It wouldn't be accurate to say Jason Pinkston has a close relationship with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. The two were acquaintances when Pinkston played at Pitt, occasionally seeing each other on the practice field or in the cafeteria of the South Side training complex the Steelers share with Pitt. They also talked before the 2011 NFL draft in which Pinkston was selected in the fifth round by the Cleveland Browns.
But that didn't stop Pinkston from approaching Tomlin at a Penguins playoff game in April at Consol Energy Center. "Funny story," Pinkston said. "I told him we were going to kick his ass in the first game. He kind of looked at me with a little smile, but I was pretty serious. We have the guys to get it done in Cleveland. They're winners, and they want to win now."
At the time, Pinkston planned on being in the Browns starting lineup at right guard when they play the Steelers Sept. 7 at Heinz Field. He finally was healthy after missing all but three games last season with a high-ankle sprain from the exhibition season and the final 10 games of 2012 with blood clots in his lungs. He started all 16 games at left guard as a rookie in 2011. He was looking to get his career back on track, to have a big year.
But Pinkston's plans changed suddenly. He still will be at Heinz Field for the opening game, but he won't be wearing a Browns uniform. His NFL career could be over after the life-threatening blood clots returned in his lungs in early July. He and the Browns reached an injury settlement last week when the team put him on waivers. He will turn 27 Sept. 5, two days before the Browns and Steelers kick off.
"I'm on blood-thinners right now," Pinkston said Sunday. "They tell me I'm not at risk and I can live a normal life. I'm going to see where I am after six months. I've still got some tests to go through. They tell me this isn't genetic, which is good. If they can tell me what caused it and what I can do to prevent it, I'll play football again. I'm not going to announce my retirement until I have to."
Pinkston knows he has plenty of good reasons not to risk his long-term health. He and his girlfriend, Kathryn Nahm, have a daughter, Martha Jane, 15 months. "Named her after my mom," Pinkston said. He is from Baldwin, Nahm from Overbrook. The family is moving back to Pittsburgh and plans on closing on a house in Brookline next month.
Pinkston also knows he can be successful in a second career. He made sure to get his degree at Pitt in administration of justice. "I've always been interested in law enforcement," he said.
But Pinkston isn't quite ready to give up football. "Not by any means," he said. Football got him his college education. It also gave him a nice start financially as a young adult.
Pinkston's goals were interrupted when he began to feel poorly in the 2012 training camp. By the time the regular season began, he said he had lost 10 pounds. "They thought I had bronchitis. I was on all sorts of antibiotics."
Pinkston continued to start, but he couldn't finish the sixth game. "We were playing Cincinnati at home. I couldn't run. I couldn't do the plays." He checked himself into the hospital the next week and the blood clots were diagnosed. "There was a lot of anxiety because I didn't know what was going on." He was in the hospital for a week.
Pinkston thought the blood clots were a one-time thing, but he was wrong. He began having the same symptoms a month ago. General weakness. Breathing difficulties. A persistent cough. "When I started to cough up a little blood, I knew exactly what it was from the last time," Pinkston said. "It was much worse than the first time." He spent 11 days in Cleveland Clinic, including five in intensive care. "That was scary because you know something is really wrong when you're in the ICU."
There never is a good time to get sick, but Pinkston's illness comes at a really bad time for him. Cleveland sports appear to be trending up. The city is amped about LeBron James coming home to the Cavaliers. It's also excited about Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel, who won't surprise anyone if he beats out veteran Brian Hoyer and starts against the Steelers. "I think the team will do well with either quarterback," Pinkston said.
Pinkston knows he's missing out on something special. "What happened, happened," he said. "I'm just excited for Cleveland. It's crazy up there right now. They deserve some joy and happiness. Cleveland was good to me. They took me in pretty well. We were accepted there. I'll always be grateful for that."
Pinkston said he will have no trouble watching the Browns-Steelers game, even though it almost certainly will make him wonder in a sad kind of way: What could have been?
"I'll be there for sure," Pinkston said. "I wouldn't miss that game for anything. You always look forward to the games against your big rival and your hometown team."
As a player, sure.
In Pinkston's case, as a fan, too.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
First Published August 12, 2014 12:00 AM