Labriola On

Labriola on Cam, Ryan, Layne's lesson

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Of course the big news is that the 2020 NFL regular season opened last night in Kansas City, and way beyond the outcome of Houston vs. Kansas City or the plays that contributed to that outcome, what was exciting about it was that the game was played as scheduled. During this global pandemic, when an event goes off as scheduled it's cause for a celebration, and there are so many anonymous people who made last night possible and deserve to take a bow.

• As for the Steelers, their regular season begins on Monday night, but before the game against the New York Giants takes over the spotlight, there were a couple of events of significance for both the franchise and the individual players involved, events that speak well for both the franchise and the individual players involved.

• In chronological order, the first was the signing of Cam Heyward to a contract that should assure he'll play his entire career for the Pittsburgh Steelers and only the Pittsburgh Steelers. Many of the details of this contract have been hashed out already, but of particular significance is that the $16.4 million average over the four years of the deal represents the richest contract every signed by a defensive player over 30 years old.

• On the field, Cam Heyward has been voted first-team All-Pro in two of the previous three seasons, and he is one of only two interior defensive linemen in Steelers history to be voted first-team All-Pro more than once. And with every significant statistical milestone in franchise history involving interior defensive linemen, the other player to be so recognized is Joe Greene.

• But Heyward is more than a great player, and what he brings to this franchise and means to it go beyond on-field contributions and accomplishments. Heyward is a leader, a six-time defensive team captain, an example for others not only for how he approaches his profession but also for the way he conducts himself as a citizen of the community.

• Heyward also is a go-to guy in the Steelers locker room, not only for his teammates but also for the public relations and community relations staffs.

• If there is a difficult/touchy issue, Heyward often is the guy put behind the microphones. If there is a need for someone to lend his name and face to a worthy event or cause in the community, Heyward often is the guy who steps up and not only gives of himself but also recruits teammates to join in.

• Three times, Cam Heyward was the Steelers nominee for Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, presented annually by the NFL to recognize a player's volunteer and charity work as well as his excellence on the field. Twice, Heyward was voted 'The Chief' Award by the Pittsburgh Chapter of Pro Football Writers of America, including in 2019.

• And the guy still can play. In his last three seasons, Heyward was voted to three Pro Bowls and first-team All-Pro twice, and the reason was because he accounted for 179 tackles, 29 sacks, 63 hits on the quarterback, 12 passes defensed, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Plus when an anonymous NFL assistant coach made a big deal of the way Heyward manhandled Colts guard Quenton Nelson, himself a first-team All-Pro guard in each of his two NFL seasons, it was Heyward who spoke up.

• "Man I'm not with that," tweeted Heyward in response. "So because I had a good game it devalues a great talent. Dude is (a) heck of a talent. How about I'm a great player myself, and we won the game, simple as that. I know Q is a dog, and I know it's a 5-star matchup when we line up."

• It was important for the Steelers to lock up Heyward with a representative contract, and it was best that they did it as he was entering the final season of his existing deal, instead of being backed into a corner next spring by impending free agency.

• And finally, it was important for the Steelers to lock up Heyward with a representative contract as a message to the other players in their locker room that if they do things the right way on and off the field, if they do things as Cam Heyward has done them on and off the field since being a No. 1 pick in 2011, then they will be rewarded, too.

• A couple of days after the Heyward news, Ryan Shazier announced his retirement. Not really a shock based on the Steelers having placed him on the reserve/retired list shortly after the 2019 season ended, but hearing him speak the actual words lent a finality to it that had been missing.

• It could be viewed as a sad occasion that a young man of 28 years old was forced to retire from the sport he loves because of a catastrophic injury to his spine, but it also could be viewed as uplifting because of the way Shazier handled things and worked himself back to a place physically where he will be able to live a normal life.

• "I am here today to make sure the world knows how much I still love football. How grateful I am for everything football gave me. I am here today to let the world know that today I am officially retiring from the game I love so much," said Shazier. "It's been over 1,000 days since I first got hurt. To lose the game in a way I never envisioned has not been easy. When you play the game of football the way I did, you convince yourself you are Superman. That nothing can stop you. Then, the moment I got hurt, I stopped being Superman and that was difficult to make sense."

• What made Shazier Superman to so many after he sustained that spinal injury in Cincinnati during a December 2017 game was the way he handled himself and his new reality. As General Manager Kevin Colbert said many times, he never heard Shazier complain by uttering the words, "Why me?" Instead, Shazier attacked his rehabilitation as he always had attacked the work designed to make him a great football player, and he had his coming-out party in that respect when he walked across the stage at the 2018 NFL Draft to announce the Steelers' pick.

• "The way I look at it, God put us all here for a purpose," said Shazier. "For 20 years He let me play football, and now it's time for me to do what He wants me to do. I am going to step away from the game for a while and see what else life has to offer. I know football always will be here for me if I need it, but right now I am excited to explore some new challenges and different paths."

• For some time now, it seemed that a return to professional football wasn't going to be a reality for Shazier, but it was important that he come to accept the situation rather than have others make the decision for him.

• At some point, in some way that realization happened, and Shazier announced his football career was over and he was moving on to the next chapter in his life. Undoubtedly, it wasn't a decision he came to easily, but somehow, some way Shazier was able to understand the decision to walk away from football was the right thing for him, his family, and their future.

• Walk away from football.

• Walk away. For the Shazier family, the two sweetest words in the English language.

• Bill Nunn told me a story about the night he learned what made a good NFL receiver. It was 1959, maybe 1960, when he was the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, years before he had accepted Dan Rooney's offer to join the Steelers' scouting department. In those days, it was not difficult to arrange an interview with one of Pittsburgh's professional athletes.

• All that was required was showing up at the bar where they were known to "loaf" after practice and strike up a conversation. Well, maybe the buying of a round was a nice ice-breaker, but it wasn't a complex process.

• On this one night Nunn was in this establishment during football season, which meant he was in an establishment with a bunch of the Steelers. Sitting at the bar was Bobby Layne, a future Hall of Fame quarterback who had won three NFL Championships as the starter for the Detroit Lions and was then in the process of helping the Steelers to an unprecedented run of success that would include three winning seasons over a five-year span.

• Anyway, Layne was a gregarious sort and a devoted fan of a nice ice-breaker, and so Nunn said he had no trouble getting Layne's attention and starting a conversation. What Nunn wanted to know, and he believed Layne could provide the answer, was "what makes a good NFL receiver?"

• According to Nunn, Layne listened to the question, and then pointed down the bar to another patron, who happened to be Steelers receiver Jimmy Orr. "He's a good receiver," Nunn said Layne told him, "because I throw him the ball."

• In a straightforward and down-to-earth manner, Layne was teaching Nunn about the importance of the quarterback-receiver relationship. That there has to be a confidence, an on-field rapport, a trust that develops between a quarterback and a receiver, and while unnecessary it doesn't hurt if the relationship strays into the personal.

• Nunn saw how that played out first-hand during the mid-1970s when the Steelers were metamorphosizing into the NFL's most dominant team of the era. Terry Bradshaw was starting to blossom as a dynamic NFL quarterback, and in the process was being courted by young wide receiver Lynn Swann.

• Nunn had been directly responsible for two other young wide receivers on those Steelers teams – Frank Lewis from Grambling who was the first-round pick in 1971, and John Stallworth from Alabama A&M who was a fourth-round pick in 1974.

• USC was a big-time college program, a team that played Notre Dame every year, a team that played in nationally televised games when playing in nationally televised games was not the common occurrence it is today. Swann was a star at USC, and he was comfortable in the spotlight, comfortable with a microphone in his face. He was outgoing in ways that maybe Lewis and Stallworth were not, and he didn't waste a lot of time before he turned on the charm.

• Nunn said it was obvious to him that Swann inherently seemed to understand the lessons Layne had taught in that Pittsburgh bar about 15 years before, and the young receiver had the talent to back up his schmoozing by making plays that made Bradshaw look good on the field. Lewis was an introvert and uncomfortable buddying up to the quarterback even after Nunn told him that was a way to get the ball thrown to him more, and while Stallworth came to understand the quarterback-receiver dynamic he wasn't as quick on the draw as Swann.

• Lewis ended up getting traded to the Buffalo Bills, and Stallworth first emerged as a Hall of Fame caliber receiver when Swann was victimized by on-field cheap shots and began to sustain concussions as a result. In Super Bowl XIV, Swann was concussed and sent to the sideline after being flipped onto his head, and then Stallworth was left to be on the receiving end of those two spectacular passes that clinched the Steelers fourth championship of the 1970s.

• Fast forward to this season, and the relationship between rookie Chase Claypool and Ben Roethlisberger seems to be more along the lines of Layne-Orr and Bradshaw-Swann than Bradshaw-Lewis. It's not social and maybe never will be, but anyone who was paying attention during the training camp practices at Heinz Field noticed an on-field bond developing between the 38-year-old quarterback and the 22-year-old receiver.

• Everyone else will get a chance to see it starting Monday night.

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