I put on my camouflage Army ball cap to wear to practice Friday because I was on a mission.
Only two days before the Ravens game, I wanted to check the pulse of a Steelers team that had just lost its Pro Bowl quarterback for possibly the remainder of the season.
Was the mood bleak? Like the way I was feeling? Or was there somebody, something, anything, that could give me – and then you the fan – reason to believe the end of the season is not at hand?
Fridays have always been the best day for pulse-taking, and the first guy I ran into down at the yard – the South Side practice field – was the very guy who took me to West Point where I picked up this super cool hat about a month ago: Bill Priatko, a Steeler back in the 1950s.
An old family friend, Bill’s something of a spiritual advisor of mine, a man who never fails to point me in the right direction. And Bill didn’t fail me today. He introduced me to the man with whom he was talking, a man named Nick Voris.
“It was shortened at Ellis Island when my parents came over from Greece,” Nick told me as we both turned to watch the Steelers practice.
Nick was Casey Hampton’s coach at Ball High School in Galveston, Texas. The retired coach and I got to talking and I told him about my trip to Galveston a few years ago, about how I watched a Steelers game with Casey’s family, and how they told me stories about Casey for my book “Steeler Nation.”
“Did he ever tell you how we got knocked out of the playoffs?” Nick asked.
The coach proceeded to tell me a horror story about how the Texas state 5-A semifinal game against Drew Brees and Westlake High ended in a tie and Ball High lost on the second tiebreaker: number of first downs. Casey Hampton’s team had one fewer and was thereby eliminated.
At about this time Dick LeBeau wandered over. The Steelers were in the middle of a special teams session, so the defensive coordinator had a few free minutes.
“Hi, coach,” LeBeau said to Nick. “Casey tells me you guys once got beat by the Penetration Rule.”
Nick, already on a heated roll with that very story, finished it and said to LeBeau, “And right after the game a reporter who knew I wasn’t from Texas stuck a microphone in my face and said, ‘Coach, what do you think of Texas’s tiebreaker rule?’ And I said, ‘I think it sucks!’”
Nick went on to rip “the good ol’ boys in Texas” in the interview, and when he got home his wife asked him if he had lost his mind. She had heard his comments on TV, and that’s when Nick realized he just might have stepped over the line.
But in the morning, underneath the “I Think It Sucks!” headlines, the newspaper columnists lionized Voris. He was a hero. And he was then invited to join the rules-makers association and two years later the rule was changed and ties are now broken in Texas the same way they’re broken in the NCAA.
LeBeau loved the story; we all did. LeBeau had to get back to work and for whatever reason I turned and noticed Troy Polamalu pedaling furiously on a stationary bike behind the glass in the weight room. He was also smiling brightly for a Make-A-Wish group that was passing on the sidewalk behind us, but beyond the white teeth what struck me most was the fury Polamalu was generating on that cycle.
Anyway, Nick, a former college coach at all levels, said he became the head coach at Ball the year Casey was a junior, and that they started that 8-5-1 season 1-4 and were about to cancel the next game because a member of the freshman team, playing at nearby Beaumont a few days before the varsity game, was shot while sitting on the bench.
A kid in the stands, the story goes, needed to shoot someone to gain passage into the local gang, so he went to the game and blasted away.
The shooter was eventually caught, and the victim survived, but the varsity game was in peril. Nick talked his athletic director into playing the game, but without fans, and so Ball ferried over from their isle in the Gulf, entered the stadium past armed guards and elevated snipers, and played the game in a vacuum.
Nick stopped talking for a moment as we both watched Byron Leftwich’s long, arcing bomb settle snuggly into the hands of Mike Wallace, who smoothly streaked past the scout-team safety for a touchdown. It was a gorgeous play and Nick took a second to pay it tribute before proceeding with his story.
“So we’re 1-4 and our offense isn’t doing anything. It was too damn complicated, and I told our offensive coordinator to simplify it before the game. But he didn’t, and we didn’t score any points in the first half, so I fired him at halftime. I fired him and then I told the kids, ‘Look, I’m the new coordinator and we’re going to run the I-formation. But don’t worry. Everything will be fine. We’ll get through this.’ And I’ll never forget Casey. Casey just said, ‘Whatever you say coach. I’m behind you all the way.’”
And as they say in juke joints from Texas all the way to Pittsburgh and points beyond, when you have Casey Hampton, you have the team.
And so that’s when I realized why I had come to practice with my open mind. My path from Bill Priatko to Nick Voris was taking me to Casey Hampton. That is how I would discern the mood of this team.
Casey was the perfect man for the job. He’s not the kind of guy to piss on your back and tell you it was raining. No, Casey would just say, “Hey, Wexell, I’m pissing on your back.”
But at least he would say it with a hearty guffaw.
So that’s where I headed after practice, to see Casey and find out if this team still believes it can compete for a title without Ben Roethlisberger.
“Around here, it’s not really talked about,” said Hampton. “It’s talked about more outside this room than it’s talked about inside this room. Defense, we know what we’ve got to do. We know we’ve got to shut people down. But everybody thinks B-Lef can get the job done.
“It’s a big deal, but it’s not. A lot of people here like to say that you’re a play away from starting and that the next guy doesn’t represent a drop off. Around here, Mike T, he tells us that, and instills that so much that I think guys really believe that, even with Ben. Or on defense, with us it’s Troy. Guys honestly feel that way, that we can win with this person and that person. So that’s just our mentality.”
Hampton went on to explain how the Steelers’ running game has reached the level to where it can shorten a game, and that all the defense has to do is work in tandem with the running game to keep the score close.
“All you want is an opportunity to win at the end,” he said. “We play close anyway. We play everybody close no matter who it is. That’s our game. So just give us an opportunity at the end. That’s all you can ask for, right?”
Casey is convinced Leftwich can take it from there and win the close ones. Max Starks said the same thing. Kirby Wilson, the same.
Those are the under-75 people with whom I talked on this day, and there wasn’t a hint of a negative vibe coming from any of those team leaders. It’s real; as real as telling the state of Texas that their good ol’ boys suck.
“Coach Nick, he’ll tell it like it is,” Casey said.
So, of course, will Casey. I asked him if the Steelers might even enjoy a heightened sense of excitement to prove everyone wrong about their chances against the Ravens.
“It’s not that we want to prove anything to anybody,” Hampton said. “We want to play well. Isn’t it bad enough that they beat us pretty handily last year? And then they beat us again? That’s a bad taste in your mouth. Now, those guys really don’t like us. In their mind, they have hatred toward us. We have to understand that going in, that we’re going to get that. We’re going to get that out of them every time we play them. I think guys got to understand that. You know what I’m saying? They really have to understand that.”
Well, have the young guys grasped that?
“They better grasp that,” Casey said. “They better or we’ll get our ass kicked. I’m serious. Those guys really don’t like us. You have rivalries where you say, ‘Oh, that’s our rival and we want to beat them.’ But it’s personal with them. It’s personal. And now it’s got to be personal for us. It’s got to be like that.”
And my guess, after spending the day checking the pulse, is that it will be like that.
(To read the transcript of a wide-ranging and entertaining interview with Casey Hampton, please click here.)