Before the Steelers rookies report for training camp to fully embark on the X's and O's, they took part in a program the team offers that will help them not just on the field, but even more so off the field.
The group all participated in 'Steelers Rookie University,' an education like no other that helps them transition from college to the NFL, learning lessons in what NFL players need to know for survival in so many areas.
It's something the organization has done over the years when the rookies report following the draft, but this year it was a completely different learning curve. A virtual learning curve.
From the time the rookies 'reported' after the NFL Draft until the end of OTAs, the players took part in zoom meetings on a regular basis, with the topics ranging from money management, portfolios, credit and financial management, insurance, relationships, and much more.
"It was so valuable," said Alex Highsmith, the team's third-round draft pick. "Not only was it valuable for me, but we learned a lot about each other. It was really good. They taught us a lot of things that are going to help us be successful, help us with our careers. They are looking out for what is best for us. I am so grateful for them putting all these things together for us.
"Some of the financial things, I didn't know much about it. Now learning stuff about it, it's eye opening for me. The taxes and stuff like that. I am glad I am learning about this stuff right now. It's going to help me take care of my money that first year and every year I am in the league. I am thankful and I am looking forward to learning more and more."
The program began with an introductory zoom call with Coach Mike Tomlin addressing the group and making sure they it's not just about football, it's also about life.
"The whole rookie university, this developmental program, is constructed specifically to help you guys in transition," said Tomlin as he addressed the group. "And not transition to the National Football League. Yes, we are helping you transition with that. But this program is catered specifically toward you guys getting acclimated to what it means to be a Pittsburgh Steeler. What it means to be a professional football player. The opportunities and responsibilities associated with it. This is something we not only take very seriously, but we take a great deal of pride in.
"To have the careers you envision having, it's important you have proper perspective and a good foundation. You get critical information about what's important, where your focus needs to lie, and just in general how to navigate these waters. When you went to college you went through a period of transition, getting acclimated to your environments. It's the same in the pro football realm. Probably doubly so because it's an awesome opportunity and responsibility that comes with it.
"We embrace the responsibility that is being a Pittsburgh Steeler. I am excited about getting to know you guys. I am excited about life issues and allowing you to prosper in life."
Tomlin also shared with the group the tradition of the Steelers, talking about what it means to be a part of the Steelers family, the legacy, and the pride players take in wearing the black and gold. After a video that had everyone fired up, that pride in wearing the black and gold came out in full force when Jerome Bettis joined the zoom call and gave them words of wisdom, encouragement, guidance and brotherhood.
"I want to talk to you guys about understanding what it means to be a Pittsburgh Steeler," said Bettis. "I have a unique perspective because I didn't just play for the Steelers. I had the opportunity to see another organization. When you talk about the Steelers, you have to understand the philosophy of the organization. They believe in character over athletic ability. That means your character is first, and then your athletic ability is second. That is a unique perspective. There are going to be better players than you. There were better players than me. But they look for players that are the right character. That makes this organization different. You have been chosen because you are great players, but more importantly because you have great character.
"Off the field, as a Pittsburgh Steeler, there are responsibilities that you have to understand that are going to be asked of you. This started when the team started. This is a community football team. This is an organization built in the community. You are going to be asked to represent the organization in the community. Don't be afraid to do that. That is a strong, strong part of what this team has been about. They are going to love you in the community. Always remember you are representing yourself, your family and the organization when you walk out the door. Pittsburgh is an incredible city. You will love playing for the organization and the town. They get football. They love football. They will love you. But you have to make sure you give 100% effort and understanding the community involvement piece we all have to be a part of.
"The last part is the football. You have to understand there is a standard that was set long before you got here, and long before I got here. That standard is when you walk in that building you are going to see those Super Bowl trophies. That is not by mistake. It was painstakingly difficult to get those in that building. What you have to do is build on that tradition and standard. The only way you do that is to go out there every day and be the best player you can be and dedicate yourself to your craft."
The words Bettis shared, and the genuine warmth he spoke to the rookies with, definitely resonated with them. All it took was looking around the zoom room to see they were all hanging on his every word.
"To hear from guys like Jerome and other NFL veterans who have been in the league for years, it's tremendously helpful or a rookie, a guy just going in," said rookie free agent Christian Montano. "Just hearing the guys talk. Whether it was Jerome Bettis who they brought in directly to speak to us, or guys who have been with the team for a while and know a lot. To hear them talk, how they carry themselves, ask questions. To see how they do it, it's the best part for me.
"The financial side of things too. To hear from financial planners, just hearing about the City of Pittsburgh, where we should live, things like that. It was all so valuable."
As valuable as everything they have learned since being drafted is, the most valuable part of their rookie experience is coming up soon. Training camp.
"It's harder to build relationships over a zoom call," said Highsmith. "But I am ready to meet everyone, excited to get there and interact with everyone and get things rolling. I want to do whatever I can to stay in shape, stay in my grind, stay in my playbook."