Alameda Ta'amu knows he is lucky to be playing football again, perhaps even lucky to be alive. He also knows he is lucky the Steelers decided to stick by him and help him with his affliction when they easily could have elected to rid themselves of an off-field problem.
Ta'amu, a fourth-round draft choice in 2012, is a big man who has been trying to overcome a big problem. He has spent the past 10 months trying to move forward from a late-night, drunken-driving rampage through the South Side in which he was chased by police, endangered patrons along East Carson Street and caused $22,000 in damage. Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured.
At the time, Ta'amu was charged with multiple felony and misdemeanor offenses. He was sentenced later to 18 months probation after pleading guilty to three counts of reckless endangerment.
"I just want to keep working and, hopefully, that the next time people start talking it will be about football," Ta'amu said. "I just want to keep quiet and let my work do the noise."
The Steelers thought Ta'amu was capable of making a lot of noise on the field. They drafted the massive nose tackle from the University of Washington with the hope he would be the eventual replacement for Casey Hampton, a five-time Pro Bowler.
Like Hampton, Ta'amu was thick and hard to move, weighing 372 pounds with legs as sturdy as oak stumps. He also idolized Hampton and studied the way he played, even when he was in college. The Steelers had high hopes for Ta'amu, who was rated the No. 2 nose tackle in the draft.
But those hopes became an ugly distraction Oct. 14.
According to police, Ta'amu was spotted by an off-duty officer driving the wrong way on Fort Pitt Boulevard and then over the Smithfield Bridge early that morning.
As he drove erratically on East Carson Street, officers on foot drew their guns and yelled for him to stop. Ta'amu's vehicle, a Lincoln Navigator, nearly hit several officers and struck four parked cars. A woman inside one car was injured.
Ta'amu eventually jumped out of his SUV when it crashed and ran, tearing off his shirt with police in pursuit. It took four officers and two sets of handcuffs to restrain Ta'amu once they finally caught him. His blood-alcohol level was 0.196.
"It was tough, but I put that on myself," Ta'amu said the other day before practice. "All the mistakes were because of me. It's up to me to fix them and try to do better this year."
It was not his first DUI incident. In December 2009, he was arrested for driving under the influence while attending college but pleaded guilty to a charge of negligent driving.
After his South Side rampage, Ta'amu had to undergo counseling and therapy and entered the NFL's substance-abuse program. His attorney, Robert Del Greco, said his client has random drug and alcohol screenings two to three times per week.
The Steelers suspended Ta'amu for two games without pay after his arrest and eventually reinstated him. They cut him Nov. 12 and assigned him to the practice squad, but re-signed him to the active roster Dec. 29 before the final regular-season game. At the time, safety Ryan Clark, the team's player representative, said it was important for the Steelers to stick by Ta'amu, even though what he did was wrong.
"You don't 'amen' this, in that it's OK to do," Clark said. "But you don't throw him away, you don't exile him from the team, you don't stop talking to him, you don't stop being his friend."
The Steelers didn't. For that Ta'amu is thankful.
"You just take the second chance and try my best to make the most of it," he said.
Kevin Colbert, the team's general manager, said Tuesday the decision to keep Ta'amu on the roster does not minimize the seriousness of his actions.
But Colbert added: "Every player is judged differently, every situation is judged differently. And what it boils down to is, we won't draft a player until he gains our trust and we won't cut a player unless he loses our trust."
Ta'amu got some assistance from defensive end Cam Heyward, who would pick up Ta'amu most mornings in the offseason so they could train together. The offseason conditioning allowed Ta'amu to report to training camp at 348 pounds, 24 pounds lighter than his reporting weight as a rookie.
"We were coming in almost every day just so he was dedicated," said Heyward, the team's top pick in 2011. "He really wanted to approach this season with the mindset he might get some snaps this season.
"It's not easy, what he's gone through. I know he's been sorry from day one since it happened. I think it really humbled him, made him take a step back and re-evaluate things. He just had to learn from mistakes and he's paid for it. He's just trying to move on from it."
His teammates noticed a difference in the preseason opener Saturday against the New York Giants. Ta'amu moved better, using his hands to gain leverage, control the block and push the pocket. He even joked that it was easier for him to run on and off the field whenever he came out of the game for sub packages.
"It felt good to be back on the field," Ta'amu said. "There are a lot of mistakes I got to correct as far as getting back on field and being able to play. It felt good.
"I felt a lot more comfortable. I feel the game slowed down a lot compared to last year, especially that I cut a lot of weight. It allowed me to last longer and play harder. When I tired, I was able to push through."
Ta'amu began camp on the physically unable to perform list because of a hamstring injury. Without him, defensive end Al Woods served as backup nose tackle to Steve McLendon.
Now that he's back, the Steelers hope to see more of what they saw against the Giants, maybe see more of the promise that led to him being the 109th overall pick last year.
"It makes me feel better that talk about me is about football now," Ta'amu said. "I just want to keep moving forward and better myself for this year. At first, it was tough. But you have a lot of teammates that were really supportive. And, when you start doing good things, everyone will forget about the past."
NOTES -- The Steelers placed wide receiver Plaxico Burress on injured reserve, ending his season. Burress tore his rotator cuff in practice last week and had surgery Monday. The Steelers signed wide receiver Tyler Shaw, an undrafted rookie from Northwest Missouri State, to take his place. He was cut last week by Arizona. ... The Steelers were off Tuesday and will resume practice today. The second session begins at 5:25 p.m., not the usual 3 p.m., and is open to the public.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac. First Published August 14, 2013 4:00 AM