Gene Collier: Locker room stories that should be heard

Concerns of Polamalu, Cotchery transcend our fascination in the NFL, which is why -- sadly -- too few notice

November 9, 2013 10:39 PM
By Gene Collier / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More and more a barreling menace, the news cycle is virtually designed to deflect them, their most compelling personal stories cast aside like loose gravel sprayed by a speeding tire.

For narratives like theirs, the NFL news cycle in particular is about 100 times less favorable.

Carnage and chaos are readily absorbed. Conflict equals traction. Triumph and loss get right up to speed.

But empathy, depth, matters of the heart and mind and soul, those play only the remote or abandoned stages of the never-ending NFL media festival, if they play at all.

"While America's economy as a whole is showing signs of recovery," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was saying this week, "American Samoa's economy continues to struggle after the physical destruction of an 8.1 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in 2009. The same week as the actual tsunami, American Samoa was hit again with an economic tsunami when a major tuna-canning factory closed its doors, slashing 2,000 jobs in an industry that represents nearly 80 percent of all private sector employment in the territory."

Actually, Polamalu didn't say that.

He wrote it for the Post-Gazette's op-ed page, the daily forum of serious thought, the local home court for intellects such as Maureen Dowd, E.J. Dionne, Dan Simpson, etc. This was Wednesday, and Troy laid out what looked like about 800 words gently poking the U.S. government for archaic and ineffective economic policy relative to his native land, America's southernmost territory.

It was so easy to forget this week that NFL locker rooms are something other than reliable cauldrons of destructive machismo, each with a seemingly ever-expanding menu of malevolent antics. That they can also be home to some of the smartest, gentlest and most empathetic of men had no place in the news cycle.

The previous time the Steelers appeared in public, for example, absorbing an historic beating at the hands of the New England Patriots, they were most professionally represented by Jerricho Cotchery, who scored three touchdowns, the first time a Steelers receiver had done such a thing in more than seven years.

Cotchery always has been an afterthought in the public analysis of Pittsburgh's offense. He came here in 2011 from the New York Jets because, he said, he wanted to win championships. Someone forgot to tell him the Steelers were about to get out of that business, at least for the foreseeable future. Cotchery says he has no doubt his teammates can turn this season around, but he's got more than just this locker room counting on him.

"I'd like to take whatever burden I can off my wife," said Cotchery, who has four children, the oldest being 6. "It is challenging but I know that God, if I need the strength I can call upon Him, or for any kind of wisdom to approach it the right way."

Cotchery grew up in a modest house in Birmingham, Ala., the second of 13 children of a working-class couple for whom the ends didn't always meet, where there were always buckets in case the water bill couldn't get paid, candles in case the electric bill couldn't get paid.

Having 12 brothers and sisters Cotchery considered a blessing, and when Jerricho and the wife he met at North Carolina State, Mercedes, learned that if they wanted a family they would have to adopt, Jerricho was forced to alter the size of the family he foresaw and preferred.

"I started talking about eight," he laughed still again. "Eight sounded about right to me. We decided on two. The first one we got was a girl, then we were waiting for a boy and it wound up we got two boys within two months and 20 days. Now we have four, two boys and two girls. I think six is going to be our number."

But roster size is not the issue in the Cotchery home, but rather a deep understanding of blessings defined, blessings illustrated, blessings reinforced.

"Everyone will have their battles in life to go through," Cotchery said when the Steelers finished preparations for a game today against Buffalo. "I can't make whatever I dealt with growing up to be my kids' problems. They'll have their own sets of issues. But I definitely try to make them aware of how blessed they are, and not just from a financial standpoint.

"Nowadays it's rare, at least from the background I'm from, in the African-American communities you don't see a lot of two-parent households. So I just want them to know that they have two parents who love them, brothers and sisters who love them."

So that's the kind of thing Jerricho Cotchery has been doing while leading the Steelers in touchdowns, while converting 86 percent of his catches into first downs, while continuing to mentor Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, while showing all of the Steelers' younger players what it means to be a pro's pro.

"They've blessed me," he says. "As I've gotten older and really meditated on God's purpose for me, I really see that He's using me to impact guys, impact the people that are around me. Obviously it starts with my household but players that are around me. I'm glad they decided to keep me around. I've developed a lot of relationships in the locker room. But I understand my purpose. People need encouragement."

Don't we know it.

Some weeks more than others.