Maurkice Pouncey has a love for the game of football. It runs deep in his heart, through his veins, and encompasses everything he is.
"It's my life, it's that simple," said Pouncey. "It's everything."
So when it was taken away from him last year after he suffered a season-ending leg injury in the Steelers' first preseason, he was devastated. And rightfully so.
Pouncey was placed on the injured reserve/designated to return list, but never made his way back on to the field last year. He underwent multiple surgeries, dealt with the torture of not playing with his teammates, but never lost his fight, his passion for the game, or his will to get back on the field.
When the Steelers reported to OTAs last May, Pouncey was right there with them. Battling back with strength, courage and a will that wouldn't be broken.
It was his ability to fight back, to return to the field this season and be the same player he was before, that had his teammates vote him this year's winner of the Ed Block Courage Award, presented annually to a Steelers player who has fought back from an injury or tough circumstances to return to the field. Pouncey received the award at the Annual Arthur J. Rooney Sr. Courage House Luncheon at Heinz Field, benefiting Holy Family Academy. In addition, former Holy Family Institute resident Eric Usselman received a Courage House Award, for demonstrating perseverance in overcoming challenges.
"Anything you win from your teammates, and they put that type of honor on you, is amazing," said Pouncey. "You don't want to be injured at all. To fight back from the stuff I have is just a blessing. I always smile every single day. I tell everybody smile because you never know with football this could be your last day, especially with everything I have been through. It's a blessing and an honor to win this."
Pouncey is right, he is always smiling. Always positive. He is a leader on the offense, and his presence this year is felt.
"Having him back he is good for the whole team," said offensive line coach Mike Munchak. "He makes everyone better. His personality is contagious. He is always laughing. It's a tough sport, there is a lot of stress. That personality helps a lot of guys relax. When it comes time to play they are serious. He brings that leadership."
There were times, though, when it wasn't so easy to be positive, when smiling was difficult.
"It's tough, for sure," said Pouncey. "At the end of the day I am surrounded by a good group of guys. My inner circle is really, really tight. They love me to death and keep me smiling. I am blessed. There are a lot of people who want this opportunity who aren't playing football any more. Every day I get to come to work is an honor and a blessing."
Coach Mike Tomlin knows it's a blessing to have a player like Pouncey on the team, and was honored to present him with his award.
"This guys has a unique commitment," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "He is 10 toes in in everything he does regarding his job here with the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's been that way since the day we drafted him. He always has a can-do approach. He does not let anything stop him. He fights it tooth and nail every step of the way. Not only does he lead these guys in terms of his words, he leads in terms of his actions."
Last year was the second time Pouncey missed the majority of a season. In 2013 he was injured early on in the season-opener, and was out for the year. Having it happen once was tough, twice even worse.
"It's terrible," admitted Pouncey. "To sit there and watch other guys, the guys you go out there and have blood, sweat and tears with every day go out there and do their job and you want to be out there with them. You have to keep them motivated, keep the guys around and keep encouraging them."
And for Pouncey, he couldn't have gotten through last season if those guys didn't do the same for him.
"They kept me together," said Pouncey. "They came over every Thursday, ate dinner with me, watched film with me and did all of the little things we do on Thursday. It was awesome to have those guys there with me. They brought me through that tough time. They got me through it, honestly.
"My teammates, calls from my brother, that all kept me motivated. Knowing that I love this game and I wanted to do everything I could to get back motivated me.
"I got the opportunity to do this again and I am just running with it.
"I just like playing football. That is the only thing I have known in my life."