to ease him into workouts, although Roethlisberger's history is not to ease into anything. He will want to go all out from the beginning. The plan has been to have him skip the first preseason game and play in the second, although those plans could change either way as he goes through camp. His doctors might believe it best to err on the side of caution, something Roethlisberger likely will fight.

The atmosphere around him could become surreal as fans and media descend on training camp with the attraction of a Super Bowl champ and its daredevil, young quarterback.

Will his accident and injuries make him gun-shy? There's nothing in Roethlisberger's resume over the past two years that would suggest it.

One residue from his injuries will appear if Roethlisberger has a poor training camp, as he did last year when he and the offense were ineffective in the preseason. Correct or not, it will be blamed on his motorcycle accident.

2. Holmes faces the music

Had Santonio Holmes -- called "Santana" by Cowher four days ago -- been arrested twice, including once for domestic violence, before the NFL draft, he would not have been taken in the first round and the Steelers would not have drafted him at all.

Holmes has a trial date set in Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 15, although the legal maneuverings could alter that or make it disappear. Holmes will be a center of attention in this training camp because he's a first-round draft choice, and he'll compete to replace the departed Antwaan Randle El at split end. The scrutiny will increase because of his notoriety off the field.

His legal problems aside, Holmes enters camp without benefit of the Steelers spring practices and meetings except for the three-day minicamp he was permitted to attend because his Ohio State classes did not end until June.

Traditionally, rookie receivers do not fare well in the NFL.

Holmes has the kind of talent that prompted the Steelers to trade a third-round draft choice in order to move up seven spots and take him with the 25th pick.

The Steelers did not draft Holmes to sit, but Cedrick Wilson played well enough in his first season that he will open as their starting split end, barring a spectacular preseason by Holmes.
The rookie will compete with third-round pick Willie Reid -- at his position and also as a punt returner -- along with veteran Quincy Morgan and second-year player Nate Washington, an undrafted rookie last season with talent who could be the next Willie Parker at his position.

3. Say it ain't so, Bill

Will this be Bill Cowher's last season as Steelers coach? He has two left on his contract, but nothing in that document prevents him from retiring after this season. Talks are ongoing on a contract extension but even if one is reached, language could be inserted that would provide him with an out if he retires and then wants to return to coaching somewhere else in a few years. If an extension is not reached by the start of the regular season Sept. 7, talks will end for the year, Steelers president Art Rooney II said.

Cowher's actions, his statements to associates and his responses to questions about his future are what raised the issue after the Super Bowl.

Cowher, 49, told an associate not connected with the team last October that he was growing tired of the grind of coaching professional football and might soon retire. Then he and his wife, Kaye, bought a $2.5-million home in North Raleigh, N.C. His youngest daughter, Lindsay, reportedly enrolled in a high school there for her sophomore season.

Cowher has said several times since the Super Bowl that "I'm just taking it year-to-year" when asked if this could be his last season. Monday night, he told Mark Madden on ESPN Radio 1250 that he's taken this position for several years.

"If you go back and listen to me after we went 6-10 in year 12, I have taken a year-to-year approach and I think I'm not going to change that this year," Cowher said. "That doesn't mean I won't be coaching next year, but it doesn't mean that I won't sit down at the end of this year as I did the last two years and just reassess where I'm at."

However, in March 2004, nearly three months after that 6-10 season ended, Cowher told the Post-Gazette that he wanted to coach at least until his youngest daughter graduated from high school and probably beyond. Lindsay Cowher has three years of high school left.
"I'm not sure what I would do with myself," Cowher said two years ago. "It's something that I love to do ... I don't foresee taking a break anytime soon, to be honest with you."

4. A Duce coupe tries to replace The Bus

Duce Staley arrived as a free agent from the Eagles in 2004 and lived up to his reputation as a good, tough running back but one with a history of injuries. He wrested the starting halfback job from Jerome Bettis and rushed for 707 yards in his first seven games, prompting popular cries of "Duuuuuuce" from the Heinz Field stands. Then injuries befell him.

He enters his third Steelers training camp having accepted $1 million less in what was supposed to be a $2.5 million salary and finds himself competing against Verron Haynes for the backup job at halfback and as a short-yardage runner, the jobs Bettis performed last season.

Staley did not dress for 11 regular season games and had 148 yards rushing on 38 carries. He did not dress in the three playoff games, then dressed for the Super Bowl but did not play.

However, he did help save two games for them when Parker and Bettis were hurt. He replaced an injured Parker in Green Bay and rushed for 76 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. He started the following game against Cleveland and rushed for 64 yards on 17 carries. The Steelers won both.

Cowher, when asked if Staley would step up to fill the old Bus role, said he will have to compete with Haynes, who has been their third-down back the past two seasons. Cowher emphasized that Haynes will have a real shot at that job.

5. Deja two

Miami, Feb. 4, 2007The free agency era, ushered into the NFL in 1993 along with the salary cap, was supposed to spread talent so evenly around the league that dynasties like the Steelers' of the '70s and the 49ers of the '80s would no longer be possible.
Theoretically, it should be more difficult to defend a Super Bowl championship. Yet, three teams have won consecutive Super Bowls during this era. The Steelers would like to be the fourth, matching Dallas, Denver and New England.
"I think repeating would put you on a different level than a team that just wins once and they're done," said Art Rooney II.

It was Rooney who announced in March 2005 that it was time the Steelers won their first Super Bowl since January 1980, and they did it.

The Steelers would seem to be in good position to do so again. They lost three starters and have capable replacements for them. But injuries can play havoc with a team, as they did when the offensive line crumbled in 2003 and the Steelers went 6-10. Also, while schedules are often difficult to rate because of changes from season to season, the Steelers appear to have a brutal one. The closest thing to a breather on their schedule this year is a home game against New Orleans Nov. 12. This season, they open against Miami, Jacksonville and Cincinnati. Last year they opened with two patsies, Tennessee and Houston, before a home game against New England. They finished with a home game against Detroit.

"We are not looking for excuses to fail," Cowher said. "We are trying to find reasons and answers to why and how we need to succeed."

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Bob Smizik: Cowher a Super Genius...Until Next Big Loss

Head coach Bill Cowher throws a pass to a player during drills at St. Vincent College in Latrobe (8/9/06).

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

How do you go from buffoon to genius in 60 minutes?

Win a Super Bowl.

It is most humorous that the very people who previously ridiculed Bill Cowher -- the ones, in fact, that howled in anger and frustration when the Rooney family sensibly extended his contract -- are now so eager to lavish praise on him. They can barely utter a sentence about Cowher without the word "great" being included.

Greatness cannot be established by one game. It can only be established by a body of work.
Cowher had an excellent body of work before the Steelers won the Super Bowl in February against the Seattle Seahawks, which makes it understandable that winning such a momentous game might change his public perception. But he's not a genius today and he wasn't a buffoon before the Super Bowl.

He was and is an excellent coach. Let's wait until the end of his career before we confer greatness on him.

He has a large challenge in front of him beginning this weekend when the Steelers open training camp. If he can win a second Super Bowl, he'll go a long way toward establishing his greatness. If the Steelers falter, the very same people who are calling him great today will be ridiculing him. Some, in fact, will be demanding that he be replaced as coach. That's the nature of coaching, particularly coaching the Steelers where the fan base is so involved it allows emotion to overrule logic.

The absurdity of the anointing of Cowher with greatness is that if a few officiating calls in the Super Bowl went the other way -- a situation over which he had no control -- the Steelers could have lost. He might have done absolutely nothing different within the context of that game, but his reputation would have taken a massive hit. He would have been labeled, perhaps forever, as the coach who couldn't win the big game because, again, of circumstances over which he had no control.

The following is presented not to diminish the Steelers' Super Bowl victory but to show how easily the game could have gone the other way. The Super Bowl determined that the Steelers were the best team in football. It did not determine that Cowher is a great coach or that Mike Holmgren of Seattle is a lesser coach.

To refresh your memory:

If the back judge hadn't called offensive pass interference on Darrell Jackson against Chris Hope in what was then a scoreless game late in the first quarter, the Seahawks would have taken a 7-0 lead and the entire complexion of the game could have changed. It was the right call -- Jackson did push off -- but if the call hadn't been made it hardly would have been the biggest mistake made by an official.

Early in the fourth quarter, with the Seahawks losing by four, a Matt Hasselbeck to Jerramy Stevens pass to the Steelers' 1 was nullified by a holding call. If that call is not made, and lesser holds have been overlooked, the Seahawks probably score.

That's two touchdowns officiating calls took away from Seattle.

To this day it could be argued whether Ben Roethlisberger broke the plane of the goal line on the Steelers' first touchdown, which came on third down from the 1 early in the second quarter. It was an impossibly close call that went the Steelers' way. It almost as easily could have gone the other way.

That could have been one less touchdown for the Steelers.

Again, the point is not to diminish the Steelers' accomplishment but to show the absurdity of pronouncing greatness on Cowher when he might have coached exactly the same game and lost.

It brings to mind all the verbal abuse Cowher took after the Steelers lost the AFC title game to New England in 2001. It was almost as if Cowher dropped the winning pass while all alone in the end zone. In fact, if two Steelers linemen had held their blocks on a field-goal attempt that was blocked and returned for a touchdown, the outcome of the game might have been different.
Cowher would have been praised, although he would have coached exactly the same game that he was ridiculed for losing.

Cowher was an outstanding coach before the Super Bowl and he'll be that regardless of the outcome of this season. Just don't try to tell that to many Steelers fans if he doesn't win a second Super Bowl.

What do you think?

(Bob Smizik can be reached at or 412-263-1468. )

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Roethlisberger Embraces His Second Chance

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006; E01

In the past, he might not have been given to introspection. He never had the time. Before the age of 24, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger already had 28 victories as an NFL quarterback and a Super Bowl championship, bestowing upon him an invincibility that kept him from thinking too much about his place in the world.

Then on the morning of June 12, his motorcycle -- still glistening from a new paint job -- careened into a car in a Pittsburgh intersection, leaving him lying on the pavement, his life dripping away. And his perspective forever changed.

"It's helped me a lot," he said Friday at the Capital Hilton, where he was to be honored last night as the NFL Quarterback of the Year by the National Quarterback Club. "It's helped me appreciate things more. It's helped me smile more or not get upset or stay upset as long. It helped me appreciate my family and friends more."

The quarterback laughed.

"When the season starts and I'm not playing well, I'll have a smile of my face and people will wonder, 'How can he be smiling?' " he continued. "But no matter how bad I might be playing, I'm thankful to be here, to be alive.

"Obviously God has a plan for me; I don't know what it is yet, that's the big question."

A bigger question might be the plans Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher has for him. The Steelers open training camp Friday and their coach has been mostly silent on the subject of his quarterback in the weeks after the accident. Last night, in town to present the award to Roethlisberger, he called the player "a very lucky, fortunate young man."

"We're all glad there are no serious ramifications from the accident," he added.

In his first interviews after the accident, Roethlisberger constantly referred to Cowher, saying the coach calls him a "free spirit" and does not want him to squelch that side of his personality. Therefore, he added, he did not see the need to fully alter his aggressive off-field personality.

Asked about this, Cowher frowned.

"I think it's all a matter of interpretation," Cowher said. "He takes that approach on the football field, but you have to know when and where the right times are to do that."

Cowher said the two have spoken a little since the accident and said they are "fine" even though Roethlisberger was injured doing something Cowher had supposedly warned him against -- riding a motorcycle without a helmet.

Roethlisberger seems to have recovered well from his injuries. His face is unblemished even though five titanium plates hold his cheekbones together just under his skin. He said his vision is fine, his head is clear, and he doesn't have headaches, though in recent interviews he has mentioned occasionally spitting up blood. In time, he said he was told, his face should be stronger than it was before.

But there are also some reminders, namely a scar on back of his head and numbness near his mouth where surgeons had to make their cuts. He said the operation to install the plates was a complicated one in which the doctors had to peel back part of his face to get to the fractured bones, then rolled the skin back down when they were done.

"It's kind of gruesome," he said of that detail.

As a result, he is left with an odd sensation in his lips. If he touches them, they feel as if someone "has stuffed cotton swabs" in the corners where the surgeons made their entry.

"I can't feel if I have food on my face," he said.

Still, this appears the most significant of Roethlisberger's physical ailments. A couple of weeks ago he began working out and he runs, throws footballs and lifts weights almost every day. He said he feels fine, that his body has responded. In earlier interviews he referred to a fatigue he sometimes had as he recovered from a significant loss of blood in the accident. He has since said the tiredness is gone.

The two things he has not done, however, are take a hit or put on a football helmet. The contact will come soon enough if he follows through on his avowed plan to take part in the Steelers' first practice this week. To protect himself, he has talked to the team's trainers about using one of the concussion-reducing helmets several players have been wearing over the last three years. The concussion helmets are cut lower than the regular helmets, adding extra protection to the jaw. They have not made a decision about this yet.

Though he said the accident has changed him and he smiled several times in the interview, Roethlisberger still has some of the same brusqueness that defined him his first two years in the NFL. He came armed with rules this weekend. He would not discuss the accident itself, having already told the story several times of waking up in the ambulance and later being informed that he came within a minute of death because of a rapid buildup of blood in his throat and stomach from internal injuries. His parents and sister are with him on this trip, but he declared them off-limits. And when a photographer approached from his left side, he stiffened uncomfortably.

Only pictures on the right side or straight on, he said, before relaxing and explaining that he still has a cut on the left side of his head that he usually hides with a baseball cap.

The more he talked, the more he seemed marked by the defiance many athletes have in the spotlight. Much had been made even before the accident about Roethlisberger riding motorcycles and in particular riding without a helmet, which he was doing when he ran into the car that morning in Pittsburgh. In his first interviews, he explained that he forgot the helmet that morning, having left it in the basement to be taken to a painter who was going to match the colors on the motorcycle.

This, predictably, led to a new round of criticisms and you don't have to be around him long to see the words have had a sting.

"It's what a lot of players use to drive themselves, it drives me," Roethlisberger said of the heat he has taken. "It seems every year there is some reason they are trying to doubt me. Small school, I was playing as a rookie and now this. I'm looking forward to proving to people that I'm up to the task."

In a few days, he will have his chance. With one turn of a car in front of him on a Pittsburgh street, he instantly became the biggest story in the NFL. He seems to understand this even if he isn't completely comfortable with the attention. The biggest test of his appreciativeness might well come several days into training camp when the questions are still there and every blow to the head will be dissected.

For now he said he can handle it.

"Nothing has really scared me or made me take time to think 'I almost died,' " he said. "I'm not a person for what ifs. What if this happened? What if that didn't happen? We talk about it with my family and friends. But it's more 'how lucky am I?' or 'how close was that?' It doesn't scare me at all."

Monday, July 24, 2006

45,000 fans rock to Bon Jovi as Steelers celebrate Super Bowl trophy

Monday, July 24, 2006
By Dan Majors, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Some came for the Steelers. Some came for the music. Most came for the unique convergence of the two last night at Heniz Field, and most came away happy.

More coverage
From yesterday: It's party time on the North Shore for Steelers fans
More photos in today's Photo Journal

An estimated crowd of 45,000 people turned out for the Steelers Celebration/Bon Jovi Have a Nice Day Tour -- a show that amounted to much more than another black-and-gold pep rally in a city that seizes every chance it gets to wave its Terrible Towels at the world.

Yesterday's event was an intoxicating mix of tailgating, cheering, singing and dancing, with a shiny new silver Super Bowl trophy serving as the swizzle stick.

The music was provided into the night by Jon Bon Jovi, Nickelback, and The Yards, interspersed with player introductions, taunts at Seattle and Cleveland, and the odd environmental message from former Vice President Al Gore between concert sets on the jumbo video screen.

The day started with player autographs in the Coca-Cola Great Hall. Hundreds of Steelers fans waited their turn to enter the hall, where players autographed photos, memorabilia and other items clutched with reverence.

Joe Mangol, 43, and his wife, Alice, of Natrona Heights, brought some footballs to be signed. The pigskins already bore the signatures of Hines Ward, Ike Taylor and others. They waited a half-hour to get a few more.

Because there was no exit and re-entry at the event, they had to carry the footballs with them into the evening and through the music concerts.

"I'll use this as my pillow," Mr. Mangol said.

Later, team officials, including President Dan Rooney, his brother Art Rooney II, and some of the players, made the formal presentation of the franchise's fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy, placing it behind glass in a newly dedicated trophy case built into a column in the Great Hall.
"The only question I have," Kevin Colbert, director of football operations for the Steelers, said to the crowd, "is where are we going to put No. 6?"

The throng of fans packed around them pointed in unison to the neighboring column.

The fans ate it all up, along with hot dogs, nachos, and the usual football stadium fare.

But there were differences.

Because of marketing issues, Steelers memorabilia was not for sale yesterday. Fans had to bring their own numbered jerseys and Terrible Towels.

The Bon Jovi merchandise booths, however, did offer a Bon Jovi football jersey -- No. 3 -- but it was black and blue, not black and gold.

Danielle Greene, 32, of Hermitage, Mercer County, paid $200 for her autographed Bon Jovi jersey and happily blended in with the Steelers fans.

"I really don't care for the Steelers," she said. "I'm here for the concert. And I hope the Steelers stuff doesn't take away from it."

But she was distinctly in the minority, as most attendees found it to be a perfect mix.

"It's so good to be here," said Sue McGahan, 58, of Crafton, who attended the event with her daughters, Melissa Malachow, 31, of Ross, and Amy Fuchs, 35, of Cleveland.

"We wouldn't want to be anywhere else. We are Steelers fans and Bon Jovi fans. This is the best of two worlds in one place."

Even the night's top performer got caught up in the atmosphere. When Bon Jovi came out for an encore, he was wearing a Ben Roethlisberger jersey.

(Dan Majors can be reached at or 412-263-1456. )

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Super Bowl Changed Steelers' Lives

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By Joe Starkey
Sunday, July 23, 2006

It's not as if the Steelers toiled in anonymity before winning Super Bowl XL.
It's just that winning it in front of some 90 million television viewers rocketed them toward another dimension of celebrity - the kind where a simple trek to the local Uni-Mart practically requires a police escort.

The phenomenon is easy to explain. As cornerback Bryant McFadden put it, "What individual doesn't watch the Super Bowl?"

Within hours of the Feb. 5 victory, lives began to change. By the end of spring, soft-spoken tight end Heath Miller had his own candy bar, and several offensive linemen starred in a Campbell's Chunky Soup Commercial. Star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger - before his horrific motorcycle accident - conquered Switzerland, while Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward was becoming a national hero.

In South Korea.

Three starters parlayed the Super Bowl victory into surprisingly lucrative free-agent deals.
Others used their playoff winnings ($37,000 per man for the AFC title game; $73,000 per man for the Super Bowl) on automobiles or houses, and massive right tackle Max Starks got the key to Disney World upon his return from touring military bases in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.

The team was invited to a joyous White House celebration. Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt interviewed for the head coaching job with the Oakland Raiders, and Jerome Bettis took a high-profile analyst job at NBC.

Everybody's profile got a nice booster shot. That's what winning a Super Bowl will do.

"You're looked at it in a whole different light," said wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, who scored a stunning, $31 million contract with the Washington Redskins. "You had great character, great personality before. Now, you have a ring, and it's like people really look at you. I'd like to get a couple more."

With players set to report to training camp Friday in Latrobe, here's a look at the aftermath of winning the Super Bowl, through the eyes of several members of the Steelers organization:

L.A. Story

A Super Bowl title can ruin an offensive lineman's anonymity. Left tackle Marvel Smith doesn't mind. Folks began to notice him more in Los Angeles, where he makes his offseason home.

"In Pittsburgh, a lot of people recognize me when I go out, but I wasn't expecting that in L.A.," Smith said. "I'd go out and people were like, 'Marvel!' I mean, there's quote-unquote superstars all over Los Angeles. You don't expect people to recognize you. That was the one thing that surprised me and made me realize a lot of people watched the Super Bowl."

Not that Smith has totally escaped the anonymous life of a lineman. Asked if the Super Bowl led to any endorsement opportunities, he said, "Nope. That's still the same. Offensive linemen, nobody really wants to watch us."

This was before Roethlisberger and four of his linemen - Smith wasn't available - were asked to star in a Chunky Soup commercial. The linemen became the featured performers when Roethlisberger was unable to participate while recovering from his accident.

Said Smith: "If I find somebody to shoot my commercial, I'll do it. I think I'm the best-looking offensive lineman we got."

Mickey Mouse

Offensive tackle Max Starks got the key to his hometown of Orlando, Fla.

And, yes, it's an actual key.

"It's something I could physically show you," Starks said. "That was a pretty big thing to get that. You get the key to Disney World, Universal Studios. It's awesome."

The 6-foot-8, 337-pound Starks won't take advantage of his new privileges.

"I don't think they'd be too happy," Starks said, "but I could definitely hit up Cinderella's castle and hang out for a little while."

Home, sweet home

The Steelers might not have gotten as far as the AFC Championship Game if rookie cornerback Bryant McFadden hadn't broken up a late pass to the end zone against Indianapolis.

Two more games, including the Super Bowl victory, meant an extra $110,000 for McFadden.
That was equal to nearly half his base salary of $230,000 and enabled him to put down a nice chunk of change on a house in South Florida. He's from Hollywood, Fla.

"Buying a home is a big achievement for a young individual," said McFadden, who turns 25 this season.

Hot Wheels

Rookie guard Chris Kemoeatu parlayed the extra Super Bowl cash into a car for his sister and a Chevy SS for himself.

Kemoeatu returned home to Hawaii for a few weeks to spend time with his family, and they all wanted one thing.

"Everybody was asking to see the ring," he said.

Movin' on up

Before his accident, Roethlisberger spoke of the changes he'd experienced since Super Bowl XL, when he became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

"It gives you more confidence, obviously, naturally, knowing that you've done something that even some of the greats have never done, something that people work for their whole lives," he said. "I've reached a couple goals that I set out for my life; I've reached them already. I had to go back and cross out some of those goals and make them a little loftier."

Can't take it away

Backup nose tackle Chris Hoke knows he'll never be looked at quite the same.

"You got that Super Bowl ring, you're a Super Bowl champion the rest of your life," Hoke said. "I don't know if it changed how I live my life day to day, but for the rest of my life, being a Super Bowl champion will be attached to Chris Hoke. It's a little humbling. Like coach (Bill Cowher) said the other day, 'Only 17 franchises have won that Super Bowl.'

"It's a big accomplishment, but with coach Cowher being our coach, there's no way our mindset is ever going to change. We're going to be out in Latrobe working hard in the heat, being physical and having a lot of contact. Nothing's going to change."

Did Hoke buy anything with his spoils?

"Oh, no, but I'm a big saver, though," he said. "I'm saving for a rainy day."

Star search

Willie Parker went from undrafted free agent to Super Bowl hero in a matter of two years. Parker had the longest run (75 yards) in Super Bowl history, so when people ask for his autograph, they want him to add something like, "Longest run in Super Bowl history."

"I've signed so many '75-yard' autographs, my hand's about to fall off," Parker said.
Did the price for his signature - and his appearances -- go up?

"Yeah," Parker said, smiling, "all that went up."

Winners' circle

Winning Super Bowls is old hat to offensive line coach Russ Grimm, who played on some great Washington Redskins teams.

Grimm believes that winning breeds winning.

"I think any time you win a championship at any level, the confidence of the players goes up, just knowing you've been there, you know what it takes to get there, you know what's expected," he said. "I know the first time it was kinda like, 'We gotta win this game, we gotta win this game.' You keep winning, you keep winning and then you win the big one."

Speaker of the house

Life got a lot busier for guard Kendall Simmons.

"That's really the thing that's changed," said Simmons. "You're speaking to a lot more groups. It's just constant, constant movement all the time because everybody wants to see you and talk to you, hoping you got your ring with you and all that kind of stuff. The spotlight is on right now."

Simmons said the demand for him to come speak to groups is picking up, and he believes that will continue as the season opener gets closer.

"Everybody wants to know your experience and what happened in the game," he said. "It's a good thing to share with folks because you want everyone to somewhat relive your experiences -- to a certain degree."

Nice ring

Backup quarterback Charlie Batch said winning the Super Bowl hasn't changed a thing in his life.
"Nothing, not at all," the Homestead native said.

C'mon Charlie, something had to happen. Better seats at the movie theater? Shorter waits in lines at Kennywood?

"Nope," he said. "People around here are used to seeing me. They figure, 'Hey, it's still Charlie.' "
But what about that Super Bowl ring - that big, diamond-studded showpiece?

Finally, Batch relented.

"Everybody wants to see the ring," he said. "That's probably the biggest difference. I try to carry it around with me, even though I'm not really wearing it, just so people can see it."
Asked if he carried the large piece of jewelry in his pocket, Batch smiled.
"Not there," he said. "I won't say where I keep it."

According to Batch, the reason life has been relatively normal in Steeler Nation - at least where he lives - is because the phenomenon had little room to grow.

"We've always been a big deal around here," Batch said. "The Super Bowl was great for everybody, but the fans have always cared about the Steelers."

Big Money

Ultra-quiet tight end Heath Miller wouldn't seem like a logical candidate to have a candy bar named after him, but, sure enough, food marketer PLB Sports Inc. of Robinson Township produced the 2.8-ounce "Heath's Big Money Bar," made from milk chocolate, toffee and crisped rice.

"It's pretty neat," Miller said.

On the line

Veteran guard Alan Faneca spent a lot more time on the phone than usual in the first few weeks after the big win.

"Lots of messages," he said. "Everybody was excited and just wanted to say hey and congratulations. It took several weeks to get back to everybody, and when I got back home everybody wanted to talk about it and hear about the experience first-hand."

Faneca had grown sick of seeing other teams glorified during the offseason, whether it be in Sports Illustrated ads or elsewhere.

"I'm used to seeing the Patriots (all over the television) and I'm ticked off, and now people have to watch us," Faneca said. "That brings a smile to my face.

Several months without football haven't dampened fans' enthusiasm and desire to talk about the game.

"People still ask about it," Faneca said. "People you don't know still want to come up and say things and that's fine. It happened and it's a real thing, so it's fine. It's good to talk about it. It's good to relive it as long as you keep it in the proper place."

On a mission

Troy Polamalu, the Steelers' spectacular strong safety, didn't feel an extra sense of elation or emptiness in the aftermath of Super XL. He felt pretty much the same as always.
"Some people need a ring or a Super Bowl or a Pro Bowl to validate themselves," he said.
"Obviously, from what you know about me, that's not the person I am."

Polamalu likes to win as much as the next guy, but ...

"My goal is not based on football," he said. "It's spirituality. It's life. You don't separate football from anywhere else in your life. Football's not my mission. The Super Bowl's not my mission. I think football does a great job in teaching people lessons about growing, just like any other occupation. My mission is life."

Patience rewarded

Backup defensive lineman Travis Kirschke waited nine years to win a Super Bowl.
"You start getting later in your career, you start wondering if it's ever going to happen," Kirschke said. "You look at most of the people in the league and they never even get a chance to get close to it. For me to be in the championship game last year and be able to be in the Super Bowl this year, it's just a true blessing to be a part of something like that."

Kirschke didn't go on any extravagant spending spree.

"I think the ring was enough," he said. "I have a tape of the game, I have my ring, and it was an honor to go to the White House. That was good enough for me."

Turning heads

Antwaan Randle El, who caught one touchdown pass during the regular season, turned his versatility into a $31 million contract with the Redskins.

Winning the Super Bowl might have saved him some money, too.

"It helps you out when you get pulled over," he said, laughing. "No, don't tell anybody that!"

-- Staff writers Mike Prisuta, Karen Price and Joe Bendel contributed to this story.

Joe Starkey can be reached at

Can Super Steelers Keep the Good Times Rolling?

Ben Roethlisberger points skyward after Hines Ward scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XL.

Sunday, July 23, 2006
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Just the Facts: Daytripping to Latrobe
Map and training camp schedule

Just five months and 23 days after they became the first team in National Football League history to literally travel the road to Super Bowl victory, the Steelers will report to training camp Friday at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, looking to follow in the historic footsteps of the New England Patriots rather than the ignominious foibles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Baltimore Ravens.

Much like the Patriots, who won three Super Bowl titles in four years, beginning in 2001, the Steelers have positioned themselves to sit on the same precipice of success, thanks largely to a roster that returns most of the key performers and all of the team's core players from last season's improbable run to the championship.

To be sure, they will head into the 2006 season without three starters from last season's 15-5 team that finished with eight consecutive victories -- receiver Antwaan Randle El, defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen and safety Chris Hope. And, perhaps more significant, they will begin a new season without running back Jerome Bettis, the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history, the first time in 11 years there will not be a 255-pound Bus in the backfield.

But the pieces to build a third season on top of a foundation that has produced 31 victories the previous two seasons -- more than any other NFL team -- are solidly in place. Even the injuries sustained in a June 5 motorcycle accident by Ben Roethlisberger, the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, have healed quicker than anyone expected, prompting even Roethlisberger to proclaim he will be ready to go for training camp.

Still, the Steelers will proceed cautiously with their third-year quarterback, making sure he is able to withstand hard hits to the head before they decide to play him in a preseason game, perhaps even a regular-season game. Roethlisberger suffered a large amount of trauma to his face and head when he struck a car and was thrown from his motorcycle -- his jaw was broken in four places and his nose and orbital bone also were fractured -- and the Steelers will not risk his long-term future for the sake of trying to win an extra game.

The Steelers discovered Roethlisberger's impact on the team last season, when he played and when he didn't. Two of their five losses during the regular season came when he didn't play. A third loss -- in Indianapolis on Nov. 28 -- came in his first game back after missing three games because of knee surgery. In two years, the Steelers are 27-4 when Roethlisberger has started.
Last year, the Steelers entered the 2005 season thinking they could be a better team and not have a better record than 2004, when they were 15-1 in the regular season.

This season, with 19 of 22 starters returning from the Super Bowl, the Steelers have a chance to pull off a double play -- have a better record and be a better team than last year, when they were 11-5 in the regular season.

"I think we have put ourselves in good position after winning a Super Bowl," coach Bill Cowher said on draft day.

Indeed, here's why:

The loss of Randle El will not drastically impact the offense because the former No. 2 draft pick had just 35 catches and caught just one touchdown pass during the regular season. The addition of Santonio Holmes, the No. 1 pick from Ohio State and a receiver with big-play ability, could strengthen the position. Randle El's loss will be felt on punt returns, though Holmes and Florida State's Willie Reid, a No. 3 draft pick, were two of the best returners in college football last season.

Hope, a two-year starter who signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency, will be replaced in the short term by Ryan Clark, whose biggest responsibility will be to act as a safeguard for strong safety Troy Polamalu, who is allowed to roam in the Steelers' defense. Long term, the position will eventually go to rookie Anthony Smith, a No. 2 pick who is smart, instinctual and a sure tackler.

Despite playing very well each of the past two seasons, von Oelhoffen will be 34 and was nearing the end of his career. His departure allows Brett Keisel, maybe the team's best pass-rushing lineman, to become a starter. The run defense might suffer early with Keisel, but his long arms and ability to get to the quarterback should ease some of the burden on Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter, who led NFL linebackers in sacks in 2005.

The biggest issue facing the Steelers, aside from Roethlisberger's return to health, is the departure of Bettis, who retired after winning the Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit. Bettis still flashed moments of grandeur last season -- his 5-yard touchdown run against Chicago, in which he ran over linebacker Brian Urlacher, reminded of a younger Bus -- but even the coaches knew he was not the same running back.

On the field, Bettis will be replaced by Duce Staley, who, when healthy, is a more productive runner. Staley, though, has missed each of the past two seasons with injuries. But, off the field, Bettis' impact in the locker room is difficult to replace.

Still, unlike past years, those issues are not of tantamount concern. And the reason is Willie Parker, a rookie free agent in 2004 who became the starter in training camp last season and never let go.

Parker rushed for 1,202 yards, had nine runs of 20 yards or longer and his 4.7-yard per-carry average was second best in the AFC among 1,000-yard backs. Oh yeah, and he broke open the Super Bowl with his 75-yard touchdown run to start the second half.

Since 2001, when they went to the AFC championship game, the Steelers are 55-24-1 in the regular season, a record surpassed only by the Patriots (58-22) among NFL teams. It was the Patriots who twice stood in the way of the Steelers getting to another Super Bowl, beating them in the AFC title game in Heinz Field in 2001 and 2004.

Now, as they get ready for training camp, can the Steelers maintain the same success as the Patriots? Can they repeat as Super Bowl champ?

Remember: Even the Patriots failed to make the playoffs the following year after winning the Super Bowl in 2001. The same thing happened to the Ravens in 2000 and Tampa Bay in 2002.

There hasn't even been repeat success for Super Bowl losers. The past five losers in the Super Bowl were a combined 31-49 during the regular season the following year. None made the playoffs. In fact, the last Super Bowl loser to have a winning record the following year was the Tennessee Titans in 1999.

The Steelers can choose their own path in 2006. It all starts Friday.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Wild Pitches with Jason Bay

Pirates slugger discusses growing up in Canada and more
By Ben Platt /

Jason Bay's player pageGet Pirates gear

Welcome to Wild Pitches, where your favorite players take time to chat about something other than baseball. The questions will, hopefully, provide you with a glimpse of the person behind the ballplayer, and maybe a few laughs, too.

Entering his third full season in the Major Leagues, Jason Bay has established himself and one of the best all-around players in baseball. The 28-year-old outfielder from British Columbia, Canada first gained some notoriety in 2003, when he and Padres teammate Oliver Perez were traded from San Diego to the Pirates for Brian Giles. The trade has been beneficial for both teams, especially for Bay, who beat out his best friend, Padres shortstop Khalil Greene, for the 2004 Rookie of the Year award with a .282 batting average, 26 home runs and 82 RBIs. He picked up where he left off in 2005, batting .306 with 32 home runs and 101 RBIs. This season, Bay has already made his second straight trip to the All-Star Game where he represented the Pirates at their home field at PNC Park. Though he lives year round in the United States; his home country of Canada is never far from his heart.

Canada is ...

Home; that's where I grew up. Canadians are very patriotic people and I'm no different. Everyone from Canada has a flag somewhere, maybe a backpack or somewhere in their apartment; wherever it might be. No matter where you are you have that kind of bond, even on the baseball field, the other Canadian players you don't even know or have never played with, you may see them and they always greet you warmly; it's like a brotherhood whether you know them or not.

When I was a kid ...

I played hockey; I am Canadian and I'm still disappointed that the Edmonton Oilers lost in the Stanley Cup finals; it's a big deal and Canadians get excited about things like that. Hockey is our big sport. I lived in a small town with about 8,000 people and it was hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer for me. There really wasn't anything else for me to do growing up. It was a lot easier to play hockey; there were a lot of teams and rinks around.

Playing baseball in Idaho as a kid ...

Was totally normal for me; I didn't know anything different. People would ask me about playing high school baseball, which we didn't have; we had America Legion teams during the summer and Idaho and Washington were our closest competition, so we played and it was a great platform for me to get noticed; I went to a junior college in Idaho and from there I went to Gonzaga University, so it was just normal for me, but, looking back, it was not the most direct route that most people would take.

I may not be the best athlete in my own family ...

My sister Lauren is a very good left-handed softball pitcher. People ask me all the time if I've ever faced her; they want to know all the juicy facts and I have nothing to tell them, because I've never faced her. I don't want to face her; there's really no reason to. The fun thing is that she gets to talk about me and I get to talk about her and rather than talking about ourselves, I think that's more fun for us.

An average offseason day for me ...

My wife Kristen and I live in Phoenix during the offseason. When the season ends there's a lot of resting to start with and there's a Starbucks right near our house, so I'll grab a coffee for my wife and I and I'll grab a newspaper and read it by the pool and maybe run some errands. I've become somewhat of a "Johnny Homeowner" during the offseason and I get to do stuff around the house that I normally don't get to do during the season like pressure-washing the pool deck; most people think that would be mundane, but I like doing the chores. My wife and I like to cook, just the two of us and we'll start cooking dinner at night and we'll enjoy a glass of wine; we're also really into wine during the offseason, that's a big hobby of ours. Kristen is also six-months pregnant, so our offseason is going to be a little different this year and we're really looking forward to it.

The wine collecting ...

Is fun; I don't have a true collection per-se; I know a little bit about wine, but I'm no connoisseur. I can't hold it up and tell you the hint of this or that. I know what we like and again, it's more about being normal during the offseason and having a glass of wine or having people over to entertain. It's something fun to do. I'm no die-hard or wine snob. I just enjoy trying everything. When we get a bigger house one day, I'd definitely like to get a 5000 bottle wine cellar and really start collecting the stuff I really like. Right now it's just a hobby, down the road it may actually be a collection.

My TV shows are ...

"CSI;" Miami, Las Vegas, they're both great. We watch "Law & Order," anything on HBO; we have the full HBO package and my wife will get mad at me because I keep the TV on HBO all the time; it doesn't matter what movie or series on, I'll watch it. I also like the HD packages, so I'll look at the High Definition channels; so even if it's a caterpillar on a leaf, if it's in High-Def, I'll watch it.

My iPod has ...

About 10,000 songs on it. I have the 60-Gig version and I just throw everything on it. I have a lot of 80's rock, Monster Ballad type stuff, 38 Special, Skid Row, some ballad songs and other stuff, but I'm an 80's music kind of guy.

When I'm done playing ball ...

Hopefully, I won't have to do anything. If you play long enough things take care of themselves. I'll really look forward to just being a normal dad; with Kristen being pregnant and us wanting more kids, I hope we have the luxury that playing baseball provides is that when you're done and everything works out like you want it to, you get to spend that you didn't get to spend early with your kids and that's a big thing for me; whether it's coaching a team or dropping your daughter off at some recital. Like I said before; I take great joy out of everyday things I don't get to do during the season.

Ben Platt is a national correspondent for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Bob Smizik: Steady Freddy Keeps the Hits Coming

Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Greg Brown calls him, "Steady Freddy."

Lanny Frattare calls him, "Frederick the Great."

Both work.

Although it might be an understatement to call the National League batting leader steady and it might be an exaggeration to call him great, both nicknames are rooted in reality.

Frederick Phillip Sanchez is spectacularly steady. In five consecutive months since September last season, he has batted .325, .333, .360., .380 and .375. In every one of those months he had a slugging percentage over .500. Doesn't get much steadier than that.

Sanchez might not be up to the level of greatness of the real Frederick the Great (King of Prussia for 46 years in the 18th century), but he is performing at a majestic level for the Pirates.
He went into last night's game against the Colorado Rockies -- a 13-4 loss at PNC Park -- not only leading the National League in batting but leading by 18 points over Nomar Garciaparra.

As he makes believers out of almost everyone -- almost all of whom, including this columnist, were non-believers -- he is regularly shattering myths.

The greatest myth surrounding Sanchez was the label firmly affixed to him once he joined the Pirates: Utilityman.

It was understandable he would fall into this category because he seemed little more than a throw-in in a trade between the Pirates and the Boston Red Sox in July 2003. When he was immediately diagnosed with a bone spur in his right ankle that necessitated surgery and kept him out until the following June, the label seemed legitimate.

Overlooked in this labeling was that he had been a bright prospect for the Red Sox. His career minor-league batting averages read like this: .288, .303, .339, .326, .328, .301. .341.

Those are not the numbers of a utilityman.

"I always knew I could hit," said Sanchez last night. "I didn't know if I would get the chance to play this season, but I had hit all my life, everywhere I played."

That utilityman label was so set that even after he batted .325 with four homers playing third base last September, the Pirates never considered him starting material. They went out and paid $4 million for Joe Randa.

Only an injury to Randa gave Sanchez his chance.

Now he is exploding other myths, particularly the one that says a team needs a home-run hitter playing third base.

Sanchez only has five home runs, but there are more ways to drive in runs and prove your mettle as a hitter.

Heading into last night, he was tied for the National League lead in doubles with 33, was third in batting with runners in scoring position with a .409 average and was torching left-handed pitching at a .478 clip.

A greater measure than home runs of a player's worth is slugging percentage. Sanchez is 20th in the National League, which might not seem all that impressive but it does put him in front of such well-known "power" hitters as Andruw Jones, Carlos Delgado, Todd Helton, Shawn Green, Bobby Abreu, Aramis Ramirez and Prince Fielder.

His reputation being what it is, no one is giving Sanchez much of a chance of holding off the likes of Garciaparra and Albert Pujols, both former batting champions, to become the first Pirate to win the honor since Bill Madlock in 1983.

"That not something I even think about," Sanchez said. "It's on the back burner. You get a couple of people who want to talk about it, but it's July and there's still a lot of baseball left. Just as quick as you go up, you can go down. I don't pay attention."

Sanchez has made a believer of manager Jim Tracy, who was reluctant to play him in front of Randa at one point. Tracy believes Sanchez can win the batting title.

"One of the things that makes him so special is his ability to get the barrel of the bat on the same plane as the ball," Tracy said.

"There are some swings of his that look unorthodox. But more times than not it's the pitcher making a great pitch and him still handling that pitch. There are not a ton of names you could come up with who have the capability of doing that. He has an uncanny ability to do that."

Sanchez had his fifth consecutive two-hit game last night and drove in two runs. His average is a cool .365.

A batting title is within reach. He has done it consistently for five months. There's ample reason to believe he can continue to do it for 2 1/2 more.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at or 412-263-1468. )

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Steelers Lost 18 Former Players Since 2000

Steve Courson

By The Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

One was lifting weights at home. Another was training for a triathlon. A third was watching a game at a friend's house.

Regular guys doing regular things.

Then there were the others.

One drank antifreeze. Another was in a high-speed chase.
Two things in common among all:

They were Pittsburgh Steelers; and they died in the last six years.

Fresh off their first Super Bowl victory in 26 years, the Steelers have experienced the emotional gamut. The franchise has lost 18 former players -- age 35 to 58 -- since 2000, including seven in the last 16 months.

"There is no explanation," said Joe Gordon, a Steelers executive from 1969 through '98. "We just shake our heads and ask why."

The numbers are startling. Of the NFL players from the 1970s and '80s who have died since 2000, more than one in five -- 16 of 77 -- were Steelers.

"It's just an anomaly that we can't explain," said John Stallworth, who starred at receiver for Steelers teams from 1974 to 1987. "From an emotional standpoint it just makes you sad and makes you feel like the time we spent together was even more precious."

Freak accidents led to some of the deaths, and at least one was a suicide. Others share hauntingly familiar details.

Seven died of heart failure: Jim Clack, 58; Ray Oldham, 54; Dave Brown, 52; Mike Webster, 50; Steve Furness, 49; Joe Gilliam, 49; and Tyrone McGriff, 41. (In 1996, four years before the steady succession of Steelers deaths, longtime center Ray Mansfield died of a heart attack at 55.)

There is speculation that steroid abuse could have played a role in some of the deaths, but no hard evidence. It's just as plausible that weight issues were a factor. Counting Mansfield, five of the eight heart-attack victims played on the offensive or defensive line.

The circumstances surrounding some of the other deaths were unusual:

* Steve Courson, 50, was killed outside his Farmington, Pa., home in November while trying to remove a 44-foot tree from his property. The former guard was crushed while apparently trying to save his dog, after a gust of wind changed the direction of the falling tree. His black Labrador retriever was found alive, tangled in Courson's legs.

* In March 2005, David Little was bench-pressing weights alone at his Miami home when the coroner determined he suffered a heart arrhythmia, causing the 46-year-old former linebacker to drop a 250-pound barbell on his chest. The bar rolled across his neck and suffocated him.

* Terry Long, 45, an offensive guard whose eight-year career was derailed by a positive test for steroids, committed suicide in Pittsburgh in June 2005 by drinking antifreeze. Twice divorced, he had serious legal problems stemming from his failed food-processing business and had made two previous suicide attempts.

The youngest of the Steelers to die was 36-year-old Justin Strzelczyk, a tackle who had a series of run-ins with the law after he retired. He died after a 40-mile, high-speed chase on the New York Thruway in September 2004. Driving his Ford F-250 pickup at speeds in excess of 100 mph, Strzelczyk made obscene gestures and tossed beer bottles at the police following him. The chase came to a fiery end when, while on the wrong side of the road, he slammed into a tanker truck. The string of deaths -- most recently that of receiver Theo Bell, who died June 21 of kidney disease and the skin ailment scleroderma -- have reverberated through the Steelers, the city of Pittsburgh and beyond.

"Just the fact that the Steelers are such an integral part of this community -- probably more so than most NFL cities -- it obviously hits home for a lot of people," Gordon said. "It's hard to accept."

Men who won a combined 20 Super Bowl rings, the deceased Steelers were part of one of the most hallowed organizations in sports. "When I was young I convinced myself that I was going to do something with my life so that my death wouldn't be the end of me," Stallworth said. "In the lives of these men, they were a part of something special. People in Pittsburgh and around the country will remember them for that."

Some were as much pioneers as players. Gilliam was among the NFL's first black quarterbacks. He started for Pittsburgh in 1974 before Terry Bradshaw reclaimed the job.

When Gilliam's career ended, his life took a downward turn. He struggled with addictions to cocaine and heroin, and sometimes was homeless. In 1995, he was discovered sleeping in a cardboard box under a bridge in Nashville.

But his life was on an upswing just before his death. Saying he was drug free, he lectured children on the perils of drug abuse. In 2000, on Christmas Day, he died while watching a football game at a friend's house.

Of the 22 players who were part of all four Pittsburgh Super Bowl teams of the 1970s, Webster was the last to retire and, after Furness, the second to die.

An All-Pro center who played in a franchise-record 220 games, "Iron Mike" was known for playing bare-armed no matter how cold the conditions, and for dominating larger defenders. He paid a price, however. Doctors said the battering he had taken damaged the frontal lobe of his brain, affecting his attention span and concentration. That likely contributed to the many setbacks he endured after his career, among them a failed marriage, a string of bad investments, and occasional homelessness.

Also after his career, he admitted he tried anabolic steroids as a player, but maintained they were not responsible for his condition. He died of a heart attack in September 2002.

"Webby was my hero," longtime Steelers tackle Tunch Ilkin said. "That broke my heart. I'd seen what was going on with his life at the end."

For years, the Steelers have been dogged by rumors that several of them used performance-enhancing drugs in the 1970s. In an interview last year, Jim Haslett, then coach of the New Orleans Saints, admitted to experimenting with steroids as a Buffalo linebacker, and said the use of those drugs among NFL players started with the Steelers. The NFL didn't begin testing for steroids until 1987, becoming the first professional sports league to do so.

Although Haslett didn't deny making those comments, he later apologized to Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who called the accusation "totally false." Former Pittsburgh receiver Lynn Swann agreed with Rooney, saying he was "very surprised" by Haslett's claim.

"He's misinformed," Swann said. "He was not a part of that team. I was on that team, and I don't use steroids. And I couldn't tell you of who was on that team if anybody used steroids.

Pittsburgh the epicenter of steroid use in the NFL? No. I find that very difficult to believe."

However, Peter Furness told the Providence Journal last year that he suspects his brother, Steve, who played defensive tackle for the Steelers from 1972 through '81, used steroids. Steve Furness died in 2000.

In a 1985 interview with Sports Illustrated, Courson became the first NFL player to speak on the record about his steroid use. During his playing days, he had 20-inch biceps and could bench press 600 pounds. He later said that contributed to a life-threatening condition that weakened his heart muscles -- though he also pointed to his hard-living lifestyle as a factor.

For years, Courson was Mr. Steeler. He played in Pittsburgh from 1977 through '83, when he was part of two championship teams. In the last few years of his life, however, he stopped wearing his Super Bowl rings and contemplated starting over in the mountains of Colorado. He felt betrayed, his girlfriend said, by his teammates' refusal to come clean about their steroid use.

"He wanted them to come out and be straight, seeing as it wasn't illegal back then," said Denise Masciola, who dated Courson the last few years of his life. "None of them would. They thought it would hamper their reputation. He felt like they left him just hanging."

Former Pittsburgh safety Donnie Shell, now director of player development for the Carolina Panthers, had hoped Courson would work with Carolina players last fall. A few months earlier, the former teammates had discussed getting together.

"Then I saw it come across the crawl that Steve Courson is dead," Shell said. "You don't know why until you hear the results of the news. Sometimes it's just shocking to hear."

Shell, like Gordon, sees no rhyme nor reason to the deaths. Only a relentless drumbeat of tragedies -- and a reminder that life can be too short.

"There's nothing you can do," he said, "except pray for the families, cherish the memories that you had with them -- they're good memories -- and move on."

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Gene Collier: Ben Removes Helmet for National Media

Steelers fans express some disappointment
Sunday, July 16, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Two weeks from today, with the Steelers finally, mercifully, on an actual practice field at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Ben Roethlisberger will not only appear in a football uniform for the first time since becoming the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl in February, but for the first time since becoming the most famous motorcyclist since probably Evel Knievel.

While it's always intellectually perilous comparing athletes of different eras, I lean toward Roethlisberger for this discussion because even though Knievel's performances were more consistently spectacular, with challenging backdrops such as the Snake River Canyon and the fountains at Caesar's Palace, Knievel never had to contend with the Pittsburgh left.

Moreover, he was wearing a helmet.

More definitively, Roethlisberger is the superior showman to Robbie Knievel, son of Evel, who in a Fox production called "Death Jump," once successfully jumped his motorcycle from the roof of one Las Vegas hotel onto another, breaking only his thumb.

I guess "Broken Thumb Jump" just didn't have the same ring to it.

What a rip-off.

As we all know, Roethlisberger can break his thumb without going anywhere near the trouble, and still play so effectively that management has a difficult time even acknowledging that it's broken.

But this, the whole Evel-vs.-Ben debate, likely will be the only overlooked aspect of the next volcanic media spasm, which surely will erupt in two weeks, at least if the preceding week is any indicator.

Not since the troubling news cycles of June 12 and June 13, when Roethlisberger single-handedly altered a homespun platitude into "some days you're the windshield, some days you're the quarterback," has the relationship of sports to media looked so neurotic as it has in the past few days.

As trained journalists (that's right, don't try this at home), we probably should have been able to anticipate that the first fixed-face comments from the Steelers' quarterback would come well before training camp (in a bow to the ever-detested "distractions") and probably at an unavoidable media confab as far from Channel 11 as possible.

Roethlisberger and Channel 11 don't get along, and while I take no pleasure in reporting this, it's possible that if Roethlisberger does pour everything out on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Fedko's chances of hitting that couch could well be compromised.

In any event, the coordinates at which Roethlisberger surfaced publicly were Los Angeles and the ESPYs, an elaborate network contrivance based on the quizzical concept that this culture simply doesn't do enough to honor athletes. This in a week when LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers' sensation, spent many thoughtful hours on the question of whether to accept roughly $60 million over three years instead of $80 million over five years so as not to limit future earnings even though he's taking in $90 million over seven years from Nike alone.

Of course, if he doesn't win an ESPY, what's really the point?

The realization that Roethlisberger had started talking at the ESPYs taping and would soon be available at a weekend golf tournament near Lake Tahoe, Nev., still caught much of the local media by surprise, its more resolute assignment editors quickly flying folks westward.

The Post-Gazette's hustling Paul Zeise landed a face-to-face interview for Friday's editions, in which Roethlisberger not only pronounced himself ready, but revealed that he had extended numerous offers of counsel to top draft pick Santonio Holmes, none accepted. Holmes, arrested twice this summer on disorderly conduct and domestic violence charges, did not return the quarterback's phone messages, Roethlisberger said.

Roethlisberger doubtless feels he flashed some leadership potential with that gesture, and this is not to argue, but if Bill Cowher sat down tonight and made a short list of people he's close to being out of patience with, the first name after Holmes might well be Roethlisberger.

It's not like Roethlisberger hadn't been warned with Knievel-esque horror stories prior to living one, and the quarterback's celebrated "free spirit," everyone knows, has taken him into some unflattering situations in certain local taverns and even unwittingly onto the Internet.

Meanwhile, some gratifying number of Steelers fans squawked to the talk shows that it's outrageous and disappointing that Roethlisberger didn't talk first to the local media, the men and women who work at Steelers hindquarters most of the year and have nurtured his largely positive national image from the beginning.

Personally, in a week when Congress accepted an automatic bump for its members' salaries to $171,800 while stone-walling an increase in the minimum wage, when the Middle East exploded toward all-out war, oil prices spiked to record highs, Mayor Bob O'Connor battled a rare form of primary central nervous system lymphoma, and rebels likely continued throwing live babies onto bonfires in Darfur, I'm not real upset that Roethlisberger wasn't talking to me.

(Gene Collier can be reached at or 412-263-1283.)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Paulino Poised For Second Half

By Rob Rossi
Saturday, July 15, 2006

It was hard to forget a month such as the one Ronny Paulino experienced in the minors last season.

"It was terrible. I made six errors," recalled Paulino, who split his 2005 season between Class AA Altoona and Class AAA Indianapolis. "Every time I went to throw out a runner..."
Paulino paused, took a healthy swig of his Gatorade and then revealed a point that should relieve Pirates fans worried about his nine errors in the first half of this major-league season.

"In one month, I made six errors," said Paulino. "You should look at how many I finished with."

Eight was enough, as it turned out.

"I know exactly what happens when I make a throwing error," Paulino said. "I try to throw too hard, and I'm too quick. If you look back at every throwing error that I've made this season, you'll see the same thing."

Pirates manager Jim Tracy thought for a minute, then concurred with his 25-year-old backstop.
"When he gets into trouble, it's because he is rushing, and he tries to get too fast. That is true," Tracy said. "And you know what? That's totally understandable for a young catcher."

Tracy rarely criticizes Paulino.

The rookie catcher closed the first half by batting .350 over his final 11 games. His average of .308 is second among National League rookies and Pirates regulars.

He has proven as adept at hitting against left-handers (.306) as he has right-handers (.309), and his .273 average with runners in scoring position was fourth-best among the position players that started last night for the Pirates against the Washington Nationals.

Offensively, Paulino has proven almost as refreshing a surprise as Freddy Sanchez, who led the senior circuit in hitting going into last night.

"We couldn't ask for anything more from (Paulino) with the bat," Tracy said.

Defensively, though, the numbers point to Paulino having room to improve.

His nine errors are most among National League catchers that qualify for fielding statistics. His fielding percentage of .980 also is the worst among such backstops. His six passed balls place him tied for second-to-last.

Paulino has played the majority of the Pirates' games since being recalled April 16. The possibility exists that he was experiencing some mental fatigue as the All-Star break approached.

"The possibility?" Tracy said. "When you think of how much we've asked of this kid, I'd say it was more than a possibility he was a little bit tired mentally.

"And even though some of his defensive statistics suggest he could improve, there are also some that suggest he's handling himself quite well."

That much is true.

Paulino's caught-stealing percentage in the first half was .368, third in the league.
More important was the Pirates' staff ERA with him behind the plate -- 4.14, second behind only All-Star catcher Paul Lo Duca of the New York Mets.

"He reminds me a lot of Paul, they have some of the same characteristics in their mental approach to the game and a very similar passion," said Tracy, who managed Lo Duca in Los Angeles.

"Ronny's ability to call games, his feel for things that instantaneously pop up during an at-bat and his definitive understanding of how to carry out an at-bat -- it's uncanny. Lo Duca was good at it, too ... but not just like that. Ronny is further ahead right now than Paul was when he was younger."

Having established himself as the Pirates' catcher of today and tomorrow, Paulino expects to have little trouble taking care of his few defensive disappointments.

"I'm seeing a lot of things for the first time that I know I can't let happen again," said Paulino. "I keep a list of everything that I've seen so that I'm not surprised by anything the second time around.

"The second half is when you see what you've got. If you finish strong and make improvements -- that's when you prove your worth as a player."

Rob Rossi can be reached at or (412) 380-5635.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Mike Prisuta: Resilient Roethlisberger

Mike Prisuta
Friday, July 14, 2006

Ben Roethlisberger insisted Thursday his brush with death won't affect his readiness or willingness to play the style of game that's helped the Steelers achieve a 27-4 record and win a Super Bowl with him starting at quarterback the past two seasons.

"People ask me if it's going to change the way I play, am I going to be more cautious?" Roethlisberger said. "No, that's not who I am.

"I'm not going to slide instead of dive. I'm not going to step out of bounds, instead of trying to get that extra yard. I have every intention of getting out there and playing to the fullest of my ability and still being that free spirit that makes me who I am.

"I'm going to try to be better than I ever was."

Speaking four weeks and three days after a motorcycle accident landed him on an operating table for seven hours -- coming within "seconds, maybe a minute" of losing his life -- Roethlisberger maintained he'd be ready for some football when training camp opens July 28 in Latrobe.

The Steelers open their defense of the 2005 NFL championship against Miami on Sept. 7 at Heinz Field.

"I'll tell you what, I have every intention of being ready to go on both of those dates," Roethlisberger said during a telephone interview. "That's my goal, to be ready to go 100 percent."

Roethlisberger sustained a broken jaw and other facial bones in a motorcycle accident June 12.

Speaking to ESPN's Jim Rome in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Roethlisberger said paramedics told him he was "literally seconds, maybe a minute away from dying, because I slit a vein or artery in my mouth or my throat, and it was draining blood right into my stomach."

Roethlisberger was in Lake Tahoe, Nev., yesterday for the Pro-Am for the American Century Championship. He will participate in the celebrity golf tournament today, as planned prior to his accident.

"I've lost weight, so maybe I'll be faster, maybe I'll be quicker," Roethlisberger said.

As for other potential long-term effects from his accident, "Maybe it's going to make people doubt me and put more fire in me," Roethlisberger said.

Roethlisberger, listed at 241 pounds by the Steelers a season ago, had acknowledged a desire to lose weight heading into this season.

He observed yesterday that his accident and subsequent hospital stint allowed him to achieve that goal faster than anticipated.

He reported his current weight at 235 pounds and said he'd like to play this season at 235 or 240.

"It's a bad way, unfortunately, to lose the weight I needed to lose. But, hey, we're down now, and I'm lifting (weights) and getting stronger," Roethlisberger said. "I think it's going to be better in the long run."

Roethlisberger admittedly experienced some trying times during his convalescence -- soul-searching and second-guessing himself for riding his Suzuki Hayabusa without a helmet haven't been a part of that process, though.

"I have never sat down and said, 'I can't believe this happened to me, why me? What if this? What if that? If this was different, that would have happened,'" Roethlisberger said. "That's not me.

"I've sat down and talked with my family and said, 'Wow, can you believe that happened?' We say things like 'wow' and 'that's amazing' and 'we are truly blessed to be alive with what happened.' But I'm never going to sit there and question or second-guess anything that happened or say 'what if?' Because I can't control that."

Roethlisberger perceived his presence at Edgewood Tahoe Country Club yesterday as evidence he's on the verge of completing his recovery.

"It was either that or me throwing the football around the other day," he said. "Both of them are pretty good signs.

"I've been throwing for the last couple of weeks, throwing and working out and running. I'm feeling better every day."

The Steelers haven't commented publicly on Roethlisberger's status or how they intend to use him in training camp and preseason games.

Roethlisberger anticipates the coaching staff will take a cautious approach.

"No one really knows yet," he said. "They kind of want to see how things are going to go, but I want to tell them I'm ready to go for them."

Wearing a different football helmet has been discussed, Roethlisberger said, based on "what fits the best and what's the best protection, but I don't see that being a big issue."

Roethlisberger also suspects he suffered a concussion in the accident, but he doesn't know for certain.

"I would assume I did, but I don't foresee that causing any problems in the long run or making it any tougher," he said. "I've had concussions before. I don't know how many, but I don't foresee it being a problem."

As for NFL defenses potentially going after him with more fervor because of his injuries, "You never know, but I have the best offensive line in football," Roethlisberger said. "I have confidence in them."

Steelers coach Bill Cowher had warned Roethlisberger of the dangers of motorcycle riding prior to the accident, and he had urged his quarterback to wear a helmet if he remained determined to ride.

Roethlisberger said he hadn't begun to contemplate whether he would ride again -- he's vowed to wear a helmet in the event he does -- but he didn't anticipate Cowher, Steelers chairman Dan Rooney or Steelers president Art Rooney II forbidding him to do so.

"Obviously, that's their call, but I don't foresee any of that coming about," Roethlisberger said. "I think I truly am blessed to be playing for an awesome coach and awesome owners, because they have been nothing but supportive of me the whole time. They've really just wanted me to get better.

"I'm just so thankful for the support I've gotten for them."

Support from those closest to him helped him through the toughest of times, Roethlisberger said, "Not necessarily their words of wisdom as much as just being there if I needed somebody to talk to.

"No one's really given me advice on how to get through it," he said. "They know I'm a strong person. But my family and friends and teammates, just having their support has been unbelievable."

He also had a message for Steelers fans.

"Thank them for all their support and their cards and letters that got me through those tough nights with my mom, trying to figure out if I was going to be able to fall asleep or not," Roethlisberger said. "I apologize to all of them, obviously, and I think I'm beyond apologies now.
"I just want everybody to know that, yes, I'm sorry. But I'm going to be OK. They can count on me."

Mike Prisuta can be reached at