Two immediate thoughts on the news Thursday that Joey Porter is coming back to retire as a Steeler:
One, what’s the hurry? Kordell Stewart waited seven years after he played his final NFL game to retire at the Steelers’ South Side headquarters.
And two, Porter had some career here. I know for a fact he wasn’t the most outrageous character in Steelers history. Ernie Holmes has the edge on him there in my mind. But I’m not sure the franchise has had a player with a kinder heart or who was a better teammate.
Ask Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
Late in the 2005 season, Porter came up with a unique way to honor LeBeau, maybe the most revered coach in sports. He and 26 defensive teammates paid $300 each for a retro No. 44 LeBeau jersey from LeBeau’s playing days with the Detroit Lions. They hung the jerseys in their lockers before the team played the Lions later that day.
LeBeau cried when he walked into the locker room, saw all those 44s and saw the players standing and cheering. “A major, major event in my life,” he called it.
Ask former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis about Porter.
Before Super Bowl XL, Porter cleared it with coach Bill Cowher for Bettis to run on the field ahead of the other Steelers. The game was in Detroit, Bettis’ hometown. “I wanted the cameras to shine on Jerome alone,” Porter said. Look at the pregame tape. You can see Porter holding everybody back. The players were dying to get out there, but he wouldn’t let them go.
Bettis would have cried if it weren’t the biggest game of his life.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a greater tribute in sports.
I’ll remember that more than the macho image Porter loved to cultivate, more than the way he would prowl at midfield before each game, helmet off, wearing a black beanie and eye black, his massive tattooed forearms and flat stomach exposed for all on the other team to see. No one worked an opponent harder, looking for a mental edge. “Joey will talk about your mother,” Steelers teammate Larry Foote once said. It only worked for Porter because he backed up the big talk with a mean game. Sports Illustrated put him on its cover in 2006 and called him the NFL’s “most feared player.” He had 60 sacks in eight seasons with the Steelers.
Porter called out Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts and said they were soft before a playoff game after the 2005 season, then had two late sacks against them in the Steelers’ 21-18 win. He verbally jumped all over Seattle Seahawks tight end Jerramy Stevens before Super Bowl XL for disrespecting Bettis. Stevens was annoyed and dropped three passes in the Steelers’ 21-10 win.
Bettis was the team’s unquestioned leader during that era, but Porter provided the emotional energy. The other players called him “J-Peezy,” loved him, followed him, took strength from him. They reveled in his passion, not just during games but after wins when he would lead their “Who ride? We ride!” chant that would nearly bring down the locker room walls.
The only time I ever knew Porter to run from his words was when he joked about the Steelers’ visit to the White House in 2006. “Yeah, I’ve got something to say to Bush,” he said. “I don’t like the way things are running now.” His comments were portrayed accurately — they were made in a joking fashion — but he threw a fit when the stories came out. He made matters worse by wearing sunglasses indoors at the White House, disrespecting the office of the president if not President George W. Bush.
That wasn’t the only time Porter stepped over the line. Did I mention he could be outrageous? He used a homophobic word to describe Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. He was ejected before a game in Cleveland for fighting with Browns running back William Green, who apparently didn’t like Porter’s comments about his mom. He went to the Baltimore Ravens bus after a game, looking to fight Ray Lewis after he felt Lewis was mocking his minor injuries from a shooting incident in which he was an innocent bystander.
Porter never was one to allow his kindness toward his coaches and teammates to be misinterpreted as weakness by opponents.
The Steelers released Porter after the 2006 season because they no longer felt he was worth a $5 million salary. Porter got a measure of satisfaction in the ’08 season when he had 17 1/2 sacks with the Miami Dolphins. He spent the past two seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.
Porter told NFL.com he will sign a one-day contract with the Steelers and retire after a 13-year career that included four Pro Bowls.
What fun it was being along for the journey.