By Teresa Varley
Free agency is definitely about opportunity knocking and when it did for Justin Hartwig allowing him the chance to become a part of the Steelers offensive line, there was no doubt the veteran center was taking advantage of it.
"The Steelers gave me a great opportunity to come here and hopefully get on the field," said Hartwig. "My job is to get on the field and play and help this team win. I thought this was the best opportunity for me."
Hartwig was attracted to the team because of a number of things, but he couldn't help like the success they have had throughout the years in the post-season.
"The Steelers are a first-class organization," he said. "They are going to be in the playoffs every year just about. They are going to be right there in the thick of things. That's what Coach (Mike) Tomlin stressed to me – that they are a championship organization and that is their goal every year. That was one of the biggest reasons why I am here.
"He told me they are straight shooters here, everybody comes to work and they work hard. They have great ownership. We know what our job is and that is to win games. We are a blue collar mentality. I grew up in the Mid-West and that is why I am where I am today, because of that mentality. I worked hard to get where I am."
Hartwig officially signed with the team on Tuesday and immediately got to work participating in the offseason program. He is attacking it with a goal in mind – winning the starting center job.
Sean Mahan signed with the Steelers as a free agent from Tampa before the 2007 season and started at center last year, but Hartwig was told that he would be given a chance to compete for the position. It was a major draw for him.
"They told me it's a competition," said Hartwig. "That's the way it is every year in the NFL. You are going to have to compete for your job. They told me they have Sean here and there is an opportunity to come in and compete with him and that is all I can ask for.
"I think there is an opportunity to start but that is what training camp is for. We'll see what happens. That is my goal like it is everybody else on this team, to be a starter and be productive."
Hartwig spent the last two seasons with the Carolina Panthers, starting 15 games last season but only one in 2006 after he was placed on injured reserve with a groin injury. The Panthers released Hartwig in early March, instead likely going with former second-round draft choice Ryan Kalil at center. Hartwig might have been able to remain with the Panthers if he switched to guard, but he wanted to remain at center.
"Playing guard isn't anything I am against, but I have been starting in the league for five straight years playing center and I think that is my best opportunity to be on the field and it's my best position," said Hartwig. "They decided it was best to give me the opportunity to go elsewhere and play center."
The Steelers have had a strong history at center, dating back to Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and most recently Jeff Hartings. That isn't something that is lost on Hartwig, who was actually told by a former Steelers player to use Dawson as an example of how to play the position when he first came in to the league with the Tennessee Titans.
"I had a chance to play with Neil O'Donnell for a few years in Tennessee and he just kept telling me 'Justin, turn on a tape of Dermontti Dawson. Watch Dermontti Dawson and you will know everything you need to know,'" said Hartwig. "I am well aware of the history of centers here. I am aware of what kind of line the Steelers have had in the past and the tradition. They have always had one of the best lines in the league. It's a good opportunity and a chance to be a part of something special."
So aware that he shied away from taking number 64 when it was offered to him to wear because it's the number Hartings wore. His other options were 66, but declined because of Alan Faneca's legacy. He chose number 62, and hopes to live up to the expectations of those that wore that number before him, most notably Tunch Ilkin.
And the Steelers need him to step up big. Last season was a tough one for the offensive line as they allowed 47 sacks during the regular season.
"My biggest challenge right now is learning the offense and getting comfortable with it," said Hartwig. "Once I get that confidence in what I am doing I plan on stepping up and being a vocal leader. Once I learn who the guys are and their personalities, going into my seventh year hopefully I can provide that leadership. That is also the job of the center – being a leader. You are the guy making most of the line calls. I think I can bring that to a table."