SnapShot: Phil Braxton

The TV sports anchor was full of Pittsburgh Steelers spirit as he pumped rookie free agent Phil Braxton for an equally enthusiastic response. <br><br> Braxton, a native of nearby Vanderbilt Township, Connellsville Area High School and West Virginia University, was now here, in the Steelers' locker room. Was this a dream come true or what?

"Definitely, sir," said Braxton. "Everybody's at home rooting for me and to only be a couple minutes away to see my family is a great thing."

"What was it like out in the black and gold?" the reporter asked.

"I was sort of like in shock a little bit," Braxton said. "But I felt a little bit more at ease with Khori Ivy out there and Wes Ours and some of the players I played with at West Virginia made me feel real comfortable."

The anchor finished by asking Braxton about his goals and understanding of the offense and left, apparently to find another "Operation Football Hero."

Somebody else asked Braxton if he'd rooted for the Steelers as a boy growing up in Fayette County.

"My uncle played for the Buffalo Bills with O.J. Simpson, so I was sort of a Bills fan growing up," he said. "It does help that it's so close to home and it's a hometown team and most people are Steelers fans."

Braxton knows how to play the media game, but he couldn't hide his allegiance to his Uncle James Braxton, who also took the Vanderbilt-to-Connellsville-to-West Virginia path to the NFL. He played 10 years with the Bills and Miami Dolphins and carried 741 times for 2,890 yards (ave. 3.9) and scored 31 touchdowns, mainly with the Bills where he gained fame as Simpson's blocking back.

Phil Braxton had to tell the truth, as he did when asked why he seemed to play so well against Pitt.

In last year's WVU win at Heinz Field, Braxton caught two passes for 108 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown catch, WVU's longest play of the season and the 10th longest TD pass in school history. In other game against Pitt, the 2000 Pitt win, Braxton caught three passes for 117 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown catch.

"It just seemed like every time we played Pitt I felt like a whole new person out there," he said. "I just knew I was going to have great games. To not only feel like that, but to go out and have a great game and win the game to finish second in the Big East, that was a big highlight of my career at West Virginia."

Of course, Braxton would love nothing better than to play many more times at Heinz Field, the home of the Steelers. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder plays the right position to make their roster: wide receiver. Has Braxton studied the roster and noticed that only five veterans occupy possibly six spots?

"Not really," he said. "I just want to get better. God put me here for a reason, and I've got faith in my athletic ability and my knowledge of the game. If I just go out here, stay healthy and do what the coaches want me to do, positive things will happen."

Braxton was a first-team All-State performer his senior year at Connellsville. The Falcons went undefeated through that 1997 season before losing in the first round of the playoffs. Braxton was also the WPIAL long jump champion the following spring, edging Troy Nunes, a future Syracuse quarterback.

"What I remember most about playing at Connellsville was my teammates and Dan Spanish was my coach. He was a good coach," Braxton said. "Most of all I remember all the great players I played with."

Braxton was recruited by Pitt, Marshall and West Virginia before following his uncle's path to Morgantown. In three seasons, Braxton caught 55 passes for 898 yards (16.3 average) and four touchdowns. He also returned kickoffs. Braxton finished 28th in the NCAA with a 25.3-yard average last season. As a sophomore, Braxton was named WVU's special teams player of the year.

Braxton wasn't drafted and thought he was going to sign after the draft as a free agent with the Washington Redskins, but Georgia receiver Terrence Edwards backed out of an agreement with the Steelers, who then made a late push for Braxton. His agent, Ralph Cindrich, called Braxton with the surprising news.

Braxton is three credits shy of earning a degree in sports management, but he may go back for a teaching degree because he enjoys working with kids. Until then, he'll battle last year's practice-squad receiver -- Ivy -- and four other rookie free agents for a roster spot with the Steelers.

"First of all," he said, "I've got to learn the offense and I just want to continue to get better, show them the little things I can do like blocking, running and catching the ball."

Jim Wexell

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