I've had a soft spot for Jon Dekker ever since I saw him play basketball for the Steelers' team at Norwin High School, my alma mater.
Dekker was the best player on the court and afterward he visited with me and my family, and he and my basketball coach of a dad hit it off. Dekker played some hoops at Princeton but of course had to stop as his football skills took off.
Anyway, I watched Dekker at minicamp last week and I noticed – as I had the previous year – that he'd muscled up. Like most of the other second- and third-year players, he was also moving with much more confidence around the field. At one point he caught a pass and spun his elbows around and appeared to be looking for a linebacker to run over. I approached him in the locker room and asked him what he's been up to.
"I just went to that Harvard business seminar the NFL sets up," he said. "They teach you how to start up a business, what to look for in acquiring a business if someone poses an opportunity to you. A lot of things look good in the beginning, but once you look at the income statements and so forth you might find out what at first looks good doesn't exactly seem that in the long run."
How many people went?
So what's going to be your business?
"I don't know. I told my folks my business is football."
How much weight have you gained?
"I'm 263, 264. I feel great. I feel comfortable at that weight. I feel really comfortable running."
Are you really looking for linebackers to run over?
"Yeah. That's fun. It's been a fun minicamp. I feel great. I had a lot of fun playing this weekend. It feels good."
Are you feeling the respect of teammates?
"Yeah. We have a rookie free agent in our room and you see him try to run the offense in these first two days and trying to get acclimated to the NFL and I have an appreciation for what he's going through. Being here at this point, I'm happy where I'm at. Not satisfied, but I've grown since that first day I walked in here. That's all you can ask for, to get better, and I feel good about things."
Casey Hampton, NT
Q: What about Sweed?
A: He's from Texas. He's real cool, real chill and laid back.
Q: Was he a good pick?
A: I hope so. Believe me I don't judge people too quick. He might be a great college player and not be good in the NFL. I don't really know. Some of those receivers are just bigger and faster and they run by everybody and catch the ball. When you get to the league you can't do that. You have to run good routes.
Q: How about your boy Shaun Rogers going to Cleveland?
A: It's going to be ugly. Remember that: It's going to be ugly. He's motivated. We hang out all the time; that's my boy and he's motivated and pissed off.
Q: You have a new center. Won't that help?
A: Hmm. I don't know man. He's got something to prove. He's happy to be out of Detroit, so he's motivated. Really, I don't see how you make that trade. If I was running the show over there, he'd be unhappy but on the team. I think what was happening was they wanted him to be a leader and he didn't want to be a leader. He said he'd play hard and give them all he got, but they wanted more. They wanted him to be vocal, be that guy. Some guys can't, and there's nothing wrong with that as long as they give it to you on Sunday. They thought that calling him out in front of the team and stuff like that would do something, but that (stuff) makes him go in the opposite direction. You can't do him like that. He knows what he's doing out there. You can't call him out. He's the best damn player on defense. You know what I mean? It's crazy.
Q: I heard he's 370 and did a 10-foot broad jump.
A: He's not 370. He's 350.
Q: What's he like motivated?
A: You can't stop him. He's the best in the league. You can't stop him. It's going to be ugly. I'm telling you, it's going to be ugly. When that boy wants to play he can't be stopped.
Q: What do you think of the other defensive tackle they signed, Corey Williams?
A: I don't know. The jury's still out on him from what I hear in Cleveland, so I don't know. They ain't saying he's a savior. We'll see.
Q: Does Shaun call you?
A: No. Me and Shaun hang out almost every day at home. First of all, when they were saying he's going to Cincinnati, he called me right when I was watching that on TV and he said no he's going to Cleveland.
Q: Can you believe he only cost them a third-round pick?
A: That's ridiculous. They got a great player for that. He's playing the end and he plays the nose on pass downs. But he'll be hard to stop when he gets that 350 pounds coming off the end. You should see his arms. They're this big. He's huge these days.
Carey Davis, FB
Carey Davis was a one-back at the University of Illinois under Ron Turner. Turner, of course, was replaced by Ron Zook, and Davis is a couple generations beyond Steelers' first-round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall.
"It'll be exciting to have him out here," Davis said. "I watched him play last year and he did a great job, so it's exciting to see him out here with us."
Was Davis surprised that Mendenhall fell so far in the first round?
"I was real surprised he fell that far. To me he was the second best back in the draft, and to see three backs go before him confused me. But I'm glad he's here. I'm glad we have a good back to back-up Willie and spell him when we need him."
Are you thinking about an all-Illini backfield?
"I was just happy to have another Illini around here. It's kind of tough in this locker room being the only Illini and the way these people talk. So to have another one in here is a good thing to have my back."
I asked Davis, who'd been cut by four teams before making it with the Steelers, if he's still hungry.
"I'm still the same way. I'm still hungry," he said. "I feel like I've got a lot to prove and I've got a lot of things that I can still do to get better. I'm still fighting and scrapping."
James Farrior, ILB
Q: How's everything?
Q: Not feeling old are you?
A: Nope. Just my damn feet hurt from these cleats.
Q: How are you viewing things with the team these days?
A: I'm just taking it one day at a time. I don't really know what's going to happen or what the plans are.
Q: Any contract talks?
A: No, we haven't really talked about it. There haven't been any communications.
Q: You're not thinking about retiring are you?
A: No. I still feel good.
Q: I heard someone in the national media the other day say you were slowing down. Did you hear that?
A: That can't be coming from the guys that watch us. I don't really follow the media too much, but people that know me and see me play know what I can still do.
Q: Did you feel good about your performance last year?
A: Yeah. I felt good.
Q: How do you see the defense right now?
A: The defense looks good. We've got some good young guys and the guys we got last year are starting to pick it up. Woodley's doing a big job. Timmons is starting to come on.
Q: Is he?
Q: Will he take your buddy's spot?
A: I don't know. That's going to be tough. That's going to be a tough one there. We know the business. We know how it goes.
Q: He wouldn't get cut, would he?
A: No. I hope not.