"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy." -- Martin Luther King Jr.
The 2020 Steelers offseason was like no other.
Just weeks before players would have reported for offseason workouts, a global pandemic hit like a ton of bricks, with COVID-19 shutting down the country for months.
The normal clanging in the weight room at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex grew silent. The laughter in the locker room was nonexistent. And the zip of a football as it soared from the quarterback's hands to a waiting wide receiver was silenced.
Classroom instruction, film study, and one-on-one instruction all became virtual, done from the comfort of player's homes across the country on iPads rather than vast screens in large classrooms.
In the midst of it all, as players were gaining their footing on handling the new offseason and the pandemic was allowing for the opening of some aspects of the nation, the country was rocked again.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25 sparked outrage in the country. Protests were held in major cities and small towns, calling for change, calling for justice, calling for an end to systemic racism. In a matter of minutes, the pandemic took a back seat to social justice issues that deserved the attention it was receiving.
Like the rest of us, Steelers players were left with a plethora of emotions. The COVID-19 pandemic had them concerned, cautious, protective of their own health and that of their family, with it hitting close to home for some.
The protests and underlying social justice issues had them frustrated, angry, disappointed and looking for a way to make a change, let their voices be heard.
It was a time when the array of emotions intersected with each other, and they needed guidance, they needed direction, they needed leadership.
They didn't have to look far to get it.
Coach Mike Tomlin provided them exactly what they needed.
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As had been the case since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Steelers held a weekly virtual team meeting on Monday, June 1, one week after the death of Floyd.
Tomlin opened the zoom meeting, just like he did in all of the previous weeks. But this time, things were a little different.
Football was not the topic on this day. It wasn't even thought about. On this day the topic would be centered around Black Lives Matter, with players and coaches all being given the opportunity to talk, to share their emotions, to share what was on their mind.
"He told us to stay together, be as one and work through the situation. He handled it with class," said Ola Adeniyi. "You have a bunch of guys where everyone is not going to feel the same way. You have 90 players and coaches on one phone call. He gave everybody the floor, everybody that wanted to speak. They could give their opinion and the way they felt.
"He let everyone speak and talk to get out how they felt and share your opinions about the matter. Now guys have a way to talk, not hold back, and speak their mind. That was good to have. It was good to hear all the opinions. Not everyone is going to agree on things. Just to know where everyone was coming from is good.
"I am glad we did it. We confronted it rather than ran away from it. We brought it up and he gave us the floor. We didn't hide from it. He confronted it head on and gave everyone the floor. That was pretty good."
As with everything he has done since he arrived in Pittsburgh, Tomlin read the room. He knew what mattered on that Monday morning, and it wasn't football. There was only one thing he asked from the players, that if they wanted to speak out on their social media platforms, or express themselves in any way as the season progressed, that they do so thoughtfully and with class.
"He showed us he cared about what was going on in the world, not just because of the skin color he is, but just world peace in general," said James Washington, who was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Aug. 2. "He said I know how it is to once be there and how to avoid things. Some guys shared a few of their experiences. We just sat, talked and listened. It was guys venting, saying what they wanted to get off their chest. We all listened to each other because we are brothers. For a lot of guys to come out and say stuff about their experiences it really helped, and it helped ease the emotion in the room.
"He told us if you have something to say, say it. But don't lead with aggression. Don't let your feelings take over what you need to get off your chest. It wasn't about vengeance or aggression. Look at everything from both sides. A lot of guys used their platform to get something out and say it. Nobody went overboard. Everyone did a good job of saying what they had to say and left it at that.
"It shows in his mind there is more to life than just football. When he showed us that as players, we respected him even more. He is always looking out for everyone's well-being, no matter if you are on the team or not, and we want to do everything for him."
For two hours the group talked. They shared raw emotions. There were no barriers, no judging each other. Just talking and listening.
"It was really valuable," said Mike Hilton. "Especially him being an African American coach. He knows what is going on across the world. Everybody was able to say how they felt about the situation. We heard different stories from different people. It showed we are all one and we are doing everything we can to make this a better situation.
"He expressed to us using our platform to bring attention to the situation as much as possible. People know our names. They know who we are. He told us to find ways to bring our thoughts out there and handling it right. He told us to be smart about what you post, how you word it. He said express yourself in good ways. With us and our platform we have to use it the best way possible and be smart. It was big time. Our platform means a lot. If guys express how they feel, it can make a difference."
One of the biggest factors that Tomlin told the players was no matter what it was they decided to do, from sharing thoughts on social media to any manner they want to express their feelings in season, he would have their back.
"When your leader tells you he has your back no matter what you decide to do, you feel good about your judgment and what you want to do," said Hilton. "You won't be hesitant about what others think about you. You will go with your decision and trust it.
"As far as football, it's what we do. That comes easy. What we do off the field is important. We have to bring attention to this situation and make it the best we can."
Players spoke out on social media. They did so in a manner Tomlin asked them to. And they still took heat from fans. But they didn't let it bother them, because they had the support of those who matter.
"Coach saying he has our back, telling us he is proud of us and supports us in every way is what matters," said Adeniyi. "He told us to stay together as a team and be as one. He told us to keep the outside noise, outside, and focus on the task at hand and work as a team."
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The way Tomlin handled everything this offseason hasn't come as a surprise to his players. Because when he says, 'The standard is the standard,' he means it and it always starts with him.
"It's amazing," said Adeniyi. "Coach T is one of the best head coaches I have been around. He keeps it 100 with you. He lets you know what it is that needs to happen. You want someone who will keep it 100 with you at all points in time. You don't want somebody that is going to hold things back. You want somebody that is going to tell you the real thing. That makes you better as a man, not somebody just going to B.S. you and hold you back to protect your feelings.
"For instance, with me, every time he saw me he would say things like we know you can pass rush, we need you to work on this aspect of your game. we need you to work on special teams. Last year I was on the field a lot more than I was my rookie year. That is due to the fact that he told me this is something you have to work on, and it's something I worked on. It's something I focused on once he told me. I saw an improvement in my game after that. This year, going forward, I would like to be more of a leader and vocal.
"He basically gives you the answers to the tests. He brings a lot of energy. He can talk with you; you can talk with him. That is a great thing to have with a head coach."
Adeniyi really did hit it right on the head. If you want someone to be straight with you, to give you the facts, it's Tomlin.
"He is transparent. Either you are with me or against me type of leader," said Washington. "That is why a lot of guys like him. He is straight to the point. He is not going to sugar coat anything or make you believe something is different. I feel like he is a guy a lot of guys can trust. That is why guys lean on him. He is such a good leader. The things he says he puts to use every day.
"It makes game time a lot more relaxing. Out of my 13-15 years of playing football, when you get into a game you can sense when a coach feels nervous and isn't confident. With him it has never been that way. Ever. With him it's we're going into this battle with confidence. It makes the mood more relaxing.
"After my rookie season, it wasn't what I wanted it to be. I remember him telling me in our meeting we are still going to ride with you, we still trust you and love you. You have a few things you need to work on, and he said we will come back next year and do the same thing, just on a different note. I believed it and trusted it and he never lied to me."
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When training camp opened for the Steelers at Heinz Field, it marked the first time since the 2019 season ended that players officially gathered together.
The good news, though, is the players were able to handle the challenge of a working from a distance in a virtual offseason because of the way Tomlin handled it.
"That first virtual meeting we had when the pandemic stared, it was inspirational," said Adeniyi. "He kept it real. He told us if you are a guy that needs a group setting to get ready, you are going to be screwed. This is a time where you have to figure out yourself as a man, better yourself. You have to figure how to develop yourself as a man, better yourself, be a guy he can depend on. You have to work on your own. He just kept it real with us."
At the time of that first virtual meeting there was a lot of uncertainty. There were a lot of questions. And for some players, there was fear and concern, just like with everyone in the country.
"He was transparent," said Washington. "He said he didn't know what was going to happen with the season, but you have to stay ready, always be ready, and physical conditioning is a key. He was transparent and right to the point.
"He told us the truth and didn't know much. We didn't either. We just were looking forward to what was going to happen and playing football."
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As the team prepares for the 2020 season, with uncertainty still in the country from so many outside sources, Tomlin still is that one stabling force for the players.
"When Coach Tomlin says something, guys respect it and do it because of that level of respect we have for him," said Washington.
He is that leader they need. He is the voice they want to here. He is the one who would do anything for them, and they in turn would do anything for him.
"He is very motivational," said Hilton. "Some people lead differently, but he carries himself in a way that is so motivational. He tells you the truth, he doesn't hold back anything. He is fair and you have to respect him as a person because of that. He doesn't sugarcoat anything. You want someone who is going to be honest about how you are doing on the field. That is what Coach Tomlin does. He embraces being honest because he wants to bring out the best in you.
"He tells you embrace it all. Even the small things on and off the field. Love what you are doing. Enjoy it. Never take it for granted.
"He is the type of guy you would run through a brick wall for."