It was a cold December night in 1974 when the great Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Otis Sistrunk went to the sideline, took off his helmet and a Monday Night Football camera caught the steam
It was quite a scene, and TV analyst Alex Karras put it this way:
"And of course that's Otis Sistrunk out of the University of Mars."
It became a part of NFL legend, and it stemmed from Sistrunk having been, at the time, the only NFL player to not have attended a college. He instead had joined the U.S. Marines out of high school and his program bio cut it short to "U.S. Mars."
Readers may remember Sistrunk, but Johnny Maxey doesn't, even though he attended Mars Hill University, a school that certainly draws its share of double takes.
"Yeah," Maxey said last week from the Pittsburgh Steelers' rookie minicamp. "Nobody really knows where Mars Hill is. But we've got another player at Indianapolis playing offensive tackle (Denzelle Good). We're trying to do our part to put our players out there and help the program be more successful."
Maxey hopes he's next. The defensive lineman measured 6-4 1/4, 293 at the Wake Forest pro day. The Steelers list him at 6-5, 283 (No. 62) and used him as a defensive end next to third-round pick Javon Hargrave in their 3-4 front at the minicamp.
Maxey was a second-team South Atlantic Conference performer at the Division II school located in western North Carolina. He had only three sacks (82 tackles) last season, but the Steelers wanted him badly enough to bring in Mike Tomlin to close the deal for the free agent after the draft.
"I was lost for words at the time," Maxey said of talking to Tomlin. "But as soon as I came to I was ready to go to work, thanked him for the opportunity, and right here right now I'm just trying to do my part to make this team."
Maxey said other teams called but he told them they were too late. He had signed right away with the Steelers.
"I like the Steelers organization," he said. "When I talked to my agent he said it would be a good fit for me, for my play style and my abilities, so it was one of the first teams I talked to. Everybody else was afterwards. I'm glad I signed here."
Maxey came out of Richlands Northeast High School in Columbia, S.C., as a soon-to-be 17-year-old college freshman who was late taking his SAT "in January and a lot of big schools walked away from me," he said. "Mars Hill was the only school that waited for me and gave me the opportunity so I took it and ran with it."
Because of a neck/shoulder injury that wiped out one complete season, he stayed at Mars Hill for five years.
His greatest moment?
"I had a play against Newberry College," he said. "They were driving to try to score a last-minute touchdown to win the game, and on fourth-and-short I made a big play in the backfield that sealed the deal for us. It boosted my confidence and really boosted the confidence of my team as well."
Mars Hill was 1-4 at the time last season, and the play propelled the Lions to a 6-5 record and their first winning season since 2012. Maxey was invited to a Regional Combine in New Orleans, where he ran a 4.9 40 but injured a hamstring. It kept him from running at Wake Forest, but he did put up 25 bench reps.
The Steelers didn't draft a 3-4 defensive end but signed Maxey and Florida State's Giorgio Newberry after the draft. The two drew DL coach John Mitchell's ire during a "chutes" drill because Newberry didn't stay low enough on his first attempt. Mitchell made the pair repeat, and repeat, as necessary.
But, of course, the attention was a sign that the coach cares, and Maxey took it as such.
"Mitch is tough on us but he's only doing it to help us," Maxey said. "All we have to do is adjust and get to know the playbook, which everybody's working on. Once it comes with the snap of the finger, that's when you can play the way you want to play and play comfortable. We're all just trying to get to this point right now."
Can Maxey do this?
"I can do this," he said, before repeating with emphasis: "I CAN do this. I'm real confident and once I get that playbook down I'll be even more confident."
Maxey did come out of Mars Hill with a degree in criminal justice, but he hasn't given that field much thought.
"I haven't got that far yet," he said. "This is my plan A. I don't have a plan B right now."