Steelers' Pouncey forced to forge own identity

PITTSBURGH – The instant he became a Pittsburgh Steeler, Maurkice Pouncey(notes) kissed his identical twin brother Michael on the lips.

He did not mean to do this. It was late on the first evening of last April's NFL draft when the Steelers called and there was so much happiness in the room down in Lakeland, Fla. Maurkice hugged his mother, Lisa Webster, then turned to embrace Michael. As he did he either tried to say something to his brother or kiss him on the cheek.

Neither can remember. They were smiling. They were laughing. Then suddenly, their lips touched.

The kiss that wasn't really a kiss was captured by a television news crew and soon found a new life on the Internet where context is lost and things aren't always as they seem. By the end of the night, it throbbed on TMZ.

[Rewind: Focus on soccer hero blowing kiss after match]

The kiss has followed him through his first NFL season, one he has dominated so much as an otherwise anonymous center that he's played himself into Rookie of the Year consideration alongside more glamorous players like Sam Bradford(notes) and Ndamukong Suh(notes). One night he went to dinner with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) and the comedian Kevin Hart. "I see you and your brother, Pouncey, y'all look pretty close." Hart said.

"We are," Maurkice replied.

"No, I'm talking about that kiss y'all had," Hart shouted.

A few days before a big game against the Patriots, offensive line coach Sean Kugler turned on a projector in the regular line meeting and a picture of the two Pounceys, lips forever locked, appeared on the screen as the other players giggled.

Then again, what is a kiss between two men who would look exactly alike if not for the different tattoos that spill across their arms and torsos?

For nearly 21 years they were the same: dressed alike as children, playing identical games, seeing the same friends, completing each other's sentences. As they grew older and bigger and blossomed into football players, they stood together on the same offensive line at the University of Florida – Maurkice at center, Michael at guard – opening holes for Tim Tebow(notes). When asked about their differences, the best their mother can come up with is that Michael is slightly more serious. Their father, Robert Webster, says Maurkice has always been a bit more advanced as a football player. Otherwise, they were forever a guffawing, joking, 600-pound-two-headed-behemoth known simply as The Pouncey Twins.

[Rewind: Kiss-cam catches Jason Bateman and Dustin Hoffman]

"We were always each other's best friends," Maurkice says. "Why make new friends when I have this one?"

Then the Steelers called, Maurkice turned to face Michael and they were about to be broken apart. Eventually this happens to identical twins, and maybe Maurkice and Michael had been lucky to have played so close through three years of college. But by the end of last football season, their junior year, it was clear Maurkice was a first-round pick and should move on. Michael, less certain of his draft status, decided to stay.

"I mean we've been together our whole life but now it's time to move on and venture something new in our lives," Maurkice says.

Still, splitting apart was hard. Until Maurkice left school in January to work out for the draft at a facility outside Orlando, they had been detached for only about three days when Maurkice went to visit his girlfriend in Houston as a sophomore. Even in elementary school when they were put in different classes, they took bathroom breaks at the same time, meeting up in the hallway. Years later, to facilitate an eventual break, they decided to live apart for their final season at Florida which meant one picked a place next door to the other.

"We tried to start separating but it wasn't as much as everyone thought," Maurkice laughs.

So this year has been refreshing and sad. Maurkice has thrived in Pittsburgh, bonding quickly in a boisterous, welcoming Steelers locker room. "He is the glue that holds us together inside," Kugler says. Michael has constructed a new identity in Florida, moving to his brother's center position, noticing how nobody talks about "The Pouncey Twins" anymore, choosing to call him "Mike."

And even though they talk and text every day – always about football – there is an emptiness too.

"It's been good but I'd rather we were together again," Michael says.

Sitting in an office at Steelers headquarters, Maurkice gives a wan smile.

"It's been hard," he says. "I'm really close to my mom and dad and I would go to Mike before I would any of them. He's the one who understands me the best."

Father figure

Lisa Webster was about six months into her pregnancy in the spring of 1989 when a doctor noticed something wrong – she was too big. An ultrasound was ordered, images were taken, then the technician turned to Lisa and told her she was having triplets.

Lisa fainted.

When she awoke, there was another ultrasound. This one showed only two fetuses and a shadow that the technician had mistaken for a third child.

Not that two boys weren’t work enough. Lisa, who was just 18, was overwhelmed. It seemed the twins were always in motion. As soon as one fell asleep the other woke, crying for food. Even worse, their father drifted away, leaving Lisa to raise the children herself. Who knows how things would have worked had Robert Webster not appeared from Louisiana?

He arrived with his brother from Sicily Island, which he describes as the second hole of the shoelace of Louisiana. Once he dreamed of playing college football, even going for one year to Louisiana Tech with the intention of playing college football until the money ran out. His football dreams had died but when he chose to take on Lisa and her two boys, something was rekindled inside. He would turn his stepsons into football players.

"I was a pretty tough customer," Robert Webster says now. "I knew the Lord wouldn't give me more than I could spare."

And so as Maurkice and Michael grew, Webster taught them the sport he loved. He was hard on them, but it was tough love, he rationalized. He was their youth football coach, doling out playing time only as each boy earned it.

Mike and Maurkice leading up to the BCS championship game in 2009.
(Lynne Sladky/AP Photo)

Michael remembers once missing a tackle and being pulled from the game, not to be allowed back in. Maurkice recalls the brothers being sent to another field to hit with bigger kids. On weekends, Robert took the boys to lawn mowing jobs that he did on the side where they helped him cut grass. When they were done, he made them do pushups while he blew the clippings away with a blower. Sometimes he took them to his regular job at a feed plant in Lakeland, having them move boxes to build their strength. Weight rooms stunted their growth, he said. He wanted them naturally strong. He wanted them to play the college football he never experienced. More than anything, he wanted them to win a national championship.

"I got a chance to live my dream through them," Webster says. "I had a chance to give them everything I know: to tell them to get their grades up, to teach them to eat right, to put them in the swimming pool and train them right. I was like father-coach to them."

At about age 9, the twins found a picture of their birth father. Lisa had never told them the man they called their father was in fact not the one responsible for them. But somehow it didn't matter. Robert was the one they trusted, the one they loved.

"He was really like the man of the house," Maurkice says. "He would work all those long hours at his job and then go cut grass. It's crazy, man."

Michael sighs.

"Without him we wouldn't be who we are now," he says.

Tragedy strikes

It was at the feed plant on the morning of Nov. 24, 2008 when Robert Webster went to move a train. This was normally a mundane task – Webster needed to pull a brake on the grain cars as they rolled downhill. But it had rained the night before and it was cold. The brake didn't catch, the cars started to accelerate. Webster tried to jump off but because the metal was wet, his feet slipped and he tumbled to the tracks.

He remembers watching in horror but feeling little pain as the wheels sliced off his right leg just above the knee. Later he would assume his nerves shut down at the shock of being severed. He was alone in a field. About 30 yards away was a gate that offered the hope of help.

"I knew I had to stop the blood before I bled to death," he says.

As he lay on the ground, his right leg gone, Webster tried to fashion a tourniquet with his belt, unthreading it from the loops of his pants when a train mechanic found him. Together Webster and the mechanic wrapped the belt around the stub of Webster's knee, halting the flow of blood. That was when the dread suddenly swept through Webster's body.

Florida was playing Florida State that weekend. The Gators needed to win to keep their national championship hopes alive and now everyone's going to be distracted by The Pouncey Twins' father getting into an accident.

Then he went to the hospital and lost consciousness for two days.

It was Michael who Lisa Webster called that morning. She was crying and screaming into the phone. At first the twins, who were heading to class, thought she was playing a joke. Lisa Webster often did such things, making weeping phone calls to her sons, making them believe something horrible had happened until bursting into laughter. Ha. Ha. Gotcha. Only this time she didn't laugh. They raced to Lakeland.

As Robert Webster lay in his hospital bed a pall did indeed descend over the Florida Gators. Coach Urban Meyer, defensive coordinator Charlie Strong and offensive line coach Steve Addazio flew down to check on the family. When Webster finally awoke on the Wednesday before the Florida State game, his boys looked down, terrified.

"I'm glad you came," their father said. "You have a team to go play. Y'all got a game to play this weekend."

And with that, the Pouncey twins were sent back to Gainesville to prepare for Florida State. Three days later, Florida beat Florida State as Webster watched from the hospital. Meyer had old-fashioned sweatbands specially made with the initials "RW" printed on the front. A little more than a month later, Webster was in Miami where the Gators won the national title he always dreamed for his boys.

"They knew I was a warrior and a soldier," Webster says. "And they knew I wouldn't let something like this stop me."

Then when the twins returned home for the summer, Webster was waiting, hobbling around on his prosthesis, demanding they line up as offensive linemen as he pass-rushed them.

"He moves around like a normal person," Maurkice says, wonder in his voice. "This person had the courage. I don't know if I lost a leg …"

Maurkice lets the thought hand in the air for a moment.

"I don't know how I'd do."

Going their separate ways

In some ways it was the income lost when their father could no longer work a full shift at the feed plant that drove Maurkice to turn pro. "He was the breadwinner in our house," Maurkice says. "To go from making all that money to working just four hours a day, that's no money."

But it was something more that drove the brothers to finally break apart. When they made inquiries about their draft status, Maurkice was told he would probably go in the first round; Michael was likely a second-round choice. One big difference, though, they were told: Maurkice offered a little more versatility to pro teams having been a center in college, a more demanding position given the blocking calls the center has to make in games. Michael had played only guard.

They took these reports home after Florida's season ended and discussed the future that was rapidly approaching. Maurkice wanted to go pro but he wanted Michael to leave with him. Finally there came a moment neither looked forward to: a last talk where Maurkice made his plea to Michael to leave for the draft.

Michael shook his head. No, he said. He was staying in school. He wanted to play center. He wanted the pros to think of him as versatile, too. He wanted to be a first-round draft pick himself.

"I think he was mad," Michael says of his brother. "But he eventually got over it."

Since joining the Steelers, Maurkice has amazed the team with how quickly he learns. He had habits no rookies possessed. "You see a lot of athletes come into the league but his knowledge and wherewithal at the center position is just amazing," guard Trai Essex(notes) says. "It's the hardest position to learn. He's just a natural."

Maurkice, pictured at the NFL scouting combine, was the 18th pick in the first round of the draft.
(Darron Cummings/AP Photo)

Every Tuesday, the players' day off in the NFL, Maurkice still shows up at the Steelers headquarters. He wasn't ordered to do this – teams cannot make such demands of their players – but he wants to watch film he tells Kugler. He wants to understand the defense they are going to face. This was something he and Michael used to do at Florida, demanding that the other offensive linemen show up for extra film study after NCAA rules said coaches could no longer run the sessions.

"The other guys [at Florida] ain't going to go against us," Maurkice says.

Where did this come from? Kugler wonders. Coaches love nothing more than a player who seems to learn from his mistakes, understanding what he did wrong and correcting the problem so it doesn't happen again. Maurkice always fixes his mistakes, never repeating them.

"He's special," Kugler says.

Little could they know about Robert Webster and his dream for his sons and how he taught them to push hard to be great.

Back in Gainesville Michael waits. He knows the better Maurkice plays, the greater the opportunity exists for him to be chosen high in next year's draft. Michael just hopes to have a smoother ride before and after the draft process than his twin.

During the summer, allegations were reported that Maurkice took $100,000 from an agent before Florida played in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. Maurkice denied the allegations and reportedly provided financial evidence to prove he never took the money. Robert Webster also says Maurkice took nothing and said of the whole ordeal. "I would just say to anyone who has a kid [who plays football] in college and one of these agent's runners comes up to just stay away from them."

Now that Florida's regular season is over and practice is on hold until closer to the Gators' bowl game, Maurkice has been calling Michael. "When are you coming up?" he asks. Michael sighs. He desperately wants to be with his brother again. Both harbor a dream that the Steelers will land Michael, yet they realize this is a fantasy, that next spring's draft day will send Michael elsewhere and The Pouncey Twins will be apart again.

Still they will have that night where once again everyone will gather in Lakeland to watch the draft and wait for the call – this time for Michael. And when it comes Lisa will jump and hug her son and then Michael will turn to Maurkice.

"And I tell you what," Michael says, "We won't be kissing this year."