T his team can win the Super Bowl. Back in November, when we were sitting at 4–5, that would’ve seemed like a crazy thing to say, but I fully believe it now. I’ll explain why, but first I have to tell a quick story.
It’s about my draft night, and it’s about what it means to me to wear the black and gold. (It’s also pretty embarrassing, so just stick with me.)
My mom says I was born to be a Steeler. I was actually born in Pittsburgh, so that was a start.
My dad, Ironhead Heyward, went to college at Pitt, where he met my mom. All her family is from Pittsburgh, and naturally they’re all huge Steeler fans. So even though my dad played for the Saints, Bears, Falcons, Rams and Colts — and even though we eventually moved down to Georgia — my mom’s side of the family had been brainwashing me from an early age. Every time I went to visit my grandparents, there would be 10 new Steelers books on their huge bookshelf. They must have had every single book ever published on the Art Rooney, Chuck Noll and the Steel Curtain.
When I got to Ohio State, I met the woman who would become my wife. One of the first things I asked her after I found out she was from Cleveland was, “You’re not a Browns fan, right?”
She wasn’t. Bullet dodged.
At my pro day before the 2011 draft, I was super excited because all the Steelers coaches were there for my workout. But nobody was more excited than my mom. As I was walking off the field after my workout, I saw her talking to coach Tomlin. I still don’t know what they talked about. But I’m pretty sure she was planting the seeds for me.
So when draft night rolled around, I chose to stay home with all my family instead of going to New York. I was projected as a late first-rounder, but the problem was that the Steelers weren’t picking until No. 31. About 25 picks in, I started getting nervous. I was checking my phone nonstop.
At pick No. 30, the Jets were on the clock. I knew there was a chance they’d take me. Just then, my phone rang.
No disrespect to the Jets, but my heart sank. I looked down at my phone. Everybody in the room was hovering over me, trying to see who was calling. Somebody next to me yelled out, “It’s a 412! It’s Pittsburgh!”
So I picked up the phone, and this deep voice said, “Hey, it’s coach Tomlin. We’re thinking about drafting you here. How do you feel about that?”
I was like, “I’m excited about that, Coach!”
And the whole room went crazy. It was so loud that I could barely hear what Coach Tomlin was saying. I was putting my hand over the phone, and telling everybody to quiet the hell down, and then going back to Coach Tomlin. And suddenly in the middle of all the commotion, there was just this long silence on the other end of the line.
So I said, “Hello? Coach? Sorry, Coach. Hello?”
Coach Tomlin is so smooth that I thought maybe that was the end of the conversation. So I hung up.
Boom. My family went crazy again. Some people even pulled out Terrible Towels and started twirling them around.
A few seconds later, my phone started vibrating again.
Same 412 number.
I picked up again. “Hello?”
Coach Tomlin says, “Hey Cam, we weren’t done. I was just passing the phone to Mr. Rooney here.”
I had hung up on Mr. Rooney. And the GM Kevin Colbert. And my new D-line coach. They had all been on the line, and I had no idea.
Mind you, my family is still going nuts. I literally sprinted outside the house and was waving everybody away so I could hear.
“Oh my gosh, Mr. Rooney, I’m so sorry. It’s crazy here. My family loves the Steelers, so they’re a little excited.”
Luckily, everybody was cool about it, and they welcomed me to the team. When I got off the phone, everything hit me. I walked back inside to watch them call my name on TV. I got so emotional that tears were streaming down my face.
Any defensive player would love to be a Pittsburgh Steeler, but for me, it was extra special. It was like a movie. It was perfect….
And then I had my first day in the National Football League. Or as I call it, the Worst First Day Ever.
Because of all the confusion around the 2011 lockout, I didn’t sign my contract until the third day of training camp. As soon as the ink was dry, I actually ran out onto the field with like 10 minutes left in practice. I didn’t even have a playbook yet.
I get out to the field thinking I’m gonna take a knee and observe, maybe do some conditioning. Then Coach Tomlin sees me, and he’s got a big grin on his face.
He says to my D-line coach, “Make sure he gets warmed up real good.”
Five minutes into my stretching, Coach Tomlin says, “Heyward, you’re up.”
He throws me right out there. No excuses.
I get on the field, and all this foreign terminology is flying around, and guys are yelling, and it’s intense. I’m running around like it’s Pop Warner. I have no idea what to do.
Now, keep in mind, this is a Steelers team that had just gone to the Super Bowl. I’m looking around at Troy Polamalu, James Farrior, James Harrison, Casey Hampton … and I’m totally lost.
Finally, our D-line coach comes right up to me and says, “Alright, Cam, just stay in this gap, O.K.?”
When practice was (mercifully) over, I was freaking out. On some teams, this might have been the beginning of the end for me. But then I was introduced to what Steeler football is all about.
Aaron Smith saw the look on my face, and he walked over to me and said, “Hey, just calm down. It’s only the first day.”
I thought that was it. You know, the vet coming over and calming the kid down.
But then he says, “Let’s go over to the sleds. We’ll start by working on your hands, and then we’ll go from there.”
So we went to the sleds, and this two-time Super Bowl champion showed me how to shoot my hands, turn my hips, shuffle my feet efficiently — all the basic things that I started taking for granted in college, but that are so, so important in the NFL.
In Pittsburgh, Aaron was a legend. He was at the end of his career. A lot of guys would’ve looked at me and thought, Forget it. I’m not helping this kid take my job. But Aaron took me to the sleds and calmed me down. I’ll never forget that.
The next practice, Brett Keisel came over and did the same thing. We worked on footwork, we worked on gap assignments, and he showed me how to be a pro. To this day, I call Keisel my Obi-Wan. He taught me how to be a student of the game. Plus, he’s got an amazing beard. What more could you ask for in a mentor?
When people talk about “the Steeler Way,” they’re usually referring to the decades of winning football. But what I’ve learned is that the Steeler Way is really about how people in the organization act when we’re not winning. The leadership in the tough times is what separates this franchise from others.
It’s not a myth. It’s real. I know because I went through it personally during my first few seasons. I know because we went through it as a team this season.
November 13. At Heinz Field. Against the Cowboys. That was, by far, the lowest point.
I’m still pissed about that game. To lose to the Cowboys is one thing, but to lose to them after having just lost to the Patriots and the Ravens….
To lose to the Cowboys after Ben faked the spike and threw an incredible go-ahead touchdown to A.B. in the final minute….
To lose to the Cowboys in the last 10 seconds by giving up a 32-yard rushing touchdown….
A rushing touchdown, man….
A rushing touchdown, right up the middle, on our home field.
I’m mad about it right now. It never should have happened. But it happened.
We had shot ourselves in the foot with dumb mistakes. We were 4–5. We were banged up. After the game, I found out that I had torn my pec off the bone and was done for the season.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen our locker room so down after a loss. But when we had our team meeting on Monday, Coach Tomlin kept repeating the same phrase:
“We do not seek comfort.”
In other words, we do not look for excuses for why we’re 4–5. Instead, we take a hard look at ourselves. We’re brutally honest with each other, and then we make adjustments.
And that’s what we did from that day on. We dug ourselves out of that 4-5 hole. We didn’t panic. We embraced the adversity and kept fighting. That’s the Steeler Way.
That starts at the top with Coach Tomlin. Everybody in Steeler Nation heard Terry Bradshaw’s “cheerleader” comment last week. It was a very, very poor choice of words — and also a complete misrepresentation of who Coach Tomlin is. Let’s not get it twisted. Coach made his bones in this league as a defensive X’s and O’s specialist, not as a motivational speaker. He led this franchise to two Super Bowls despite all the pressure that comes with following in the footsteps of two coaching legends like Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher.
Coach Tomlin is our leader. He’s a master motivator and a coach’s coach, not a cheerleader. And we ride or die with him. Period.
In November, a lot of people left us for dead.
December wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, either.
We were down against the Bengals.
We were down against the Ravens. We needed some Christmas magic.
Everybody knows about A.B.’s catch to win it, but what happened before that catch is what makes this Steelers team special — unexpected guys stepping up in big moments.
On the final drive, Ben did what Ben always does. He was humming. You could just see it on his face. At the Ravens’ 39, he made a throw to Eli Rogers that was classic Ben. He stepped up in the pocket between two defenders and sliced it. The ball was a little wobbly. It was a little high. But he gave the kid a chance, and Eli made an incredible full-extension catch.
At this point, I’m on the sideline looking up at the clock. There’s 40 seconds left. We’re on the 19. I’m thinking O.K., we’ll probably have to kick the field goal to tie it.
But two plays later, Ben hits Jesse James over the middle. We’re at the four-yard line … and then something crazy happens. Jesse tosses the ball back to referee so that we can get set and spike the ball, but the ref bobbles it. The seconds are ticking off.
18 … 17 … 16.…
The ref can’t get the ball set. It’s like something out of a bad dream.
Finally, Ben spikes it.
Thirteen seconds left. No time outs. But we’re not playing for the tie. We’re running another play.
Ben drops back and looks for Antonio on the goal line, and even as the ball is still in the air, I’m thinking, He’s short. He’s not getting in.
I see A.B. catch it. I see him get hit by three guys. Then I see him recoil. He’s short.
The whole sideline pops up and I can’t’ see anything.
I’m thinking, That’s it. It’s over.
Then I hear everybody yelling, “We scored! We scored! Oh my God, it’s in!”
I look up at the scoreboard. The whole stadium is looking up for the replay to make sure it’s real.
All 66,000 people watch A.B.’s arm extend across the goal line in slow motion. To win the AFC North. Against the Ravens. On Christmas.
That picture of A.B extending his arm will be ingrained in my mind forever. It should have been on the cover of every sports magazine in the country — because it was impossible.
To be bent down like he was, totally recoiled, and to pop back up and fight through three defenders to extend the ball across the goal line — it’s impossible.
There’s no explanation. He just wanted it more than them. For all the X’s and O’s and complex schemes that we work on all year long, sometimes it just comes down to something as simple as that.
He flat-out wanted it more.
That’s why I know we can win a Super Bowl. At times, it’s been a rough year. At times, we’ve stunk. But we do not make excuses. We do not seek comfort.
We move forward. Here we go.