Monday, December 26, 2011

Steelers' Keisel is a gift that keeps on giving

Brett Keisel is not 'just a bearded guy from Wyoming,' he is a local treasure whose abundant and tireless charity work is his way of saying thanks for what he and other Steelers receive from the community.

Monday, December 26, 2011

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 27: Defensive end Brett Keisel(notes) #99 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tackles running back Dexter McCluster(notes) #22 of the Kansas City Chiefs from behind during the second half on November 27, 2011 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. Pittsburgh defeated Kansas City 13-9. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

The Pro Bowl rosters will be announced Tuesday night during -- I know this will be hard to believe -- a made-for-television gala on the NFL Network. Don't be surprised if Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel makes the AFC squad. He has been that good all season. He has been the best, most consistent player on a stout defense that has led the team to an 11-4 record and the AFC playoffs.

But, if Keisel is named to the Pro Bowl -- quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and safety Troy Polamalu appear to be the Steelers' only locks -- it won't be his greatest honor. Earlier this month, he was the team's nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, which goes to the player who combines on-field excellence with outstanding community service. It's the league's highest honor -- better than any of the player of the year awards -- if you think about what's really important. The winner will be announced during Super Bowl XLVI week in Indianapolis.

Johnny Unitas won the first NFL Man of the Year award in 1970. Payton won it in '77, and the award was named in his honor after his death in '99. Former Pitt quarterback Dan Marino won it in '98. Past Steelers winners were Franco Harris, Joe Greene, Lynn Swann and Jerome Bettis.

"Man, those guys are living legends," Keisel said. "I'm just a bearded guy from Wyoming."

Let's start with that beard.

With Keisel, that's the only place to start.

The beard is famous, to the point it has taken on its own personality. Keisel swears it has great power. I think he really believes it helped the Steelers get to the Super Bowl last season. He's convinced it will get the team there again this year and finish the job with a win in the big game.

You saw the beard squished under Keisel's chinstrap Saturday when the Steelers beat the St. Louis Rams, 27-0, at Heinz Field. You see it on a variety of T-shirts all over town. You see it in one of Polamalu's hilarious national television commercials for a hair-care company. After the Steelers season ends -- after Super Bowl XLVI, Keisel insists -- you'll see it shaved off in public for charity for the second consecutive year.

"As heartbreaking as it was for us to lose the Super Bowl last season, it was heartwarming to come home and do something good with the beard," Keisel said. "We were able to throw an event together in about a week where I shaved it off and we raised $40,000 for Children's Hospital. It wasn't me that raised that money. It was the city of Pittsburgh. I was just glad to be a part of it. Children's Hospital is very dear to me because of [teammate] Aaron Smith's situation and the help they've given [his son] Elijah."

Elijah Smith was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008 when he was 4 and is cancer-free today. "Had his last treatment Friday," Aaron Smith gushed after the game against the Rams. "After three years, two months and two days!"

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation also is close to Keisel's heart. He got involved with the charity six years ago and has devoted countless hours to it.

"The first function I went to, this little girl, Emma, who must have been about 4 at the time, came running up to me and gave me the biggest hug," Keisel said. "She had her backpack with her oxygen and the tubes in her nose and she tells me, 'Thank you so much for coming to my party!' She just stole my heart."

Keisel has worked hard to spread the word about Cystic Fibrosis. You see him on television doing a public-service announcement with a little boy named Anthony, who has the disease, which frequently attacks the lungs. "A lot of great research is being done," Keisel said. "Kids are living longer and they aren't on oxygen all day anymore. They're really making strides toward finding a cure."

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation had one of its big fund-raisers -- the 65 Roses Sports Auction -- Dec. 1 at a Downtown restaurant. Keisel was honorary chairman and brought many of his teammates with him, including Roethlisberger, James Farrior, Casey Hampton, Heath Miller, Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward.

"The guys never hesitate," Keisel said. "It's something easy for us to do and it means so much to the kids ...

"I look at it this way. The city we're in and the position we're in, we have to give something back. The Pittsburgh Steelers mean so much to this city and people give us so much. How do we not give something back? That's what I try to tell the young guys. 'Plenty of people need our help. Find something close to you and get involved with it.' "

Keisel also has devoted efforts to the American Heart Association, the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society, Animal Friends of Pittsburgh, the Salvation Army's Project Bundle Up and the Read Across America program.

The man rested Sunday.

He spent a quiet Christmas at his North Hills home with his wife, Sarah, and children, Jacob and Grace.

Clearly, Keisel has found plenty of time for his day job. This has been his best season. "I would say so," he agreed, grinning behind that beard.

Keisel long has been a big part of the Steelers defense, which ranks No. 1 in the NFL. It's hard to put up big stats as a 3-4 defensive end, but he leads the team with 33 quarterback pressures. He has broken up eight passes with his long arms. He has three sacks.

"I think I've been productive," Keisel said. "I've tried to be a leader for the young guys."

It should be enough to get Keisel on the Pro Bowl roster. He was named as a first alternate last season and made the team when Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney gave up his spot because of an injury. Keisel didn't get to go to Hawaii for the game because the Steelers played in the Super Bowl. He would love to have to miss the Pro Bowl again this season for the same reason.

"I just want us to finish the season strong the way I know we can," Keisel said. "It's about playing good ball at the right time."

Keisel plans on coming back next year for his 11th NFL season. He will turn 34 Sept. 19. He is signed through the 2012 season.

"I still feel like I can compete and do my job at a high level. As long as I can do that, it's a blessing for me to go out and play. I just love the competition. After football, I'll never do anything that comes close to giving you that feeling you have when you come out of the tunnel at Heinz Field."

Or maybe not.

"I guess I can hunt grizzly bears with a knife," Keisel said.

Does that sound like a bearded guy from Wyoming or what?

It's nice to think Keisel will be able to put off that next challenge for another year or two.

The Steelers still need him.

The community needs him.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author

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