Troy Smith already made history against the Steelers, and now he is trying to create a little more, this time with them. He remains the only rookie quarterback to beat a Dick LeBeau Steelers defense in this century, and now he's trying to become the second Heisman Trophy winner to play for them in their 80-season history.
Notre Dame halfback Johnny Lattner, the 1953 Heisman winner, was a Steelers first-round draft choice in 1954. He played one season for them. They previously tried to lure another Heisman winner, Army's Doc Blanchard, by drafting him first in 1946. The Army, however, turned down his request to play pro football and he became a fighter pilot instead.
So now it's Smith's turn as the 2006 Heisman winner from Ohio State, and while there would seem to be no room at quarterback on a roster filled with veterans, well, you never know.
"I wouldn't say I'm trying to buck anybody," said Smith, one of five quarterbacks on the roster. "More so than anything, I would say I'm trying to fit in, trying to be the best teammate I can. And as a quarterback my learning curve is ever-evolving. I'm doing nothing but learning from these vets."
Those vets include Ben Roethlisberger, 30, and his two elder-statesman backups: Byron Leftwich, 32, and Charlie Batch, 37. Former Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson, 23, is also on the 90-man roster.
Smith is no spring chicken either. He turns 28 in July and entered the NFL as a fifth-round draft choice of the Baltimore Ravens in 2007. That Dec. 30, he started for the Ravens and beat the Steelers with one touchdown pass and no turnovers. In the 13 other games in which rookie quarterbacks started against LeBeau's defense since his '04 return as coordinator, all were Steelers victories.
If that win was a treasured milestone in Smith's now-checkered career, he gave little indication of it Tuesday after practice.
"When you're trying to be great, trying to be something, there's a long list of things you have to do and just one win doesn't amount to anything," he said. "You have to just keep winning."
He did some of that, but one thing or another derailed him. He might have opened the 2008 season as the Ravens starter but came down with a rare illness, Lemierre's Syndrome, as he prepared to start the third preseason game. He lost 45 pounds and the job to rookie Joe Flacco.
He's philosophical about how things turned out: "It's life," he said.
He played in 10 games with no starts in '08 and '09 with Baltimore, which cut him before the '10 season. San Francisco signed him and he started six games for the 49ers, passing for 356 yards against St. Louis. Nevertheless, the 49ers cut him after that season and he played in '11 for the Oklahoma Nighthawks of the UFL.
Smith refuses to blame anything for his setbacks or decry his luck. He does not think standing just 6 feet in a world of 6-foot-5 quarterbacks has held him back. He wants to do just one thing now, to resume his career in the NFL.
A Cleveland native who grew up loving the Browns, he would like nothing else than to play them twice a year. He had other offers to join teams this year, but none from his hometown.
"You want to be around men who treat you like men, not a domineering situation," he reasoned for picking the Steelers. "From everything I got a chance to hear, meet and know these people, it's nothing but good feeling around here; that's the sole reason I chose here.
"There was opportunity everywhere. I just want to be part of something special."
But can he? Can he convince the Steelers to part ways with Batch after all these years? The Steelers have released a handful of some of their most beloved veterans this year.
Batch and Leftwich have had injuries in the past several seasons, but both appear healthy now and cap-friendly with their one-year deals. Smith's mission to convince the Steelers to make a change won't be easy.
"I've always had to do a little bit more," Smith said. "That's the only way I've approached working, the only way I've approached life. You get out what you put in."
The Steelers signed another draft pick, linebacker Sean Spence, to a four-year contract. That leaves one rookie left unsigned, first-rounder David DeCastro. Spence, selected in the third round from the University of Miami, has been participating in their spring practices. He joined seven other rookies drafted this year under contract.
I've always had to do a little bit more. That's the only way I've approached working, the only way I've approached life."
-- Troy Smith
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published May 30, 2012 4:30 AM