In the summer of 2006, months after the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, another impressive Pittsburgh sports team was taking shape. But this one would take some time to be fully appreciated.
The Pittsburgh J.O.T.S. AAU basketball team that summer sported five players who would become pro athletes. Two will compete in the same NFL game this week when the Steelers play the Raiders Sunday in Oakland.
Oakland quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who starred in football and basketball at Jeannette High School, will be doing his best to avoid Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward when the Steelers and Raiders meet at O.co Coliseum.
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Pryor and Heyward realized football was their calling and played for Ohio State before being drafted into the NFL. The other three players from that J.O.T.S. team are playing pro basketball. DeJuan Blair plays center for the Dallas Mavericks. D.J. Kennedy, who played in the NBA Developmental League last year, was in training camp with the Mavericks before being released earlier this week. Herb Pope plays professionally in Ukraine.
“It’s amazing,” Pryor said Wednesday by telephone. “The only person we’re waiting for is Greg Blair [DeJuan’s brother] to pop out of Cincinnati. A bunch of guys are in the league. It’s phenomenal, seeing those guys work their butts off to get to their dream.”
After his college career at Ohio State was cut short due to an impending NCAA suspension for taking improper benefits, Pryor was taken in the 2011 supplemental draft by the Raiders, but not before he turned down a chance to be drafted by the Steelers.
The Steelers had Pryor in for a visit before the supplemental draft and he met with coach Mike Tomlin.
“Mike said, ‘Hey, I’ll draft you if you want to play here,’ ” Pryor said. “But he gave me a story when he was in Tampa Bay about a quarterback who was in the same hometown as his NFL team and it was hard for him.
“I don’t know what the guys up top were thinking, but Coach Tomlin gave me an opportunity if I wanted to. I ended up saying no because, at a young age, I didn’t want to be near home and having distractions around me.”
Tomlin did have one other bit of wisdom that he shared with Pryor before he departed.
“He did say, and I remember this, ‘You know when the time comes and we play, I’m coming after you. I’m blitzing you,’ ” Pryor recalled. “I’ll giggle with him when I see him on the field. I’ll be waiting for it.”
After not playing as a rookie, Pryor played in three games in 2012 and started one, but he did not play when the Raiders beat the Steelers, 34-31, in September in Oakland. This will be the first time he has started against the team he grew up idolizing.
“That’s my favorite team,” he said. “I finally get to go head to head with them.
When asked if he has to put those feelings aside Sunday, Pryor said he already has.
“I already played them five times in my mind watching film on them,” he said. “I’ve watched so much film I’m beyond that point. It’s time to get on the field and start making plays.”
Pryor beat out Matt Flynn for the starting job in training camp. In five starts this season — he missed one due to a concussion — Pryor has completed 64.5 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and five interceptions.
He also has exhibited the traits of a first-year starter. He was 18 for 23 for 221 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 27-17 victory Oct. 6 against San Diego. The next week, he threw three interceptions and was sacked nine times in a 24-7 loss against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“He played really well in the San Diego game,” said Oakland coach Dennis Allen, whose team did not play last week. “I thought he did an outstanding job going through his reads and creating things with his feet. I thought it was a tough environment in Kansas City. Terrelle didn’t play as well. But, whenever he’s had a little setback, he’s responded.”
What makes Pryor difficult to defend is his running ability. He leads the Raiders and all AFC quarterbacks in rushing with 289 rushing yards. Running quarterbacks are the rage in the NFL. Many of the top teams in the league, including Seattle and San Francisco, have dual-threat quarterbacks. Having to account for quarterbacks that can pass and run puts extra stress on a defense.
“His athleticism is ridiculous,” Heyward said. “You see in film now he’s running away from defensive backs. He’s got 4.3 speed and he looks like he’s jogging out there. He definitely improved every season in college and he’s definitely made a big jump to the NFL.
“He wants the ball in his hands. He can make something out of nothing. That’s what’s dangerous about him. As soon as you think he’s going to run the ball, he’s buying time for the receivers.”
Pryor said he learned a lot over his first two NFL seasons, but nothing can replace game experience in terms of development.
“Every single day, I’m getting better and understanding the quarterback position and how it’s supposed to be played,” he said.
“I’m getting better from situations, understanding not to take shots all the time, understanding how to get positive yardage. I’ve learned a lot in the past five games I played in. I’m getting better and better.”
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.