Cook: Steelers counting on Colon

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His right eye looks so much better now. Last week, after the Steelers' preseason game against Buffalo, his eyeball appeared to be swimming in a sea of red. You have heard that play in the NFL trenches can be brutal? You have no idea. His helmet was driven down hard on his eye, rupturing a blood vessel.

"If that's the worst thing that happens to me this year," Willie Colon was saying the other day, "I'm good with it."

Colon will be at left guard when the Steelers open the season Sunday night in Denver. He didn't play in the playoff game there last season, just as he wasn't around for the team's run to Super Bowl XLV a season earlier. He missed all of the 2010 season after tearing an Achilles tendon in a summer workout. He made it through just one game last season before being shut down with a torn triceps.

"The first time I got hurt, it was a huge blow to the ego," Colon said. "I was really honing in at right tackle. I knew we were going to have a great team. I was comfortable with my role and ready to have a great year ...

"But the second time hurt me the most. You accept the fact in this game that everybody is going to have one major injury during their career. I figured [the Achilles] was mine. Let's get back to football and rock and roll. Then, it happened again. When they told me I was done for the year, I said, 'This is ridiculous. You're lying.' But they weren't lying. I was done again."

Colon used the words "bitter" and "angry." He said he hadn't felt those feelings since he lost his father, Willie, to lung disease in 2008.

"I couldn't accept the reality of it," Colon said. "I was down about life, football, luck. I couldn't even be around the guys. I felt like I let them down. I had to get away from football and get my head together. I didn't want to bring the negative energy I had into the building. I was in a very dark place. I had to disappear for a while."

Colon's brother, Antonio, and his best friend from their childhood days in the Bronx, Amir Brown, helped. They share a home in Moon Township with their dog, Bishop, a Cane Corso. "We call it our frat house," Colon said, grinning.

Colon soon began early morning workouts with his personal trainer, Cole Haley. It felt good to sweat again even if he was preparing for the start of a season that was 10 months away.

Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler played a big role. "My rock," Colon called him. "He had the other guys to get ready and worry about, but he never turned his back on me. I would call him in the wee hours of the morning when I was feeling down. It was like he was my 24-hour hotline. He was my inspiration. He kept me going."

But mostly, there were Colon's teammates. "My boys," he called them. Center Maurkice Pouncey led a group of offensive linemen to Colon's house after the Steelers returned from a 17-10 loss Oct. 2 in Houston. That day, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took a fierce beating, sacked five times. "Pounce told me they needed me back in the room," Colon said. "I hadn't even been watching the games at that point. I couldn't watch. But they said they needed my support. So I went back."

Pouncey and the others are counting on Colon for much more this season. Soon after the Steelers drafted guard David DeCastro No. 1 and tackle Mike Adams No. 2 in April, Kugler called Colon and suggested a move to left guard would be good for the team and good for his career. Colon quickly agreed.

"I'm two years on IR at that point," he said. "Kugs could have asked me to long snap or be a wedge blocker and I would have gladly done it. That was my mentality at the time. I kicked my ego and pride under the bed and made the move to guard. I've never looked back."

The early reviews are glowing. Roethlisberger is one of Colon's closest friends. Colon was a groomsman in his wedding. Roethlisberger had been telling Colon for years that he belonged at guard.

"I told him that from day one and he never wanted to hear it," Roethlisberger said. "I think if he stays healthy, he's Pro Bowl guard caliber. I really think that. He's a big man, a strong man and if you put him in a phone booth, you're not getting by him. I have high expectations for him and he has even higher expectations for himself."

You caught the key point there, right?

" ... if he stays healthy ... "

Colon likes to think his eye injury and a tweaked ankle early in camp will be the worst of his injuries, but he knows the risks that go with the life he has chosen. It takes only one play for it all to end. He saw it happen to linebacker Sean Spence in the game Thursday night against Carolina. He saw it happen to fullback David Johnson in the exhibition opener at Philadelphia. He saw it happen to DeCastro, to a lesser extent, at Buffalo.

"It's such a brutal sport," Colon said. "All I can do is say my prayers on the field. Once you do that, you just go play."

Colon knows his teammates are counting on him, one perhaps a little more than the rest.

"Yeah, I've got to protect that $100 million behind me."

That would be Roethlisberger.

Colon's biggest fan for a very good reason.


Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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