Brett Keisel, shown here taking a selfie with fans before December's game against Kansas City, spent 13 seasons with the Steelers.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This goes back to a cold, ugly day in December 2011. Earlier that month, Brett Keisel was selected as the Steelers’ nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award. It is the league’s best award because it goes to the player who combines on-field excellence with off-field, tireless charity work. Franco Harris, Joe Greene, Lynn Swann and Jerome Bettis are among the previous winners.
“Man, those guys are living legends,” Keisel said in an hourlong interview. “I’m just a bearded guy from Wyoming.”
Don’t you just love the man’s humility?
Sure, Keisel, who was released Monday by the Steelers after 13 superb seasons, long will be remembered because of “Da Beard,” as he calls it. “It’s powerful. It has magical powers. I truly believe I have the best beard of all time.”
OK, so maybe Keisel isn’t always quite so humble.
I’m sure you won’t hold that against him.
Keisel used to laugh and say he used shampoo and conditioner on his beard each day after “brushing the birds and squirrels out.” He frequently mentioned his wife, Sarah, and thanked her for her tolerance. “It isn’t easy waking up to this every morning. She doesn’t really remember the guy she married. She knows she married someone who looks better than a mountain man.”
All of that was in good fun, of course. But Keisel was dead serious when he said, “The beard has blessed me unconditionally.” That’s because Keisel has used his beard to help countless children with cancer. Each February for the past five years, he has shaved it to raise money for his favorite charity, Children’s Hospital. This year’s Shear The Beard party at Jergel’s Rhythm Grille in Warrendale raised more than $65,000 for the hematology/oncology unit, pushing Keisel’s five-year total to more than $250,000. Mike Tomlin came out. So did Dick LeBeau and John Mitchell. Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, James Harrison and Aaron Smith were among the current or former Steelers on hand. James Farrior and Casey Hampton came in from Texas, which says plenty about Keisel as a teammate and what he’s trying to do for Children’s Hospital.
“I look at it this way,” Keisel said in that 2011 interview. “The city we’re in and the position we’re in, we have to give something back. The Pittsburgh Steelers mean so much to this city and people give us so much. How do we not give something back? That’s what I try to tell the young guys. ‘Plenty of people need our help. Find something close to you and get involved with it.’ ”
Keisel also has done tremendous work for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, among other charities.
I’m thinking that makes Keisel a living legend in our town.
But none of it would have happened if Keisel weren’t a really fine player. No one would have cared about his beard if he were a third-string lineman. He was so much more than that. If Smith was the best 3-4 defensive end in Steelers history, Keisel wasn’t far behind. He was stout against the run, often taking on two blockers and allowing the linebackers to make plays and grab the glory. He could rush the passer, not just with his power, but with his surprising quickness. He often batted down passes with one of his big, meaty hands, which he said he will use now to fight grizzly bears with a knife. I think he was kidding about that. If not, those grizzlies are in serious trouble.
It was clear Keisel’s time with the Steelers was over when his left triceps was torn Nov. 30 in a loss to the New Orleans Saints at Heinz Field. Everyone knew he wasn’t going to come back from such a serious injury at 36, at least not with the Steelers. Certainly, his teammates knew it. Cam Heyward, an ascending NFL star, fought back tears and said of his mentor, “I owe everything to Keis.” Ike Taylor put things best, as he often does, in his unique way. “Keisel is a Yinzer. He’s a Pittsburgh Steeler. He’s Mr. 412 … ”
That’s why this is such a tough time for the Steelers and their fans. It’s also rough on Keisel, who often has talked about how proud he is to represent the franchise. “Indescribable” is his word for the rush he felt coming out of the tunnel at Heinz Field. “I won’t be able to get that after I’m done playing. It’s impossible.”
Keisel should take great comfort in knowing he had one heck of a career. He did things the right way, on and off the field. He always will be one remembered as one of the Steelers’ great players. And people.
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.
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