Brett Keisel is Here to Help

The intimidating rock of the Steelers defense discusses football, family and, of course, Da Beard.




Photos by Laura Petrilla
 

 

On a hazy July morning  in Latrobe, Pa., a black-and-yellow dump truck rumbles down the street and onto the campus of Saint Vincent College. In a line of tricked-out pickups and Cadillacs, the piece of heavy machinery stands out — but not as much as its equally intimidating driver, a bearded giant sporting a hard hat painted to match the truck.

The Hydrema brand machine winds down the narrow streets, bound for dorm rooms that teem with Pittsburgh Steelers each summer. The campus is always at its busiest during training camp, but even amid a flurry of activity, the truck turns heads. As it approaches Rooney Hall, it begins to pick up followers, who jog in its wake until it comes to a noisy stop. The mechanical arms behind the cab lurch to life, depositing a large piece of luggage onto the grass.

Into a vortex of amused reporters, Brett Keisel climbs out of his vehicle and launches into an impromptu press conference. He explains that the truck is somewhat of a visual metaphor for the work to be done.

“We’re constructing our team. We’re excited about this year,” Keisel tells the group, knowing that roster changes and a mediocre 2012 season have left the media and some fans skeptical. “I think everyone’s written us off, but we feel like we can construct a championship team. And that’s why I brought the big bad boy here today.”



 

Arrival day at Saint Vincent College, training camp home of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1966, always features a parade of impressive cars, trucks and SUVs. But Brett Keisel is pretty sure no one has ever rolled up in a dump truck — or a tractor, as he did in 2012, or a Kubota rough-terrain vehicle, as he did in 2011. It’s different. It’s an attention-getter.

That’s what Keisel is going for. It’s what the Steelers need from him.

People on social media got in touch with me months before training camp — like, ‘What are you going to come to camp in this year?’ I have levels of expectation now,” Keisel explains. Clearly, it’s a show for fans and the media; it’s not just to make his fellow Steelers chuckle (“They wish their rides were as cool as mine”), and it’s not about self-promotion.

When Keisel, 35, pulls off this kind of stunt, it’s never about building a personal brand. Over his 12 years in the league, he’s emerged as a player who puts himself forward — in the locker room, at events, to the media — in service of a greater goal. Why put himself out there at all? No one demanded this of him; no one insisted that he be a beast on the field, a jester in front of crowds and a saint for a good cause. He’s put that together himself, piece by piece. Even as Steelers fans and Keisel’s teammates have traced that development, though, he hasn’t necessarily stopped to explain: Here’s why I’m doing this.

He’s not the kind of guy to talk about himself unsolicited.

If he has assumed the role of the proverbial locker-room leader during a season that by its midpoint would contain a slew of losses and frustrations for the Steelers, it’s because — on some unspoken level — the team wants him there. He never pictured himself as the star that he is today.

The 35-year-old defensive end, through his career, has worn only black and gold, having been drafted with the Steelers’ final pick — seventh round, 242nd overall — in 2002; that makes him one of seven remaining Steelers who played in all three of the team’s recent Super Bowl appearances. The Steelers’ defense has seen plenty of turnover since the last time the team played for a championship — and even more this season.

“We lost guys [who] were great leaders for this team,” Keisel says. “Guys I looked up to. Guys I followed.” The changing of the guard in the Steelers locker room has been well-documented, as retirement, injury and free agency have pushed Keisel into that leadership role this year. It’s a job he’s embraced, if quietly, in his second year as defensive captain; the other defensive captain this season is the Steelers’ other active 12-year veteran, Ryan Clark.

“I wanted to do the same things I’ve always done, as far as encouraging players,” Keisel says. “If you tell them they need to do this or do that, and then you go out and get beat, it’s irrelevant.”

Former Steelers guard and current team sideline reporter Craig Wolfley is quick to affirm Keisel’s status. “He’s the commander of the defense,” Wolfley says. “He’s the guy who has been there, done that — and done so at such a high level that he has carte blanche to lead.”

To Keisel, the message he needs to convey is essential. “I want them to know that I care about this team and I care about winning,” he says.

That’s evident to anyone who has watched him go through a post-loss interview — and this season, there have been too many of those as the defense and the entire team have struggled.

“It’s been frustrating, it really has,” he says. “Especially with as successful as we’ve been [in past years]. Going from the top toward the bottom is a dramatic change.”

So when a microphone appears in Keisel’s face after a losing effort, he doesn’t glumly deliver tomorrow-is-another-day aphorisms; his frustration and disappointment are unfiltered. This is not a player who’s simply happy to get paid, win or lose.

But how do you reconcile that intensity — that dedication and devotion to the game — with the dump trucks and tractors?

Or, for that matter, with the outlandish facial hair that’s developed a fan base of its own?



 

 

It’s midway through the 2010 season, and the expansion of Brett Keisel’s beard is approaching Biblical proportions. Inspired by playoff beards displayed by the Pittsburgh Penguins en route to the 2009 Stanley Cup, Keisel has decided to let his facial hair grow free. If the Steelers lose a few, he’ll shave in a heartbeat — but they haven’t lost a few. They’re winning, and it’s starting to seem like they could make a run.

Nevertheless, it’s a strange sight, this giant with the beard of an 1800s gold rusher. As Keisel walks down the hallway at the Steelers facility on the South Side, he sees the diminutive frame of Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney approaching. The then-U.S. ambassador is back from his post in Ireland for a few days, and right now, he’s staring at the beard.

After a moment, Rooney speaks. “I don’t understand what you’re doing,” he says, eyeing the tangled mass.

“Mr. Rooney, I don’t want the Steelers to look down on me,” Keisel replies, caught off guard by the ambassador’s opening statement. “Or you, especially. If you don’t like this thing, I’ll go in the locker room right now and cut it off.”

Rooney pauses, evaluating Keisel. “No, you keep it,” he finally says.

“I’m just going to start calling you Santa Claus.”

With that, Rooney walks away. For the remainder of the season, whenever the chairman appears on the South Side or at Heinz Field and spots Brett Keisel, he yells, “How ya doin’, Santa?”



 

 

“I just wanted to do something different,” Keisel says. “I watched our hockey team go through the playoffs, and they grew these giant beards. I couldn’t remember a football player with a giant beard, so I decided to try it.”

“Da Beard,” as it has come to be called, is now a star of its own. It’s on T-shirts. Fans cheer for it at games. It has been touched by thousands of curious young Steelers fans. It has its own theme song, thanks to Randy Baumann, host of the “DVE Morning Show” on WDVE-FM.

And when it’s time for a trim, hundreds turn out.

“I wanted to do something for our fans,” Keisel says. “Something that Pittsburghers could be proud of and enjoy,” regardless of the outcome of Super Bowl XLV — which served as the beard’s national coming-out party.

“The beard had become a big media magnet,” says Baumann, who was with the WDVE team at the Super Bowl that year. “It had taken on a life of its own — [so] the Steelers let me know that Brett didn’t want to waste an opportunity to get more good out of the beard.”

Baumann, Keisel and Steelers Community Relations Manager Michele Rosenthal tossed around ideas for a beard-focused charity event to be held after the Super Bowl. “They settled on having his teammates shear it off; Steelers fans could pay to see him shave,” Baumann says. “Which is a uniquely Pittsburgh thing — paying to see a person shave.”

In front of a crowd at Diesel Club Lounge on the South Side, Keisel’s teammates took turns snipping. Hines Ward, Aaron Smith — even Art Rooney II grabbed the clippers.

The beneficiary of all three Shear Da Beard events (held in 2011 and 2012 at Diesel and in 2013 at Jergel’s Rhythm Grille in Warrendale) has been the oncology department at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Over three years, the shavings have raised approximately $120,000.

“Brett and his wife Sarah — who is very key as well — are some of the best friends that Children’s Hospital has,” says Children’s President Christopher A. Gessner. “We have many, but they stand out.”

The Keisels’ relationship with the hospital has grown and expanded well beyond the Shear Da Beard events. “[They] are involved with other charities [that benefit children]; it is a real passion for both of them,” Gessner says. “As he’s gotten to know Children’s Hospital, he sees more and more opportunities where philanthropy and fundraising can make that difference for kids.

“We have many, many athletes [who] come and visit, and we’re very appreciative of their time. But [there are] not too many [who] actively look for ways to help us benefit children. I’ve been here for 12 years, and he certainly stands out as that kind of very special person [who] actually generates the ideas for us.”

The Keisels are on the board of advisors for the Homeless Children’s Education Fund and have worked with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Advocating for children in bad situations is the connection between much of the couple’s charity work.

“Because I’m a child, really,” Keisel says. “I’m a big kid. I’ve always loved being around children. There’s something so sweet and exuberant [about children] that fills me with joy.”

The source of his dedication to these causes — and to Children’s in particular — goes beyond that explanation. As have many Pittsburgh parents, Keisel has put his family’s health in the hands of that facility. On that trip to Children’s five years ago, he wasn’t the only Steelers star in the building.

Brett Keisel is standing in the lobby of Children’s Hospital with Aaron Smith.

It’s autumn 2008. Smith’s son, Elijah, has been diagnosed with leukemia. Smith has been missing from team activities and practices for a few days. His first absence is noticed immediately; Smith is always first to arrive and last to leave. When Keisel walks into the locker room and doesn’t see Smith, he asks a trainer where the big man is.

The reply is simple: “He’s going through some family things.” The scope of the problem is revealed a few days later, and it hits Keisel hard. Smith is a friend, a mentor, and Keisel is worried about him.

Then a staffer approaches Keisel on the practice field, delivering a troublingly vague command — come to the phone. Your wife needs you.

“Meet me at Children’s Hospital,” Sarah says. “Jacob is going in there.” Their first-born son, still an infant, has a kidney infection. Keisel rushes to Oakland. After a few hours, Jacob is recovering; Children’s has treated the patient and calmed the parents.

That’s when Keisel heads for the front door to find some food — and runs into Smith. Keisel is stunned by the terror in the eyes of the man he has described as his hero. As the men stand in the lobby, words don’t come.

Keisel knows that Smith’s family is going through a trial that dwarfs his own. After a torturous pause, Smith is the one to speak. “I believe things happen for a reason. And I believe that Elijah is going to beat this.”



 

 

Elijah did recover. After going through his own experience at the hospital and watching its staff save his mentor’s son, Keisel resolved to help the facility any way he could.

“It’s hard for me to describe how I feel about it. Unless you’re really in those situations, you don’t know what those kids — or those family members — are going through,” he says. “To be able to go in there and maybe take their mind off of it for a short time ... that’s really all I’m trying to do. Trying to make them think about something else — even if it’s a big, bushy-bearded mountain man dancing around or acting silly. Just to have them feel a little bit of normalcy for a minute.”

Additional fundraisers have spun off from the Shear Da Beard events. Da Beard Campaign, in partnership with Northwest Savings Bank, raised another $35,000. Four Children’s patients joined Keisel and contest winners on the Fishing With Brett outing. Keisel’s devotion to the hospital isn’t only evident in public; he also stops by to visit patients and parents with no fanfare and no press.

“Last year, I went down there [and] ran into a family that had twin daughters. Both had leukemia. The parents couldn’t go back and forth — one of them had to stay with one daughter, and the other had to stay with the other. They hadn’t seen each other in weeks.” Telling the story, Keisel chokes up. “That was hard. Being a parent, I can’t imagine going through that. I feel very lucky that they have a place to go like Children’s Hospital that can take care of them and give them everything they need.”

Keisel also visits children in the shelters and facilities supported by the Homeless Children’s Education Fund. “Children who are experiencing homelessness have gone through a lot of trauma and a lot of stress in their lives,” says Bill Wolfe, the fund’s executive director. “Many have grown up in generational poverty, which has resulted in homelessness. A positive adult role model that comes into their lives — even if it’s for a short time — has a tremendous impact. It pumps these kids up; it makes them feel special. And they don’t have a chance to feel special very often.”

The Keisels began their involvement with HCEF in 2002, soon after Brett’s arrival in Pittsburgh. Through that time, Wolfe has seen Keisel grow into the personality that the city has embraced.

“I could tell from the very beginning that both he and Sarah are very passionate people,” Wolfe says. “They care about people who are less fortunate. As far as the showman in him, I think that’s something that has evolved over the last 10 years. I think it has grown as his confidence as a player has grown; I also think it has grown from his being exposed to organizations like HCEF and the meetings we’ve asked him to attend and the other charities he’s involved in.”

Wolfe says that during their first meeting, Keisel insisted that his wife handle the public speaking; in 2002, he wasn’t comfortable in front of a crowd. To say that picture is markedly different from the Brett Keisel fans know today is an understatement.

“I enjoy getting up and talking in front of people, making people laugh,” he says. “But at the same time directing a message that I want to get across to the audience.” It wasn’t all humility that had him put Sarah’s name first, though. “Sometimes I get most of the credit for some of these things, but a lot of it [is] hers. She keeps me grounded. She’s making sure that my head doesn’t get bigger than it should.”

It seems that the disparate elements of Brett Keisel’s personality share one basic premise: that he can help. If he’s a stone-faced monster on the football field, that can help inspire his teammates. If he’s riding a dump truck to Saint Vincent College or letting his beard turn into a tangled thicket of fur, that can rally Steelers Nation — and eventually, do some good for children in need. If he’s quietly making unannounced visits with kids who need a break from reality, that can help a family make it to the next day. The actions change; the motivation does not.

So who’s at the core? Of all the different versions of Brett Keisel that the public sees, who’s left when Keisel is alone?

“It’s probably my family side,” Keisel says. “That’s what I think about the most. How lucky I am to have a great wife, how lucky I am to have three healthy, beautiful children.

“Taking everything away, that’s what I’m most proud of.”

 

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