By Mark Kaboly
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, 11:30 p.m.
The look on Brett Keisel's face didn't match the words coming out of his mouth.
The veteran defensive end, who worked his way onto the Steelers roster as the 242nd pick in the draft more than a decade ago and became a face of the franchise with some of the big-boy first-round picks, said things like: “I'm focused on being a Steeler” and “I love being a Steeler and hopefully can keep it going.”
But Keisel has been around long enough to see some of his closest friends — most recently Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and James Farrior — go through the same situation, and it has yet to work out well for the player.
Keisel's contract will expire at 4 p.m. March 12, and even though he's holding out hope he will be asked to return for a 13th season, his head is telling him otherwise.
“It's possible,” Keisel said. “I feel like I can still play. We will see what happens. I try not to think about it too much because I am still here and still part of the team and still fighting with these guys. When the time comes, I will sit down with my family and decide what is best.”
But what's best for Keisel likely won't be what's best for the Steelers.
The Steelers are in dire need of getting younger and cheaper on the defensive side of the ball. They've shaved two years off the average age of their defense over the past two years, and cutting ties with Keisel and others this offseason would help that along even more.
“I know it's a business,” Keisel said.
Keisel's introduction to the Heinz Field crowd Sunday before the regular-season finale against Cleveland very well could be his last.
“You hate thinking about the end and not being able to do it,” Keisel said.
“You can't say that you don't think about it. I bleed black and gold. Everybody knows that. I am a Yinzer, and I love this city and plan on raising my family here.”
If it is indeed Keisel's final game, he's left an indelible mark on the city and the franchise more than just being known as the “Beard.”
• Keisel's 140 career games played are 40th on the all-time Steelers list.
• Over the past decade, only Ike Taylor (168), Larry Foote (154), Farrior (154) and Ben Roethlisberger (142) have played in more games.
• Keisel won the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2011 for his efforts on and off the field.
• Keisel helped raise money to benefit cancer programs at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh at UPMC with the Shear Da Beard event.
• He started on two Super Bowl teams and was part of another.
• He was named to the 2010 Pro Bowl.
“He's just the consummate Steelers inside player,” former Ravens coach and current NFL Network analyst Brian Billick said. “Those inside guys have to do yeoman's work, tying up the blockers and freeing the linebackers.
“He's been such an anchor; there's such a lineage at that position. I think he's the prototypical inside defender.”
Keisel never had the huge numbers — 51⁄2 sacks and 63 tackles being career highs — but his relentless hustle resonated with teammates, the organization and the fans.
“I don't even know how old he is,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “He plays like a 24-year-old the way he runs and attacks the ball. It is unheard of for a 35-year-old to play like that. He runs hard to the ball and you have no choice but to do it yourself.”
You put the hustle together with how he was a seventh-round pick and, of course, the beard, and you can't talk about the Steelers of the 2000s without talking about Keisel.
“He kind of built himself into the face of the Steelers,” defensive end Ziggy Hood said. “When you think of the Steelers you think of Ben, you think of Troy and you think of the beard. To lose a guy like that is losing an icon. To me, it is losing a great teacher, a great mentor and good friend.”
Keisel was kind of uneasy about being mentioned with Polamalu and Roethlisberger as a face of the franchise, saying “I don't know about that,” but it has been undeniable.
“He's taught me that you don't have to be the fastest, the strongest and the quickest out there, but just to be relentless to the ball,” Hood said. “Watch the tape and you see that 99 jersey flash across the screen and make tackles from the backside even if he is nowhere near the play, he is there.”
Keisel has been battling a foot injury that kept him out of three games and parts of two others. However, the thought of ending his Steelers career on the bench has motivated him to get back on the field.
Keisel had a sack and a fumble recovery within three plays of each other with the Packers game tied at 31-31 on Sunday.
“I want to go down fighting with my teammates,” Keisel said. “Whatever happens, I want to be out there playing with them.”
Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.
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