Starting Fresh

Every team has a guy like Dom. He does the coaches’ dirty work, and he looks the part. He’s a big dude and he’s always wearing black. He’s got that thick Philly accent, too. If you don’t know about the accent, spend a day in South Philly. It’s as recognizable as any New York or Boston accent, and Dom has it. He’s straight Philly.

Conditioning tests and meetings just wrapped up and I’m walking through the players parking lot. It’s the day before the start of Eagles training camp, and I’m entering the last year of my rookie contract. It could be a make-or-break season for me. I need to bring my A game.

It’s about 6 p.m. when I swing the door open to get into my Jeep. My cell rings. It’s Dom.

“Have you left yet?”

“No, but I’m about to.”

“Well, come back. Chip wants to see you.”

I like Dom. He’s a cool guy. He’s like the team bodyguard, always around helping take care of the players. But he’s still got a job to do, and part of that job is that when coach wants to see you, he’s the one who tracks you down. When Dom calls, it’s usually not good.

The first thing I say when I see him is, “Who’d you guys trade me to?”

He says, “I don’t know anything, man. I’m just the messenger.”

I just had a feeling my time in Philly was over at that point. I was left over from the Andy Reid era, so I wasn’t drafted by the Chip Kelly regime. I was playing well year after year and not getting rewarded with more playing time, which was frustrating, but at the end of the day, Chip Kelly likes long-bodied corners, and I’m 5-foot-10. I can do everything I can on the field and my impact and my numbers could be great, but I can’t change my height. That’s what was holding me back in that system. So in the back of my mind, I kind of saw it coming.

I went upstairs and saw Chip. We went into his office and he closed the door.

“What did you trade me for?” I said. It was less of a “why” question and more about what they got in return, but I guess I wanted to know both.

He said the Steelers had been trying to get me for a while, but he kept turning down their trade offers. That day, as I was taking the field for conditioning tests, the Steelers called again, this time, offering a conditional fifth-round pick for me, and he couldn’t pass it up. He told me he thought it was a great opportunity for me. I wanted a bigger role, and I’d have that chance in Pittsburgh.

There was a lot I wanted to say, but I didn’t say it. It’s nothing personal against Chip, it’s just that it hurts when anybody tells you they don’t want you.

“Alright,” I said before a long pause. “… Cool.”

He thanked me for everything I’d done for the team and we shook hands — a masculine, business-like handshake. We did not hug.

And that was it. I left his office, stopped to say goodbye to Dave Fipp — probably one of my favorite coaches in the league — and I was out, just like that. I went home, my wife helped me pack a bag, I threw it in the back of my Jeep and made the four-and-a-half-hour drive across Pennsylvania to Latrobe where the Steelers host training camp. I got there at about 5 a.m. — less than 12 hours after my conversation with Chip — and I was on the field for practice that morning.

My future was right in front of me.

Looking back, the 2012 NFL Draft was the most difficult weekend of my life.

After my senior season at Georgia, I was projected as one of the top corners in the 2012 draft and was told I could get taken as high as late in the first round. But like everyone, I had a few knocks on me, mostly because of my size. I watched all the analysts on ESPN saying I’m too small to match up with the big NFL wide receivers and that I’ll have a tough time in coverage and finishing tackles.

I thought throughout the draft process I’d be able to solidify myself as a top corner in the draft and a guy with first-round potential, and then Boom … everything changed. Just a couple of weeks before the NFL combine, I broke my leg in the Senior Bowl.

That was a big blow to my draft stock. I didn’t know if I was even going to be ready for the regular season or how long it would take me to come back, but I knew I probably wasn’t going to be ready for the combine or pro days, and without those, I could probably kiss the first round goodbye.

That being said, I had no idea I’d fall as far as I did.

With the 28th pick (123rd overall) in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, the Eagles took a chance on me. Instead of being one of the top drafted corners, I was the 13th player at my position to come off the board.

To have fallen so far so fast because of something that was beyond my control was hard to wrap my head around. But you know what they say, you only need one team to take a chance on you, and I’m forever grateful to the Eagles for being that team. But that draft was only the beginning. Once I got to Philly, the adversity just kept coming.

My rookie year, I had two different defensive coordinators. Six games into the season, the Eagles fired Juan Castillo as coordinator and promoted Todd Bowles. After the season, Coach Reid — the guy who drafted me — and his entire staff were fired. Billy Davis came in as my new defensive coordinator under Chip Kelly. So before I even started my second year in the league, I was already on my third defensive coordinator.

When you’re making the leap from college to the NFL, the game is so different. There’s definitely a learning curve, and when you’re dealing with a revolving door of coaches, it can be an even more difficult adjustment. On top of that, I just didn’t fit the mold of what the new regime wanted in an every-down cornerback. I played a couple of years in that system and I played well, but I’d never possess the size they wanted in their perimeter corners. So after awhile it became clear that I’d reached my ceiling as a nickel corner.

I love being in the mix at nickel, but I also wanted to play the entire game. Who doesn’t, especially when they’re playing well? But at the end of the day, you can’t take anything too personal. Chip and his defense weren’t the best fit for me and I wasn’t the best fit for them, so they moved on.

You may have heard about the comments I made on my way out of Philly — comments that got taken a bit out of context. I have no ill will towards Chip, and definitely none towards the Eagles. Chip’s job is to build the best football team he can build — a team with players that fit his system and his vision to be competitive on the field — and I wasn’t a part of that vision. There’s not much more to it than that. That’s the NFL.

And the Eagles? I could never hold any ill will towards that organization. They will always be that team that took a chance on me and gave me an opportunity to prove myself. For that, I’m forever grateful.

The thing I’ll miss most about Philly is the fans. I mean, they’re crazy. We were 4-12 my rookie year, and they still packed The Linc for every single game and made it one of the loudest, craziest stadiums in the NFL. How could you not love that kind of loyalty? Add in the fact that Philly was a great place to live and the whole city embraced me from the moment I got there, and I couldn’t have picked a better place to start my career. I loved every minute I spent there.

But you have to always be moving forward, and there’s no place I’d rather be right now than entering the next phase of my football life in a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform.

Ike Taylor retired earlier this year after 12 years as a lockdown corner in the Steelers defense. He won a couple of Super Bowls and he’s one of those rare guys who played for the same franchise from the second he was drafted to the time he hung ‘em up. No more training camp for him. No more conditioning, no more long practices, no more meetings. So when the Steelers started camp less than four months after he announced his retirement, he literally could have been just about anywhere in the world, living it up with his family and friends and enjoying his retirement.

But he wasn’t. When camp started — and when I first arrived in Latrobe, PA — Ike was right there on the field, coaching me and the rest of the DBs up and trying to help us get better.

That was my first indication that this was someplace special. When someone retires after giving everything they’ve got for a team for a third of his life, and the first chance he gets to go do something else — anything else in the whole world — and he’s still one of the first guys out on the practice field? That says a lot about how close a group of guys this is from top to bottom and about what it means to be a part of the Steelers family. It’s bigger than any one individual. It’s the Steeler Way, and once you get here, you’re instantly a part of it. Right away, guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, or one of the offensive linemen, would come over to me and ask if I’m alright or if there’s anything I need. You expect that from your own position group, or at least from the guys on the same side of the ball as you. But for the offensive guys to welcome me in like that, that’s pretty cool.

I asked them a lot of questions, like, “Why do we only have logos on one side of our helmets?” or “Why do we sleep in college dorms during camp instead of hotels like other teams?” And the answer was always the same.


So when I started to think about all the things that go through your mind when you join a new team, like, Is this a place I can spend the rest of my career? Will we play great defense here? Will we win here? The answer was pretty clear.

Yes. Because that’s the tradition. It’s the Steeler Way. It’s what they do here.

Ike wasn’t the first guy to spend his whole career in Pittsburgh. Guys stick around here.

They’re the Steel Curtain. They play great defense here.

They have six Super Bowl rings. They win here.

It’s a badge of honor to be a part of a tradition like this — to walk around St. Vincent College, where they’ve had training camp for 50 years, and sleep in the same dorms as Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu and all the other Steelers greats. It’s only been a few weeks, but I’ve already threaded myself into that tradition. It’s contagious.

The Eagles gave me some incredible opportunities. They were the team that took a chance on me and gave me the opportunity to live my NFL dream. And by trading me, they’ve given me another opportunity. In Pittsburgh, I get to play in a place that prides itself on consistency and tradition with a defensive system that most guys would kill to play in. Truly, I couldn’t be more excited to take advantage of this moment.

In football, you have to have a short memory. The best players always do. You can’t dwell on the last play, because you have to focus on the next one. You can’t think about the last game, because you have to prepare for next week. And you can’t worry about why it didn’t work out with your last team, because your new team needs you focused on the future. All you need to think about is that now, you have something to prove. Even more than before.

But one thing from my past I’ll always keep in the back of my mind is that there were 12 cornerbacks drafted before me in the 2012 draft. I remember, because I made a list with each of their names on it and my name highlighted at the bottom. I still have that list. I’ve kept it by my bed for the last four years as a reminder to motivate me, and you know what? To date, I have better NFL stats than all of them.

I’ve always said, God makes no mistakes. Breaking my leg and falling in the draft was one of the most emotionally difficult times of my life, but it might have been the best thing that ever happened to me. It landed me in Philly, and even though it wasn’t the smoothest ride, it was a city and a team I loved playing for. Everything that happened in Philly ultimately led me to Pittsburgh, a place where ever since I walked in the door, I’ve felt like I could spend the rest of my career here. A few weeks and four preseason games into it, I can honestly say I’ve never felt more confident on the football field.

Whatever has happened in the past, it’s brought me here. I feel good about where I’ve been and where I’m going, and now it’s time for me to write my next chapter. I’m thankful that chapter will have me wearing black and gold.