Ben Roethlisberger took a well-traveled road to the top of the Steelers' pay scale. Although it's always easier for a guy who's drafted high in the first round, he has been terrific. His $102 million contract hardly seems likes too much.
James Harrison followed a much different, less-used path to his $51.2 million deal. He was an undrafted free agent who failed multiple tryouts with the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. But Harrison never gave in or gave up. He worked maniacally to become the Steelers' MVP in 2007 and the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a Super Bowl hero last season. It is some tale.
Then, there's the trail Max Starks blazed to his $26.3 million bonanza. It's hard to believe another player did it the way he did it. No other player could have gone from being a starting right tackle on a Super Bowl team to being a forgotten benchwarmer with an obscene contract to being the starting left tackle on another Super Bowl team.
"I've been blessed," said Starks, who, at the end of this season, will have cashed checks totaling in the neighborhood of $20 million the past two years.
That is one exclusive neighborhood.
It is difficult to say Starks isn't earning his dough. It's not just the block he threw to help spring Fast Willie Parker on his 75-yard touchdown run against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL or the time he helped give Roethlisberger to pick apart the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. It's the protection he is giving Big Ben's blind side this season from the incoming stealth bombers -- the NFL's fiercest, fastest pass rushers.
Starks will be front and center stage again tonight when the Steelers play the Denver Broncos at Invesco Field. Often, he will be lined up against linebacker/defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who leads the AFC with 10 sacks. If the Steelers' first seven games are an indication, Dumervil won't add to that big number. Two weeks ago, Starks gave up nothing to Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, who leads the NFL with 10 1/2 sacks. Earlier in the season, he shut out Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Antwan Odom, who came in with seven sacks. In the opener, he dominated Tennessee Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who had 16 1/2 sacks the previous two seasons.
"I'd give myself about a B- for the season," Starks said.
The big man is a tougher grader than your worst nightmare of a teacher.
"My best game? I haven't had it yet. That's still coming," Starks said.
Can we all agree tonight would be a good time for it?
"My worst game was definitely the Chicago game," Starks said. "[Defensive end] Alex Brown beat me to the inside, which led to a quarterback pressure, which led to an interception. He beat me for a sack in that game, too."
Funny, isn't it, how good players always seem to remember their few bad plays most vividly? Starks is lucky or good or some combination thereof, though. After quickly going through the first seven games in his mind, he decided that Brown sack is the only one that was directly his responsibility.
That B- grade really does seem to be absurdly low.
Starks' success couldn't happen to a nicer guy. No, really. He might be the nicest guy on the Steelers. He is an absolute gentle giant.
A lesser man wouldn't have treated right tackle Willie Colon so kindly after Colon was picked in the fourth round of the 2006 draft to, as it turned out, replace him. But Starks couldn't help himself. "Whenever I needed someone to lean on, he was always there for me," Colon said.
Starks still was there after Colon beat him out as the starter in the '07 preseason. "I love Max like a brother," Colon said, unabashedly. For his part, Starks gave his best aw-shucks grin and said he didn't do anything that a good teammate wouldn't do.
Who knew the man was so much bigger than 6-foot-8, 345 pounds?
That's why Starks was able to handle the awkward situation of being a $6.9 million backup with exceptional grace. It's still hard to believe the Steelers made him their transition player and agreed to pay him that huge salary in '08 when he was projected to be a reserve again after starting just four games at left tackle for injured Marvel Smith in '07. It's as if Kevin Colbert and his personnel people put one value on Starks, Tomlin and his coaches a much lower value. If any of it bothered Starks, he didn't let on.
"You can't get caught up in the lulls of life," he said. "It's frivolous to complain, 'Woe is me.' That's not going to help you. Anyway, I learned a long time ago that you're only one play away from starting in this league. If I had been selfish and pouted, I would have wasted the time I needed to prepare to be ready."
Starks moved back into the lineup for good at left tackle after Smith's bad back finally gave out after five games last season. The Steelers rolled right through the Super Bowl. The team rewarded him with a four-year, $26.3 million contract in the offseason, a jackpot that doesn't seem nearly as crazy as that $6.9 million deal for '08. It's the cost of doing business in the NFL, where rock-solid left tackles are precious.
"Max is going to be the left tackle here for a long time," Colon said.
Everybody, from Tomlin and the coaches to Colon and the players, would love to see Starks get a little meaner on the field. He doesn't always have the attack mentality that Harrison and Roethlisberger do. As Colon put it, "If Max ever realizes how good he is and decides, 'I'm going to be a bad ass,' heaven have mercy on the rest of the NFL."
That brought another silly grin from Starks.
"I'm not interested in being mean. I'm interested in being effective," he said. "I don't like emotions in my work. Emotions lead you to make mistakes. I'm trying to eliminate mistakes."
That's vintage Starks.
He has never taken the traditional road to NFL stardom.
He is not about to start now.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .