Brett Keisel: Through The Years

Steelers lose yet another icon to Father Time; SCI.net's Jim Wexell takes a look back.

The message board post this morning was simple, to the point and pretty much defined how Steelers fans are feeling this morning after the release of yet another icon from a team that went to three Super Bowls in six years:

"A release of Keisel with Cam Thomas still on the team? Yuck."

There was more, but it isn't going to help anyone finish their breakfast this morning. The word "yuck" is an apt ending point.

Yuck.

Not that we really expected the Steelers to keep someone coming off a tendon tear at the age of 37. Someone else used Aaron Smith as an example in writing, "Once those tendons start to pop, it's over."

I had to begrudgingly admit he was right.

Double yuck.

But instead of getting all wrapped up in a funk, let's look back at the career of Brett Keisel and find some inspiration to start the day that marks the NFL's new year:

* Out of Greybull, Wyoming, where dinosaurs once roamed, Keisel was hailed for his "strength, tenacity and straight-line speed," according to draft expert Joel Buschbaum, "but he is not that athletic and needs to use his hands better."

* Athleticism and hand usage came to define Keisel's career, of course.

* And special teams play. As a rookie, Keisel became the best wedge-buster the Steelers had seen since Orpheus Roye was young and angry. Keisel and another newcomer, Chidi Iwuoma, energized the units down the 2002 stretch.

“I’m having a blast out there,” Keisel said at the time. “Some of the guys on the other teams were saying ‘What are you doing out here? You’re supposed to be on the D-line.’ But it’s fun.”

* After working a bit as an emergency linebacker late in 2004, Keisel returned in 2005 in great shape and blew away the camp run test. He credited his training in the mountains back home.

"Yeah, I go up to about 7,000 feet and run in the Big Horn Mountains. They're only about 20 minutes from my house in Wyoming. I drive to the top of the mountain, do a workout up there, go fishing and come home. It’s a great day."

* Crazy Horse or Custer?

"Crazy Horse. I’m a Crazy Horse guy all the way."

* Keisel had a sack in each of his first three preseasons and two in 2005 as he began to work into the DL rotation for the first time. He even caused Bill Cowher to stop one camp practice and scold the defense for being too aggressive after Keisel blew up rookie seventh-rounder Noah Herron.

In retrospect, it was the beginning for one seventh-rounder and the end for another.

* Early in that championship season, with Keisel a part of the dime defense, Cowher began using the big man as an outside linebacker in practice. And then one day Cowher put Keisel at tight end as another "just in case" guy.

“Hey, that’s why I went to BYU, to play tight end,” Keisel said after the practice. “Finally someone here recognizes my potential for greatness."

* Keisel's first career sack may have been one of the biggest plays of the 2005 season. With just under a minute left and the Steelers holding a one-point lead over the Baltimore Ravens on a Halloween Monday night at Heinz Field, Keisel beat former locker-room neighbor Keydrick Vincent to sack Anthony Wright on third-and-3. Wright threw incomplete on fourth-and-long to end the game.

* Keisel had a better game down the stretch, on Christmas Eve in Cleveland, where he had two sacks and just missed a third. He also forced two fumbles, one on kickoff coverage. It was a precursor to Keisel's breakout game, the AFC Championship Game in Denver.

* The Steelers had a 27-17 lead when the Broncos got the ball back with 6:12 remaining. On third-and-3, Keisel sacked Jake Plummer for a seven-yard loss. Back in the huddle, Joey Porter exhorted the unit to stick the dagger in. "This is the game. This is the game," Porter kept repeating, and Keisel responded. He sacked Plummer again by forcing a fumble which Travis Kirschke recovered, and the Steelers were off to the Super Bowl.

* Keisel, still behind Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen, played in the Super Bowl and made two tackles on defense (both of Shaun Alexander, one for a loss) and one on special teams.

* The only Steelers still under contract who played in that game are Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Greg Warren and Troy Polamalu.

* Keisel moved into the starting lineup the following season alongside Casey Hampton and opposite Smith and most regard that as the beginning of the best 3-4 DL unit in team history.

* In 2006, Roethlisberger was pushing privately for Keisel to play linebacker and I was pushing for him to return to the beleaguered special teams. Roethlisberger may have been onto something because the following spring new coach Mike Tomlin drafted linebackers in the first two rounds, including LaMarr Woodley, who weighed only 10 or so pounds less than Keisel did in 2006.

* Keisel added 4-3 end to his ever-expanding pro repertoire in 2007 when the Steelers added Chris Hoke up front in what the back-seven defenders called "the fat nickel." The coaches called it "the big nickel." And then as a linebacker in the new "mixer" defense, Keisel broke up two key third-down passes against the Cardinals.

* A 2007 Monday night game is memorable for the Dan Sepulveda punt that stuck into the mudhole, but I also remember that the key play was made by Keisel. His fourth-quarter sack of John Beck near the goal line forced the Dolphins to punt and set up the only points of the Steelers' 3-0 win. Keisel celebrated the sack by reeling in the fish.

Now do you remember it?

* In August of 2008, with the defense and Keisel under media fire for being "overhyped" in 2007, Keisel, who had only two sacks but led with 31 pressures, told me to "leave it alone." But he himself couldn't. “I think our defense is so fast,” he said. “I think if we can live up to our potential this year we should see some special things.”

* We all know how that turned out.

* It was an injury-plagued 2008 regular season for Keisel, but he played very well in the playoffs and capped it off with five tackles in the Super Bowl win over the Cardinals. He also had five tackles and sacked Philip Rivers in the division-round game, in which he came up with a new celebration by paddling "Down Rivers" after the sack.

"I’ve got to quit dancing though," he said. "That one wore me out. I forgot it was second down and then the next play went right past me."

* Keisel was becoming just as good of an interview as he was a player, and in the locker room he was becoming an alpha-type leader with Smith breaking down.

* Keisel's sack celebrations began to get mature as well. In 2009 he returned to "my mountains" and had two sacks at Denver. After the first one he gave an inspiring salute to all veterans on Veterans Day weekend.

* The team sang "Happy Birthday" to the 32-year-old Keisel in the locker room after the Steelers beat the Titans in 2010. But his present came the following week, courtesy of a pass that deflected off a Tampa Bay receiver. Keisel, who was hustling down field, plucked it out of the air and zig-zagged 79 yards in 97-degree weather for a career-defining play. It was the highlight play of his Pro Bowl season.

* The announcement of Keisel's addition to the Pro Bowl was made during the playoff game against the Ravens, with the visitors leading the Steelers, 21-7.

“They announced it right after they scored,” Keisel said after the game. “I’m sitting there pissed off on the sideline. I wanted to stand up and blow the crowd kisses but I really couldn’t.”

Of course, the Steelers roared back to win and eventually reached the Super Bowl.

* Keisel scored a touchdown, made the Pro Bowl and played in the Super Bowl that season, but he may have been most proud of being voted Top Beard in the league in 2010. Someone asked him at the Super Bowl why he hadn't trim it up a bit.

“We don’t trim,” Keisel said. “We do not like scissors. We’re afraid of scissors. We’re afraid of razors. We’re afraid of clippers. Those are all of our enemies.”

* Keisel became defensive captain in 2011, and dominated the Jaguars, and strip-sacked Tom Brady and the Patriots in the final minute of a win, and did a hilarious Head & Shoulders commercial with Polamalu and Hines Ward. And Keisel became a media giant in the city. Remains so to this day. But you wouldn't know it to talk to him. He remains the guy you're most likely to sit down and have a beer with. And you'll never know he's as big as he is. Even at 6-5.


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