PITTSBURGH — The gospel song reverberated through the corner of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ locker room on Thursday as over a dozen reporters hovered around Antonio Brown’s stall, waiting for arguably the most talented — and taxing — Steeler to speak after another drama-filled week in the Steel City.
Kirk Franklin and God’s Property blared from a Bluetooth speaker near Brown’s locker.
“It’s overrrrrrrrrrr now … it’s overrrrrrrrrr now, I feel like I can make it, the storm is over nowwwwwww.”
The turbulence didn’t end for Brown, who was in the midst of one of the most tumultuous weeks of his career. But in a bit of religious symmetry, the sea of reporters did split once Brown emerged from around the corner. He was accompanied by a well-suited Steelers PR man, and slowly walked to his locker to begin the most interesting, and perhaps most contentious, interview of the week.
It began with a basic question about why Brown missed work Monday following the Steelers’ 42-37 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs the previous day.
“Personal reasons,” Brown said, voice deep and low. “Obviously, the coach [Mike Tomlin] knew where I was at. We talked.”
As an outsider and someone who has covered the NFL for six years in another market, it was a fascinating 10-minute observation. Reporters did their jobs, asking Brown the tough questions, while Brown did his, answering and showing contrition when necessary — he admitted his “trade me and find out” tweet on Monday was a “stupid remark” — while simultaneously being defensive and combative in spots.
Take, for instance, when someone asked Brown if he expects to start the Steelers’ Monday night game against the Buccaneers after his issues this week.
“Why wouldn’t I be,” Brown scoffed. “You guys don’t want to see me in my jersey.”
Then, to a question about whether he misses former offensive coordinator Todd Haley:
“You want me to give you another story,” he said.
And finally, to a question about where he feels any physical limitations due to injuries:
“What do you want me to say? You don’t care about my problems man, you’re probably glad I got them,” Brown said. “What do you want me to tell you? You don’t care about my problems, you just care about the winning.”
Antonio Brown vs. the media
By the time it was over, it wasn’t surprising that Brown’s major message — that he really, really cares about being great and winning football games, and gets really pissed off when either doesn’t happen — got lost. This was a player who had, rightly or wrongly, soured on the media and felt misunderstood and judged, and that permeated every response he gave.
Brown doesn’t understand that by acting this way, he’s making things only harder on himself. Reporters have jobs to do, too — which is to ask the tough question that fans can’t — and when a player is difficult, it only brings more drama that sometimes overshadows a player’s positive traits.
Take Brown’s answer when asked if he considers himself to be a leader on the Steelers, which was essentially ignored.
“Absolutely,” Brown said, passionately. “I lead by example. You guys can make a statement every day that I’m a diva, but you can ask these guys, I put my heart on the line every day because I’m out there giving 100 percent effort.”
And if you actually ask his teammates from that perspective — when it comes to work ethic and passion — they agree. Veteran cornerback Joe Haden, who sits only a few stalls away from Brown, made that much clear a few hours later.
“The thing I want people to know is that he loves this game and he puts his all into it during the season, as far as nutrition, having a personal trainer, having a chef, a chiropractor, just everything,” Haden said. “He’s always working on his body and making sure he’s always ready to go … so when he feels like everybody else isn’t trying to work for it [the same way], he’s going to be mad about it because of how invested he is.”
You know who else understands that? Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, the man CBS cameras caught Brown gesturing at emphatically on the sideline during the Chiefs loss, which became another flash point this week.
Randy Fichtner defends A.B.
During his weekly session with the media Thursday, Fichtner pooh-poohed the exchange as anything of consequence. When I spoke to him afterward to the side, he just chuckled, insisting whatever Brown said to him had little to do with him needing more passes thrown his way. Many assumed that’s what Brown was doing, though he leads the league in targets with 33, was targeted 17 times in the game and finished the contest with nine catches for 67 yards.
“I’m kind of dumbfounded, a little bit, about this,” Fichtner said. “What made this a big deal, I don’t know. It’s a nice story. It may be because we didn’t win the game.
“It’s funny because, just in recollect, I know most of that communication is probably generated toward what we were going to do when we got the ball back. There wasn’t going to be a whole lot of time.”
Then Fichtner, a genial 54-year-old who you could easily see as a doting grandfather with a knack for dad jokes, turned serious.
“If I would have thought there was disrespect on my part, his part, any of the other players toward him or him toward any player or coach, I promise you there would be an issue,” Fichtner said. “But it’s not an issue.”
Instead, Fichtner was glad that Brown was fired up and dialed in. The two go back a long way, as Fichtner, when he was the Steelers’ receivers coach, was the team’s representative at Brown’s Central Michigan pro day in 2010, when Pittsburgh selected Brown in the fifth round.
“I have a great relationship with Randy — Randy’s the reason I’m here,” Brown explained. “So when you see me out here talking, it’s because we have that kind of respect for each other that I can talk to him like that. We know each other on that type of level, it’s no disrespect.”
Fichtner agreed, noting that Brown’s competitiveness has made him great, and he has no plans to get him to dial it back.
“Make no mistake, the thing that separates the National Football League from college is because they are the most competitive, and they have that edge,” Fichtner said. “So what am I supposed to say? ‘A.B., don’t have that edge’? He needs that edge.”
Just like another Steelers great that Fichtner coached, Hines Ward, did.
“You know the thing that motivated him every day? [They] didn’t draft [him] until the third round,” Fichtner said. “And it pissed him off.”
So much so that, on Ward’s desk in the receivers meeting room, he kept a list of every player that was taken ahead of him in the 1998 draft, crossing every name off until he was the last one standing.
“You know how many players are still in the league that were drafted ahead of me?” Ward used to say with glee during the twilight of his career. “None.”
That’s when Fichtner learned that you must never take away the passion in a great player, because often, that’s the very thing that makes him great. For the distraction it has been this week, Brown’s intense desire to be elite reflects itself in positive ways on a daily basis, starting with the workload he carries in practice, when no one runs harder or runs more, and the Steelers have the technology to prove it.
“Just look at the GPS daily, just see how far he goes,” Fichtner said. “There’s days where, mid-practice, you’ve almost got to back him down. He’s a constant worker, as hard a working guy as there is in this league, so if you’re gonna work like that in practice — and he does it day in and day out — we’ve gotten to the point where, it’s OK man, you’re in year nine or 10, back down a little bit. And he doesn’t like it.”
Hines Ward serves as a model
To Fichtner, the events of the past week should serve as teaching points for Brown, who, just like Ward, will always have to keep himself from being so consumed by the desire to be great.
“When you get consumed with it, and you allowed it to consume you, it will affect your play,” Fichtner said.
So, as he did during Sunday’s game, Fichtner will often take a quiet moment to bring the hyper-competitive Brown back to the light. He’s not above using Ward as an example either, since Brown sees Ward — a former teammate — as a mentor and friend.
“I used to nudge him in the back and say ‘Remember A.B.,’ and I’d give him a little story about Hines,” Fichtner said with a sly smile.
As long as he and Brown have that type of relationship, Fichtner won’t be too worried about Brown’s emotions on the sideline. In fact, he won’t start worrying unless Brown loses that edge.
“It’s not the first time Antonio [has done that], and it’s not the last,” Fichtner said. “And you know what? I’ll be disappointed in Antonio this week if he’s quiet as a church mouse sitting on [the bench]. In between series, I’ll be like, ‘Come on, A.B. Bring some juice now, let’s go.’”
In the midst of the storm, Fichtner is sticking with his guy. And as a plethora of other controversies revolve around the Steelers — ranging from Le’Veon Bell’s holdout to Big Ben’s encounter with Stormy Daniels — Fichtner, who has been with the Steelers since 2007, knows the cure for it all as the Steelers head into undefeated Tampa Bay with an 0-1-1 record.
“[It’s] nothing that winning football [can’t cure],” Fichtner said with a laugh. “You talk about Steeler culture? It’s based on winning … if this is adversity in this league, there’s no wonder the Steelers have been so successful over time. Because we just lost one game, and ain’t nobody happy with it, not anyone in the building, and that’s the best part. That’s the best part.”
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