LATROBE, Pa. – A year ago Johnny Maxey found his way through training camp as a rookie with a heavy heart.
While he didn't share it with many, he was quietly mourning the loss of two people he loved, his sister, Quontaya Smith and his grandmother, Juriene Allen.
They both passed away in the two months leading up to camp, his grandmother just days before.
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"My sister passed during OTAs and I left to go spend some time with my family," said Maxey, who missed two practices during OTAs last year. "It was right when we were in the middle of things. I missed the funeral because I had to come back for everything. My parents, aunts and uncles, told me do what I need to and take care of myself and my football situation. They wanted me to come back, try to keep my mind at ease the best I can. It was hard but I had it in the back of my mind that I was doing something for them. It was hard but it's something you are doing in their honor so it makes it easier."
Before he could even finish grieving, his grandmother also passed away.
"That was the leader of our family," said Maxey. "It hit hard. At the end my family was confident in my ability to stay focused, keep making them proud. They told me to go back and handle business.
"I was the one who bought the headstone for her. They are so expensive. My family didn't have the money to do it. I got how it looked approved. It's little things like that that made it easier for me to go into this type of environment and get done what I need to get done.
"Last year it was weighing on me kind of heavy. This year I know what I am doing. I know what I am trying to do in their name. It makes it a lot easier. I have had time to mourn. I have had time to take everything in and realize what I can do for them." What he can do for them is keep working hard. It wasn't all smooth sailing for Maxey, though. He was released by the team and signed back to the practice squad, where he spent most of the season. He was activated on Dec. 24, playing against the Ravens and getting his first real taste of NFL football.
"When you go up like that, you don't want to go back down," said Maxey. "I had been preparing all year. Going against an offense like ours that is really good got me ready for what I was going to walk into on Sundays. I was prepared mentally and physically. I worked all season like I was active, taking notes from Coach (John) Mitchell and the veterans. I got that first play of my NFL career out of the way and it was good from there. Once that happened, it went from there. I just want to continue to get better and improve.
"I have a great opportunity to take steps from last year. I am light years ahead of where I was last year. I am going for that 53 man roster just like everybody else out here. I am going to work hard, do what I am asked to do and then some. That is my goal. My goal is to continue to play. The practice squad was getting my foot in the door, but I am not going to settle for that. I am going to take full advantage of my opportunity and go full speed."