Trai Essex - A Perfect Fit?

What is it like to be on a team in the driver's seat in their division, and play behind some of the NFL's greats? Purple Reign writer Dale Grdnic got chance to talk with former NU Wildcat, Trai Essex [shown with Noah Herron after the win over OSU last year], to see just how he's progressing with the playoff bound Pittsburgh Steelers...

Every Trai Essex day is just like the one before
and is likely will be just like the next for the talented Pittsburgh Steelers rookie offensive lineman from Northwestern.
Essex, an affable 6-foot-4, 324-pounder from Fort Wayne, Ind., gets up early and drives about 30 minutes to the Steelers training facility from his house near the Pittsburgh International Airport. He practices with the scout team, so he gets pounded on by one of the top defenses in the NFL.

It isn't glamorous by any means and he hasn't even dressed for a game, but Essex wouldn't trade his life for anything the world right now.

"I'm in a truly blessed situation, because I'm on a great team, and I'm learning from some great players around me on the offensive line," Essex said. "The reason that I'm not playing isn't because I'm not good enough or I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do in practice situations.

"It's because I'm a backup to the best offensive line in the league. So, this is a great way to get experience. Of course, I would like to play, but I'm happy with my situation right now. And I know that it's a process and eventually I'll get to the next level, but until then I'll keep working hard in practice and learning from the best in the business."

Essex, a four-year starter at Northwestern, was taken in the third round by the Steelers this past April. And he made the Steelers roster, according to offensive line coach Russ Grimm -- a three-time Super Bowl winner and Hog offensive lineman with the Washington Redskins -- because he was tough and able to quickly adapt to the NFL game.

"He's improving every day," Grimm said, "and we expect him to be a very good offensive lineman in this league for a long time."

Essex is hopeful that his versatility will make that come true.

"I'm actually playing both sides at tackle and guard,'' Essex said. "So, that kind of let's me know that they have confidence in me, and they want me to play any position when they need me. That makes me happy, and it gives me confidence that one day it's all going to work out for me.

"This is a different experience for me because this is the first time in my life that I haven't just stepped right in and played. Even at Northwestern, I came in and played as a freshman. So, it was tough, at first, but it's been a great learning experience. And I'm very happy right now."

Essex usually backs up four-time Pro-Bowl guard Alan Faneca on the left side or Kendall Simmons -- on the verge of Pro Bowl status -- on the right. The Steelers also have Marvel Smith, a Pro Bowl alternate, at left tackle, and first-year starter (second-year pro) Max Starks at right tackle. With Pro Bowler Jeff Hartings at center, the Steelers have one of the best lines in the NFL. Barrett Brooks, an 11-year veteran, is the top backup.

"He's progressing very well, and he's learning our system," Brooks said. "I try to help him out as much as possible, to do the best that he can, so that's probably my role right now. I help the young guys progress.

"Trai's doing well, and he's anxious to learn. I think he'll be a great player. Trai can be a guard. He's athletic enough, with his foot-speed and stuff, to be a great guard. But we'll see what happens."

Until then, Essex is happy in his role as an anonymous scout team performer. But he's not an unknown to everyone.

"While our fan base at Northwestern was getting bigger, and they're great fans," Essex said, "it really can't compare to here. The Steelers fans are unbelievable, and the City of Pittsburgh just loves their team. So, that's made it an awesome experience here.

"No matter where you go, people know you're with the Steelers. And they're all real nice. They even know me, which is surprising considering I'm a rookie offensive lineman. That gets you no kind of fame at all, but Steelers fans know their football team. And they really embrace it."

While Essex is fitting in like a veteran with the Steelers, he hasn't forgotten his roots. And he'll never forget about Northwestern. Essex still keeps in contact with quarterback Brett Basanez, safety Herschel Henderson and tackle Zach Strief, to name a few.

"I went to Chicago during our bye week, and they had a bye week, too," Essex said. "So, unfortunately, I wasn't able to see them play. But look at them now. They're doing great. I think all of their games will be on TV with that offense. But I order ESPN Game Plan to make sure I don't miss a game.

"Chicago is a big metropolitan area, the third-largest city in the country, and I really liked that. Pittsburgh isn't that big, but they're every bit as passionate about their sports teams. They have some great fans here, just like we did in Chicago. That's the biggest similarity."

And it's another reason why Essex is a perfect fit for the Steelers.
[Trai was originally recruited as a tight end by the Wildcats, but was told by NU Coach Randy Walker after his freshman year that he had a better future in the NFL as a O-Lineman. Apparently Walker was right.]


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