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Alualu: 'It was tough'

For Tyson Alualu, the 2021 season wasn't anything close to what he had anticipated it would be like.

After re-signing with the Steelers in the offseason he had high hopes for what was in store.

Never in his wildest dreams did he think those hopes would be crushed early in the season, when he suffered a knee injury in Week 2 that would bring his season to a crashing halt.

"It's tough because I played this game for a long time," said Alualu. "I never had an injury that kept me out for as long as I was out. For it to happen so early in the season was tough and devastating to know the season was cut real short."

For a player like Alualu, one of the leaders on the defensive line, being on the outside looking in last season wasn't easy. While he was still around his teammates during his recovery and rehab, it was a different feeling not being part of the preparation to play every week.

"When you play this game you stay in a routine throughout the year," said Alualu. "During the season, when your routine isn't there anymore throughout the week, or months, it's definitely easy to get stuck in that feeling that now I am alone, away from the game. It was helpful to come in as much as I did and be around the guys. To have the camaraderie, someone to lean on, our group, whether it was Cam (Heyward), the rest of the guys, it helped. Being in meetings, in that football space, in football talk helped me stay locked in and engaged.

"It was tough watching from afar and knowing in my normal routine I would be right in the mix."

Alualu is now back in that mix, back on the field for the team because of the fight he has, the way he battled, the way even now in his 13th season in the NFL, he never faltered.

That is why he was voted by his teammates the Steelers winner of the Ed Block Courage Award. The award is voted on by the players and given to a player who has shown courage either coming back from an injury or a life-altering situation and was presented to him at the 30th Annual Courage House Luncheon at Acrisure Stadium on Tuesday.

Coach Mike Tomlin presented him with his award, talking proudly of not just the player Alualu is, but the man.

"This guy has done it and done it a high level and done it with class," said Tomlin. "He is an awesome family man. I have so much respect for him. Tyson inspires us all with the way he handles his business. He is unbelievably accountable. He is an awesome leader. He doesn't say much, but it's not about what he says, it's about how he moves, how he conducts himself.

"He is to be congratulated. He is worthy of the Ed Block Courage Award. He didn't blink in the face of adversity in terms of his injury. To be in the stage of his career that he is in, and to deal with a catastrophic injury is a real thing. I am really impressed by him."

A humble Alualu said he was surprised by the turnout at the event, which was a packed house, and didn't even prepare a speech until he saw how big the event was. But he spoke from the heart, thanking God first, and then his wife, Desire, and his six kids, three who were able to attend, as well as the entire Steelers organization, and especially his teammates.

"Winning this award, voted on by my teammates, is a huge honor, one I don't take lightly or for granted," said Alualu. "My teammates, coaches and the entire organization. I thank you guys. I love this game of football, but the longer I play this game I cherish the brotherhood and the relationships more. You make this journey so much more enjoyable."

One player he singled out was Heyward for being there for him for so many things in life, and Heyward equally sang his teammate and friend's praises for his strength and the way he handled his battle.

"You see the humility, the adversity, the resiliency he showed to battle through that," said Heyward. "I could see him battle that. It was tough because he wanted to be out there. He wanted to be with his brothers. In that time, he communicated. He went on all the trips with us. He was trying to stay part of it. He was giving of himself to other guys to help them. He has always been that guy I can rely on.

"I got to work almost every day with him. For him to battle back and just continue to keep working. It's not always easy. You can't say enough about the teammate he is, the way he prepares, and you know he always has your back."

When Heyward talks about that preparation, it all began during the 2021 season the minute Alualu was given the green light to start his rehab. He attacked it vigorously, at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex daily working with the athletic training staff and the strength and conditioning staff.

"Any time you come back from an injury like that, especially a lower limb injury, a broken ankle, it's going to take some time," said fellow defensive lineman Chris Wormley. "He worked his butt off all offseason, and he is in a position now to play really sound football. It's been cool to see the process of someone like him who continues to put the work in. It gives me hope that if I am playing this game at 35, I can come back from something like that.

"Even though he wasn't playing last year, his insight in the game, how to play defensive line and leadership was huge. Just for him to be in the building and hanging out with us, that pumped up his spirits. Getting in the building and knowing you aren't playing can get people down. His spirit was helped by being around us." 

His spirit was also helped by realizing how blessed he is to be in the position he is and have the ability to make a comeback.

"You don't want to be in the position where you have to battle back and fight through something like this, whether it's a situation you were in or an injury. In my case it was the injury," said Alualu. "It was a good time to reflect back on the road, the journey that I am still on trying to bounce back. It's been a long road. I am thankful I still get a chance to play this game, to come back and help and contribute and help this team.

"When you go through this, you think about your reason, your why. Why I play this game. Who I play it for. For me that is what was most important. My purpose. Through it all, through the injury, I had the mindset that I am grateful I am able to play this game. Grateful I have the ability to rehab and fight back and get to where I am now where I am able to play this game still."

And what is his why? It's simple.

"It's a combination of faith and family," said Alualu. "I believe God has blessed me with the ability to play this game. It's something I enjoy and love. Everything about this game, the highs and the lows, it provides so much.

"Just the impact and platform you have playing this game and doing it at the highest level. The love I have for the game and the impact you can have with this brotherhood in the NFL. The brotherhood you have in the locker room. The relationships. The longer you play this game the more those things mean. There is so much more to it now. It's the love for the game and the people I get to do it with.

"I play this game with a better perspective of being grateful for every single thing, whether it's snaps in a game or in practice. You learn to cherish every single moment. You start to think of the things that are really important. The relationships you build, how important they are. You just get a whole different perspective." 

In addition to Alualu winning the Ed Block Courage Award, two other awards were presented. Troy Robinson was awarded the Holy Family Institute Lifetime Achievement Award. He landed at Holy Family Institute in 1981 after life transitions pushed him into a pattern of anger where he needed guidance. He turned his life around, building upon his success continually and is currently the Chief Development Officer for Rise Against Hunger.

A set of brothers, Carll and Kensly Printemps Owens received the Arthur J. Rooney Sr. Courage House Award. The siblings arrived at Holy Family Institute in 2010, one week after their home country of Haiti was devastated by an earthquake. They were cared for at Holy Family by the staff and now Carll is working toward a master's degree in applied economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Kensly is a sophomore at Belmont Abbey College where he is on the soccer team.

As a part of the 30th Anniversary of the luncheon, the event also honored another celebration taking place in Pittsburgh this year, the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. Franco Harris, and his wife Dana, were on hand to join in the celebration and talk about the joy of being a part of the Steelers organization.

"This is a special place," said Harris. "And this is a special organization."

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