I can remember the moment that it dawned on me that I, Craig Wolfley, was about to step into the role of starter as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The long-time starter at the left guard spot, Sam Davis, had blown out his knee in the second pre-season game at Cleveland. As I ran on to the field to take Sam's place, knowing that "Riggy" might well be down for the year, I took a deep breath. Here was the shot I had been seeking, but obviously not at Sam's expense. However, this is often how opportunity comes around in pro football. A couple of days later, the full extent of Sam's knee injury became known. I had a week to come to grips with, in my second year, the opportunity to grab the bull by the horns and hold down the job.
What I had dreamed of seemingly my whole life lay before me if I could win the job. But it wasn't a one-time or even a two-time tryout. The audition period would extend to sixteen games or more. And to be truthful, one never really stops working for the job. It's a neverending continual process of holding down the job. The "Turk's Hook" just gets longer or shorter; it never goes away. That whole first year as a starter had a load of ups and downs. At times it seemed more downs than ups, but in the end overall, it balanced out.
What I wasn't prepared for was the monumental task of what was involved in becoming the "1 to 16 man" at the left guard. I wasn't prepared for all the ups and downs that being a full-time starter brought with it, despite having played all the special teams and approximately 35-40% of the total offensive plays run from scrimmage as a rookie.
When you are the starter, and the "guy" at your spot for an entire season, it is an all-consuming job. I had to learn the drudgeries of game prep, and to do them over and over again for 16 long, sometimes painful weeks. I had to learn to adapt to all the nuances that were added to the offense every week for specific opponents and to just as readily discard them week-by-week.
I had to learn to play while physically and/or mentally tired, hurt, injured (there's a big difference between getting banged up and breaking something), sick, sick of the game, and a host of other problems that crept up on me from July/August to January.
I had to develop a thick skin and other coping mechanisms to weather poor performances, learn to moderate and not let myself get too excited when I was in the zone. I had to understand that stepping forward into the starter's role meant a whole lot more than simply getting to say "Gee, I'm a starter!" The pressures that accompany that role carry with it a lot of sleepless nights.
I had to deal with the fact that other teams had a scouting record of me, that any perceived weakness showing up on game film automatically brought me into the gun sights of an unforgiving defensive coordinator who would generate and call blitz schemes keying on me. I had to deal with known tough guy enforcers like Lyle Alzado, who would come after you and cheap shot you to test your mettle. I had to learn to understand the difference between retaliation at the moment or taking a number and evening out the score on a later play.
This year's starting unit is minus four men from the group that walked off the field as Super Bowl champs in Tampa back in February. Troy Polamalu has been MIA for most of the season, same for Aaron Smith. And Larry Foote, a very dependable run stuffer on first and second down, is gone; so is Bryant McFadden. Backups Tyrone Carter and Travis Kirschke/Nick Eason both have experience as starters.
That puts the new "1 to 16" title on Gay and Timmons. Will and Lawrence are the "Newbies," and they are in the throes of everything that I outlined above. It's a long season, and that length has nothing to do with just the number of weeks. It's about learning to become a pro, and all that being a professional brings with it.
This has been a trying year. For William, it's learning how to ride out the tough times that poor performance brings and trying to get better while many outside the team are doubting you. For Lawrence, its been learning how to play nicked up and how to sit on his heels and read on first and second down rather than tearing it up on another blitz. It's about becoming a complete linebacker. All these things come together in either making or breaking a professional career. Both of these young men have the opportunity to move beyond the 1 to 16 newbie stage and become seasoned veterans. It's what we used to call "Becoming a pro." The key word here is "Becoming."