Ben Roethlisberger choked up. Mike Tomlin found perspective. Chris Rainey marveled at the display of ”cheating death.”
To Kirby Wilson, it was just a jog. To the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was, to use Tomlin’s word, ”a blessing.”
Wilson, Pittsburgh’s running backs coach, was on the field barking at his players and even running with them from drill to drill on the first official practice day of Steelers training camp at St. Vincent College.
Less than seven months after sustaining life-threatening burns over almost half of his body in a house fire, Wilson is doing what he wants to do.
”It’s awesome,” Wilson said. ”My favorite time of the year. The most rewarding camp I’ve had.”
Beloved by his players, Wilson’s services are arguably needed more than usual for Pittsburgh this season. With starter Rashard Mendenhall recovering from knee surgery, the Steelers have a young, deep and talented running back corps for Wilson to work with and sort through. When asked about the competition for roster spots and increased roles at running back, Wilson used a pun that might have been in poor taste only a few months ago.
”It’s heated,” Wilson said. ”That’s the only way I can describe it.
”You have one guy on (the physically-unable-to-perform list) in Rashard (Mendenhall), and after that, (new starter) Isaac Redman and a bunch of young guys who really have a lot of ability but really haven’t done it over the long hurl and are trying to find their niche.”
Mendenhall is recovering from surgery after he tore the ACL in his right knee during the regular-season finale in January. Redman takes over as the featured back in the Todd Haley’s offense, but roles for Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay, Baron Batch and rookie Chris Rainey are still largely a mystery.
Dwyer, in his third year, and Clay, in his second, were high-profile college backs at big-time programs but went undrafted and have scant NFL experience. Batch was briefly the darling of last season’s camp as a rookie until he tore an ACL, and Rainey, the speedster of the bunch, was drafted in the fifth round out of Florida.
Tomlin talked about the task of sorting through the group and ”working out a division of labor.” But instead of worrying about who the third-down or goal-line back will be, for example, Wilson has turned the backs’ attention elsewhere.
”I told those guys they’ve got to come on in special teams,” Wilson said. ”They’ve got to be a standout stud, a top-five special teams player, and then the running back reps will come.
”Their competition is not in my room; it’s in the DB room and the linebacker room, and they understand that. I made that clear to them, and we’ll see how they handle it through training camp.”
Wilson will get to evaluate the stable of backs first-hand – something that seemed unlikely just a few months ago. Although Wilson attended minicamp, he took part in practice primarily via use of a cart. Wilson said Thursday that returning in time for training camp ”absolutely” was his goal and that he feels ”pretty much 100 percent” now. Wilson added he ”never had any doubt” he’d be recovered in time for camp, but those who saw him soon after the fire weren’t as convinced.
”You know, you spend any length of time with him at Mercy Hospital, you realize today’s a blessing to have him back,” Tomlin said. ”We all love Kirb, it’s bigger than the game of football. He’s a dear friend to most of us. It’s a beautiful thing, man, and it provides a little perspective sometimes for those who need it.”
Dwyer dispensed some good-natured ribbing at Wilson for his jogging during a morning practice. Redman said he was ”amazed” at the progress Wilson made since he last saw him at minicamp.
After seeing Wilson require a golf cart for most of the summer, Roethlisberger similarly was taken aback to see him moving so well.
”I said, `Kirb, I see you running,’ and he started doing some backpedalling,” Roethlisberger said. ”You don’t know how much it means to us. For us players who know Kirby and have a relationship with him, it truly is special. To see him walking around and kind of getting a little jog in almost brought a tear to my eye.”
Wilson is committed to being ”smart.” That means regular ”shade breaks,” plenty of sunscreen and layers of clothing that leave virtually no skin exposed.
”My goal is to leave camp in the same condition I came here,” Wilson said, ”and that is upright.”
Thursday, Wilson was wearing a baseball-style cap over a ”skull cap” and tight, long-sleeved and long-legged clothing under his usual coach’s gear. Other than his face, the only skin exposed was the back of his neck – visible scars there serve as a grim reminder of Wilson’s fight for his life last winter.
”He’s an inspiration,” said Rainey, a rookie running back. ”Cheating death.”