The Pittsburgh Steelers practice on the South Side at the UMPC Complex, a training facility shared with the Pittsburgh University Panthers football team. It’s an unusual set up as the two are completely separate as NCAA rules do not allow pro teams to mix with their amateur sport.
I have visited the facility several times and always found the Steelers organisation friendly and helpful towards their foreign fans. As readers are aware, I have been a fan of James Conner for a while and was very happy when the Steelers selected him in the third round of the draft in April.
I decided that when I was in Pittsburgh for my annual adventure, I would try and interview him. I was very pleased when I was given the go ahead for the interview and on my arrival I was asked if I would like to do it in the locker room after practice and I agreed without really considering the implications.
The usual array of Pittsburgh journalists who cover the Steelers followed me into the locker room and then it dawned on me that this was my first locker room interview whereas before it had always been on a one to one basis with no distractions.
I spotted Mark Kaboly of DKPittsburghSports and introduced myself and thought it prudent to ask him what the protocol was when putting questions to the players? “Do you wait for them to get changed,” I asked? “I never ask questions of a player if he isn’t wearing his pants,” Mark quipped. “But not everyone adheres to that rule,” he added. That made a lot of sense to me and I told him that was good enough for me.
While waiting for James to arrive, most of the team appeared, including Ben. A large contingent of the media headed towards Stephon Tuitt as there was a big question over his fitness for the weekend’s game.
Then James appeared and I introduced myself before asking the standard opening question for a rookie, “What did you find different between college and when you came into the NFL?”
“The game’s a little bit different, it’s more business, but it’s still football,” he answered before I turned the subject to the game in the United Kingdom and asked if he realised how big it was. He gave the correct response acknowledging that he knew it was getting bigger and was growing.
Reminding him that the Steelers came over to play the Vikings in 2013, Ied to the obvious question regarding being part of a Steelers team returning to London. “It will be a whole different audience. A whole different crowd. Great fans and I’m looking forward to it if I ever get a chance to play there.”
Conner’s locker is adjacent to Ben’s so I asked Ben if he could look after this young man, indicating the rookie. Ben said he would try, but it was hard to do before jokingly asking if he was my nephew.
When the Steelers came over for the International Game, SteelerNationUK organised several events in London. At the one in Henrys, Ramon Foster stumbled across us when he took a relative to dinner.
I introduced myself and reminded him of that meeting before asking if he realised how big the game had grown since then.
He acknowledged it was growing more and more every year and then when I asked him about playing for a London franchise, he replied, “I think it would be a blast. I feel that guys will take advantage of the international crowd. The experience in itself, I feel it will be a really fine experience.”
I then saw Le’Veon Bell finishing an interview so jumped in quick to remind him he scored his first NFL touchdown at Wembley. When I asked him how he felt after two weeks of practice he responded positively. “I feel good. I feel great. The best I’ve ever felt.”
Reacting to my question about three months in London with a team was a surprised, “Three months?” He obviously did not appreciating the logistics of having a team in London then accepted it would be fun, but it would be a lot different.
I introduced myself to Alejandro Villanueva by saying I had been following his career and was pleased he had been given a long term contract. He thought that was because he was European I had been following him was very enthusiastic about answering my question although he thought I was asking him because he was European. Although Villanueva served in the United States Army, he was born to Spanish parents and spent some of his childhood in Spain and Belgium.
He told me the offensive line meet every week and they had recently been talking about their high schools when he reminisced about his trips through the Channel Tunnel to London Central.
“It looks comical to an American here because these guys had excelled at their high school level to get into divisional football teams,” he acknowledged before revealing, “So for me, sometimes I don’t realise that’s how people look at me. ‘You played in community centre high school football.’”
A.J. felt his success at getting into the NFL was due to other people. “A lot of people helped me and have been wanting to see my success. I can’t say it’s been me. I can’t say it’s my doing. My ability.”
I reminded him that if he hadn’t stuck to it and hadn’t been dedicated and he began to accept my point to some degree, before suggesting the NFL was always making cuts. “Some of these kids have been playing football since they were six years old and with the final cuts at training camp, that’s the point they stop playing organised football.
You can go and play soccer all your life. In Spain, you can play on the beach all day. You can play with your kids, but American football has to be organised. This is the moment you cease playing.”
When I sought his response to playing in London, his passion for Europe boiled over. “It’s only an hour and a half away from Madrid,” he reacted. “If it was Madrid, I’d go right now,” he added so I brought him back to earth by asking what was wrong with London?
“I love Europe and London’s a lot of fun,” he said, “and I discuss this with my teammates all the time, how spread out America is and you have to drive everywhere.
We got to meet people from all over the world, from all over Europe and I miss that. I miss the difference in culture and at the end of the day and it’s a lot more social. You don’t realise the luxury you have of travelling in Europe.”
What did Ben say when I asked him to look after James Conner?
A.J. image copyright Pittsburgh Steelers.