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The Last Badass
Vince Williams is the latest, greatest Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker. He knows the tradition, he knows the stakes and he is changing for no one.
He was only a rookie. A nobody. A 206th overall pick.
And yet, the feeling was intoxicating.
Right there, was the “Linebacker Wall” inside the Pittsburgh Steelers’ facility. Right there, were the legends that defined the sport itself. So, right then, Vince Williams told himself: I’m going to be one of those guys.
“I don’t give a f--- what I have to do,” Williams recalls saying. “I’m going to get on this wall. I’ve got to get on this wall. This wall is full of badasses! Not just good linebackers.
It’s true, he was born to grace that wall. From Polk County to Tallahassee to Pittsburgh, this is Williams’ destiny.
He is Pittsburgh personified. Never fast, never athletic, never gifted, he earned every inch in life and, now, simply beats the piss out of opponents. Exactly like those badasses who preceded him. Jack Lambert. Greg Lloyd. Joey Porter. He studies them all on film. That old SI cover of Porter — where Porter is anointed the “most feared player in the NFL” with shoulder pads over a bare torso — was perched on his own bedroom wall in high school. “That’s me,” Williams told himself then. “I want to be like that.” And the cover stayed there. For years. He only had his Mom take it down when Porter became his coach a decade later.
There’s a snarl to this man you do not see in athletes today. Approach Williams in the locker room and part of you feels like you better do it slowly. You’re a tinge… afraid. His eyes? Piercing. When he stares you down, it’s never awkward for him. Only you. His rhetoric? Knifing. That’s just his authentic self — intense, honest, always. He cannot wait to talk on the phone this day late in the season, too. The Steelers have another title contender and he’s a major reason why.
He puts it this way: When his three boys hang out with their friends, he wants those friends connecting the dots on who he is and shouting, suddenly, ‘Your Dad is a badass!”
The Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker has been synonymous with the sport itself for half a century so, to this day, Williams looks up at that wall and tells himself aloud, “Keep moving that direction.”
One minor problem: His species is dying off.
He sees the general fan now fantasizing over things that make him gag like athleticism and talent — not raw “toughness” — when toughness is what made him fall in love with football to begin with. That… that… “roughness.” That cold reality that only the toughest percentile of humans alive played football. We all faced a moment of truth in Pop Warner, the first day of hitting drills. You knew, instantly, if football was for you. If not? Fine. You could play soccer. You could avoid three months of bruises. Each level of football weeded out more people, too, from Pop Warner to JV to Varsity to college to the pros to, the absolute zenith of toughness in America, being a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now, as Williams puts, this is not the case. Now, you could be one of the softest humans on the planet but if you run a 4.3? Come this way! There’s an NFL contract waiting for you.
His voice turns to disgust.
“You don’t need to be a tough guy to play football!”
Entertainment value is one reason. He concedes that nobody wants to see a 14-10 game. Nobody wants to see a running back carry the ball 30 times at three yards a pop. He knows fans have fantasy football lineups to set and lines to gamble on and would all much rather watch their favorite quarterbacks throw “for 777 yards.” Unfettered, too. All QBs shall not be breathed upon and all receivers shall prance freely across the middle. The league points to safety as end-all, be-all justification but, no, Williams isn’t buying it. He’s positive players would rather get hit high than low, so save him the poll-tested talking points.
He even sees this effect at home. His boys just started playing tackle football and let’s just say the other parents are not thrilled with Williams.
“I tell my sons to attack people,” Williams says. “And parents hear the word “attack” and go ‘You want your son to attack my child!?’ I’m like, ‘You’re damn right! If your child has a football in his hands, I want my son to attack him!’ I said that the correct way. It’s football. Don’t run the football if you don’t understand that people are going to be hunting you and attacking you and trying to get it from you. That’s just what it is. I don’t know how you explain it. I feel like it’s no different than MMA. How do you make MMA safe? You can’t do it!”
It’s bigger than football to him. It’s cultural.
“We’re changing. We’re not as barbaric,” he says. “We used to be really rough and tumble people. We’re not that way anymore. Society has just gotten softer.”
But not him. Never him.
Williams isn’t going to let anything stop him. He missed two games due to Covid-19 and still had a career year with 70 tackles, including 14 for loss. He’s the heartbeat of a franchise that raced to an 11-0 start, wobbled when Williams got the virus and his lungs felt like he “smoked 8 packs of Newports 3 Black and Milds and a Russian Cream,” and is now thinking Super Bowl again.
He’s dying to win his first Super Bowl and, yes, the plan is for his name to be remembered alongside all the greats because, here, the essence of the sport lives on. Here, nobody’s surrendering to a soft, sensitive, offended-by-every-third-tweet society. Here, the blood ‘n guts of the sport are preserved. There’s never been a specimen in sports like this. Year to year. Decade to decade. Era to era. The Steelers Linebacker remains one beautifully ruthless constant. Your dads and grandads don’t need to mythologize about this legend over a glass of whiskey at the fireplace the way they would Mickey Mantle’s Yankees or Bill Russell’s Celtics or Vince Lombardi’s Packers or the Showtime Lakers.
We can still see this today, with our own eyeballs, because the torch is passed generation to generation.
Every ‘backer has a moment like Williams did looking up at that wall — Levon Kirkland meeting Jack Lambert and Jack Ham, Chad Brown in awe watching Hall of Fame speeches, Porter devouring every Kirkland story imaginable.
So, the sport will never soften in Pittsburgh. Williams won’t allow it. Williams is on the front lines fighting for football’s soul and, along the way, the Steelers just may bludgeon their way to a seventh Super Bowl title.
He knows what’s at stake.
He isn’t changing for anybody.
He repeats what his linebacker forefathers told him.
“I’m going to hit people as hard as I can,” Williams says, “and I’m going to try to rip their faces off and intimidate them. That’s how I’m going to play because that’s how the people who came before me played. That’s what Steeler football is.”
One broken wrist. One airborne helmet.
One common denominator: Greg Lloyd.
This is the best place to start.
In 1992, there was a rookie named Levon Kirkland and, damn, his wrist hurt. Kirkland was a nobody then. A backup. And one winter practice — during the Steelers’ playoff bye week — he complained about that wrist out loud. It had bothered him all year and, this day, was really throbbing. Lloyd heard him and Lloyd smelled blood. “Let me see it,” the vet said. A naïve Kirkland held out his wrist and Lloyd, a third-degree black belt, karate-chopped that wrist as hard as he possibly could.
“I was like ‘What the hell?’” Kirkland says.
The wrist now felt like it was sliced cleanly off. Kirkland didn’t retaliate, instead simply telling the team’s trainer, John Norwig, that he just broke his wrist. He didn’t say how. He didn’t dare bring up Lloyd’s name. (That’d obviously get him killed.) And Norwig’s reaction? Nothing. He told Kirkland to finish practice and that they’d have it X-Rayed later. Such was life as a backup linebacker in Pittsburgh. You need to prove you belong.
Kirkland gritted through that practice, the scan revealed he broke the Scaphoid bone in his wrist and he had to wear a cast for what felt like “forever.” The bone never healed on its own so he needed surgery, too. A bone graft and a plastic screw were inserted into this wrist. To this day, that screw’s still in there as a friendly reminder.
Lloyd showed zero remorse then and Kirkland’s certain he never will.
No apology was requested. No apology was given.
In 1993, that next summer, there was a rookie named Chad Brown… and Lloyd smelled blood again. Two weeks into training camp, linebackers coach Marvin Lewis set up a drill in which Brown would spar with Lloyd. It was ultra-physical. One of those drills that weeds out the weak. And, looking back, Brown remembers being “sore” and “tired” and “feeling sorry for myself” so, just for a fleeting moment, he half-assed the drill.
“Greg just blasts me!” Brown says. “Knocks my helmet off. My chinstrap goes flying. The only thing left on my head is my mouthpiece in my mouth. I’m on the ground. And he leans over and points at me, ‘Hey f------ rookie! We come to practice every f------ day around here!’”
Brown picked up his helmet, his chinstrap and looked over to Lewis who gave him a look he’ll never forget.
A look that screamed: “If you can’t hang, get out of here.”
Says Brown: “So, OK! Thank you, Greg! Lesson learned.”
And that lesson was this: You do not become a linebacker on this team by chance. This is earned. Playing this position in this city means something more. Brown realized that much when Bill Cowher showed his rookie class video of those legends in the ‘70s giving their Hall of Fame speeches. He got goosebumps. The lights came on. One of those Hall-of-Famers walked through the door to give a speech in person and Brown remembers thinking, right then, that playing in the NFL was one thing but being a Steeler? “That is something special.”
Kirkland puts it best.
“I felt there was a duty for me to play well with the Pittsburgh Steelers,” he says. “Especially playing linebacker.
“I felt it was a calling.”
Quickly, both players earned their roles. With Kirkland and Brown inside and Lloyd and Kevin Greene outside, “Blitzburgh” took the NFL by storm. Never before had defenses camouflaged blitzes like this. Offenses never knew who was rushing, who was dropping and, over time, Dick LeBeau’s fire-zone concepts spread like wildfire throughout the NFL. Lloyd and Greene possessed the perfect temperaments to pick up where Lambert (who retired in 1985) and Ham (1984) had left off, too.
They took pride in sharpening the specimen that is the Steelers Linebacker.
The Steelers never dialed back the physical contact during the season. All 9-on-7 drills were vicious. As legend had it, Lloyd used to get pulled off the practice field in college at Fort Valley State so he wouldn’t injure his own teammates. He’d even pick fights with his girlfriend just to get angry for practice. The education never stopped after you proved yourself, either. When Lloyd and Greene saw Brown and Kirkland wearing long-sleeve shirts in the locker room before a bitter-cold game in ’93, they told them, together, “We don’t do that shit.”
Greene was a wild man in his own right but more so injected film study and technique into the equation.
Lloyd brought the “passion and fury,” Brown says, and that fury was contagious.
“I don’t think Greg was going out there looking to injure somebody,” Brown says, “but did he want to steal your soul? And make you not want to play football anymore? Of course he did. That’s the way I played the game. I wasn’t trying to blow your knee out but if I hit you so hard that you didn’t want to play anymore today, then that’s a win for me. And if all four of us can do that? At some point, you’re going to tap out. I don’t think — in my first four years in Pittsburgh — that Jim Kelly finished a game against us. We wanted him to tap out.”
He is not exaggerating.
These were actual conversations the Steelers linebackers had the night before games.
The Buffalo Bills were kings of the AFC and they wanted to knock their future Hall-of-Famers out.
“F--- yeah, we talked about that!” Brown says. “And it was usually Greg and Kevin. Greg talking about the mentality — ‘We’re going to force these bitches to tap out.’ He used some very apocalyptic type of language. And then there’s Kevin pointing out an offensive lineman’s weaknesses or tells and saying, ‘We’re going to use that to knock the snot out of Thurman’s nose.’”
Lloyd didn’t return messages for the story but when we spoke two years ago, holy, that apocalyptic tongue was sharp as ever. He remembered players vowing to destroy Don Beebe before one Bills game and doing exactly that. He remembered telling Thurman Thomas all game it was his job to babysit him for three hours. And if any of these 5-foot-8 slot receivers you see today talked smack to him on the field? “The next play they're pulling him off the field, onto the truck and he's never coming back.”
He likened football to the Marine Corps — “many are called but few are chosen.”
You’re going to break bones. Shed blood. But that’s the point. It’s not for everyone.
Especially in Pittsburgh.
“And if you don't want to do it," Lloyd said then, "get your ticket, go up in the stands or get the DirecTV and watch the games. Because it is supposed to be a violent game. There are supposed to be violent collisions going on out there. Now is the body supposed to take that? Absolutely not! That's why everybody likes it.
“That's what made you gladiators, man.”
Only an anemic passing game prevented those Steelers from running up Super Bowl titles.
Winning was nice but the primary objective was to punish.
Run an iso play at Kirkland and you will pay the price. That play was eliminated by the 270-pounder. Kirkland points to blasting fullback Howard Griffith (“I sat him down. He just fell in like a chair position”) and body-slamming Leroy Hoard (“I landed on top of him”) and walloping a Saints QB “square in the mouth.” This was a 270-pounder, mind you, who was a freak. He clocked in at 52 seconds in the 400-meter dash back in high school. He did the high jump, too.
Try sending a receiver on a shallow crosser and that’ll be your last attempt. Kirkland drilled anything in sight.
This all, to Kirkland, was the “Art of Defense.”
“We might lose the game but you know you’d been to a fight,” Kirkland says. “We had a bravado about us that we were some of the baddest boys around. We fed off each other. If you played us, you were in for the battle of your life.
“That shallow route? You could take his head off and it’d be perfectly OK. What you were doing by doing that, you were sending him a message — ‘If you’re coming across here, you’re going to get hammered.’ And back then you could hit a quarterback definitely later than you can now. You can send him a message: ‘We’re coming after you.’ You hit him one time like that? He’s going to be thinking about that the whole game. So we would send people messages — which I call the ‘Art of Defense.’ And defense is intimidating. So when you can do that and bang guys around and shove them around and be totally aggressive then they don’t want any part of that.”
The prototype was established. As Brown puts, there was no need to “reinvent the wheel.” Year after year, scouts knew precisely what they were looking for in this 3-4 scheme. And as Doug Whaley, one of those scouts, explained on the Go Long Podcast, this system is unbelievably complex. So even as Brown left to Seattle… and Lloyd and Greene departed… and Kirkland aged… the beat went on. The beat always goes on. A 73rd overall pick in ’99 named Joey Porter waited for his turn like Kirkland in ’92 and all traditions were passed down.
Like chewing snuff. Porter was told to stick a wad of Big Red in his lip every Friday, a ritual started by, you guessed it, Greg Lloyd.
So, he did. Everyone did.
Even though Friday was the day that ultra-complex gameplan was finalized.
Says Porter: “You might have never chewed in your life but you’re chewing and you better not mess up. And this is on a Friday. It’s the dot the i’s and cross the t’s day. You can’t mess up on Friday. And we’re all chewing Red on Fridays. Every day was built around some kind of toughness and never backing down. Like, ‘You can’t do that? Oh. You’re soft. You can’t chew that in practice? Everybody else is doing it!’ That type of thing. It’s just the way things were! When you want to fit in and it’s ‘Everybody get a piece of damn Red and put it in your mouth!’ It’s like a rookie hazing. What are you going to do? Not do it?”
Every practice through the early 2000s was just as volatile as those practices in the 1990s — Porter made sure of it.
Like Lloyd, he talked the talk.
“I always wanted to be the best,” Porter says. “If you know anything about me, I used to like to run my mouth. But I always prepared myself to back that up. I didn’t just go out there and just talk and say, ‘Hey, look at me!’ I meant what I said.”
Like Lloyd, he walked the walk. Porter made four Pro Bowls, won a Super Bowl and finished with 98 sacks and 25 forced fumbles in his career. Everyone underneath him took note. As Porter puts, “Shit, do you know how hard it is to be a starting linebacker?” He remembers James Harrison waiting four years to start. Because, here, you never compare yourself to linebackers on the other 31 teams — only the man in front of you. A brotherhood results. And you can always say anything to your brother, Porter adds, with no backlash. They’d berate each other. Push each other. Do everything it took to ensure the standard set by Lambert then and Lloyd then never, ever dipped.
As Porter points out, the Steelers’ front office always makes sure there’s at least one vet in that linebacker room to drive the message home.
“Everything changes,” he says, “but our defense hasn’t.”
Nothing else even comes close to the primitive culture here. Brown played eight seasons in Seattle, two in New England and, no, Mike Holmgren and Bill Belichick did not remotely resemble Cowher, a head coach who’d shout in a huddle, “Let’s go out there and punch ‘em in the mouth!” In Seattle, Holmgren was more about precision, about following Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense to a T. (“You see him with the little glasses on the sideline,” Brown says. “He’s very professorial. He was not preaching a physical mindset.”) In New England, Belichick was all about all 53 players understanding “situational football.”
And when Brown returned to Pittsburgh, in 2006, it felt like ‘93 all over again. Everyone was still talking about knocking guys out. Porter was the one dislodging helmets now but “the same aggressive, hardcore language” still fueled the position. It’s simple to Kirkland: That animal is inside us all. He believes everybody should find a way to let that animal out, too. Take a boxing lesson. Anything. Because this feeling is indescribable and nothing in life pulls the animal out of you like playing linebacker in this defense.
“When I put that helmet on,” Kirkland says, “it was an opportunity for me to unleash.”
Adds Brown, “Do the Moms of America love this language? Probably not. But this is the way the game is played. And at some point, you may not be faster or have a slicker offense or be able to run jet sweep, double-wide reverse, all this other stuff that people are running now. But every football player I’ve ever been around responds to getting punched in the mouth. So, if there is a way for us to ensure anything, let’s be the most physical team on the field.
“What can I do right now? I can go out there and knock the shit out of somebody.”
This job is as primitive as it gets.
Always will be, too.
Porter passed that torch to Harrison (and Lamar Woodley and Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons) who all then passed it to a kid named Vince Williams that was drafted in 2013.
Williams isn’t making any apologies, either.
Next in line
Four years ago, he announced his presence to the world. The “Tyreek Hill Game,” he calls it. No question, the spirit of Lloyd was flowing through this 6-foot-1, 233-pound menace wearing No. 98 on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ kickoff team that night.
The Steelers were playing at Arrowhead. There was 3:51 left in the first quarter of this AFC Divisional Playoff Game. And Vince Williams told special teams coordinator Danny Smith what would happen next.
“Kick the ball down the middle of the field and I’m going to hit him in his face as hard as I can.”
Thumping linebackers have zero business tagging who’s now arguably the most electric player in the game, but that’s precisely what Williams did. He smashed Hill. He set the bruising tone in that 18-16 win over the Chiefs. Williams’ stature as the next great Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker — another temperamental badass who steals your soul — is no accident.
Fine him all you want, Roger. He saves money for all collateral damage.
“I’m not going to change!” Williams says. “They’re going to kick me out of the league. I’m going to play and I’m going to hit people the way I want to play and how I desire to play — until I can’t, until they change the rules and just outlaw me. Because that’s who I am as a person and I’m not changing the way I play for anything.”
Honestly, all it would take is one of his cold stares for an official to tuck that flag back in his pants.
Start in Polk County, Fla. In Pop Warner. All of the local high school football players were his heroes. And the first coach he ever had — for the Haines City Rattlers — had a saying he’s lived by since: Hitting breeds hitting. That was how the game was meant to be played and every single kid here knew it. Which is how this tiny pocket of Florida produces the likes of Ray Lewis and the Pouncey twins and Derwin James. True “hardnosed, grimy… dogs,” Williams says.
This is where he learned the game. In this grime.
“Anybody can win off of tricking you,” Williams says. “That’s an easy way to win. Oh, you beat me off a play-action pop pass or something. Anybody can win that way! But do you really want it as bad as me? If I put a football out there and I told two people to go get it, who’s really going to bring that ball back?”
Those were the drills his life was built on. He remembers that same coach taking the hardest hitter on the team and pitting him up against the weaker hitter in drills to toughen that kid up. This way, by the time that eight-year-old is 14, he won’t be scared of anyone. When those teams lined up for sprints, if one person jumped early, everyone had to run extra — Williams loved how this built mental toughness. His best friends, to this day, were his teammates then.
Hell, he estimates he has maybe two friends, period, who never played football before.
Williams started lifting weights at an extremely young age and, as luck would have it when he was 15, several Steelers players trained at the same spot he did in Orlando with renowned trainer Tom Shaw. Vets like Bryant McFaddden, Ike Taylor, James Farrior and Will Gay.
Says Williams: “They used to tell me about their culture and I would tell them how I desired to play football and they used to say, ‘Yes, Vince. That’s the way.’ I was sold from then on.”
On to Florida State, of course Bobby Bowden was old school. But so was his defensive coordinator, Mickey Andrews, who had coached the game since 1965. Andrews would rip him. Andrews was point blank: “If you don’t want to hit anybody, why are you playing football? I never had to encourage Derrick Brooks to hit hard!”
Williams won a national title.
Williams lit up the Senior Bowl. He admits now there’s no chance he’s drafted if he doesn’t splatter players all week in Mobile.
Williams waited four years to become a full-time starter (like Harrison) and, now, Williams has started four years. An earlier game that ’16 season got him noticed, a 16-tackle day against KC. The next week, he had nine tackles, three QB hits and three TFLs against the Jets, and it hit him: Toughness — and toughness alone — can work at the NFL level. “I’ll thump anybody that moves,” he told himself. Ironically enough this was right when the “thumper” was going the way of the dodo. GMs were sprinting away from anything that remotely resembled a 280-pound Kirkland.
Steelers GM Kevin Colbert put it this way to Williams. He could stick if he learned to blitz, so Williams did.
Porter, an assistant coach then, was floored. He witnessed Williams bust his ass to put this into action.
“I heard him say he wanted to get better at it,” Porter says, “and, shit, he got better at it.”
Adds Williams: “What I’m willing to give out here on this field, I don’t think other people are willing to give. My thing is ‘hit first.’ That’s my statement. I’m the hit-first guy. I tell everyone, ‘Buckle your chinstraps. I’m going out here to start a fight because I’m going to hit somebody in their face.’”
He won’t name names but he can always sense softness on Sundays. Not everyone around the league approaches football like this.
Most teams today in general are trying to “trick you,” he says, “out-athlete you.” They couldn’t care less about physical domination. The Steelers do. The Steelers don’t believe there is such a thing as a perfect call. Outside ‘backer Bud Dupree was wrecking QBs this season before wrecking his ACL. Still, Williams knew all along that 23-year-old rookie Alex Highsmith was watching the violence like every linebacker before him. He knew Highsmith saw the starters, uh, “murder people.” And at every opportunity, he adds, those starters would tell him, “This is how we play! You’re not coming out here unless you play like this!”
He’ll be expected to produce. Everyone is.
This sense of responsibility is omnipresent. The chefs in the dining hall tell linebackers to kill the opposition. Equipment managers tell you, “Be like Jack Lambert!” and “Be Levon Kirkland!” and “Kill ‘em, Vince!” And after hits like that one vs. Hill, they might even leave a treat in your locker. Outside the building, the city itself demands toughness.
“It gets cold as shit here,” Williams says. “Even when it’s a blizzard, people are driving 85 miles per hour because they’ve got shit to do. And nobody complains! Nobody bitches. They just do what they have to do. They buckle their boots up and they go to work. And that’s how we do, too. It’s an expectation.”
Elite offenses await.
No doubt, other professorial coaches will try to scheme Williams into one-on-one situations. Fine by him. Try to. Williams plans to dictate the terms of engagement and morph games into a matter of toughness. He will fight. And fight. And, granted, it’s not always easy being wired this way. He can’t always just flip that switch. Thank God for his wife, Javania, who always knows when that rage starts to bubble to the surface off the field and tells him, “Vince, you’re a husband, you’re a father. You’re not a rage beast right now. You’re not a middle linebacker. This is a PTA meeting. That’s the principal. It’s not a running back. It’s not a quarterback.”
He laughs while imitating her, but knows this is true: Back in the mid-90s, there were a hell of a lot more Vinces in society than there are today.
Now, he’s unique.
“My entire life is about being the most dominant and competitive person in any space,” Williams says. “And not only that. I respond to confrontation by leaning into it and attacking it. Any resistance I get, my first initial thought is to attack that resistance with opposite pressure. This is football. This is easy to do.”
It’s not anger. It’s passion, he says. And he doesn’t see many players with this same passion today.
“It used to be,” Williams says, “that you had to love it to make it.”
Not now. Not when you can run a 4.3 and get a job in the NFL even if you don’t truly love football. Toughness is more of a bonus than a prerequisite.
Which begs the question: In 2020, is the Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker a relic?
Whenever Vince Williams isn’t loud and “overly physical,” as he puts, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin gets concerned. Tomlin needs to check in on him.
“Yo, are you OK today?” he’ll ask. “I want you to be you. We employ you to be you.”
He can be himself in Pittsburgh. Great.
He epitomizes the city itself. Fantastic.
But there is no arguing that NFL owners are genetically manipulating the sport. Just look at the other playoff teams — few menacing, Vince-like linebackers exist. That’s because offenses now spread you out in four- and five-wide to zig ‘n zag their speed ‘n athleticism every which way. Coordinators pour hours of film work into hunting for ways to take advantage of any thumper who wanders onto the field. What if all that raw toughness, now, causes more harm than good?
The league could eject Williams faster than it took Lloyd to break Kirkland’s wrist.
And that would be a death blow to the Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker itself.
Players on the other side of the ass-kickings, like Drew Bledsoe, will tell you that all of these rules are good for the long-term health of the sport, too. They don’t think the sport’s eroding. They think it’s evolving. Either way, football is hardly recognizable to a fan who grew up watching the sport in the 90s. Flip on any game. Just last week, Clemson linebacker James Skalski was thrown out for a hit that’d make Lloyd giggle. (As a reminder, Lloyd did this to Dan Marino and this, in a preseason game, to Brett Favre. He’d be ushered out of a stadium in cuffs today for such hits.)
Williams isn’t blind to this all.
He lives it.
“The owners are going to respond to what people want to see,” Williams says. “Nobody wants to see their quarterbacks knocked out. Do you remember what being a quarterback used to be in the 90s? Like, do you know how tough Brett Favre is? People have no clue! Do you remember when the Saints hit Kurt Warner? They have no clue about things like that. But I grew up in that time when if there was an interception you’d find the quarterback and knock him out of the game — and that was part of the game. It was a strategic advantage. It’s just not like that anymore and I understand because you don’t want to give a guy $150 million dollars and see him get crack-backed on an interception.”
It’s not just that, though.
He lists off a handful of what he calls “football travesties.”
Take the seam route. He mocks the term with a funny voice, like it’s something you’d hear on a Netflix show for toddlers. That route didn’t even exist when safeties like John Lynch roamed the field. Run a “seam” on Lynch and he’d obliterate your wide receiver. That onus used to be on the quarterback, he explains. Quarterbacks used to be coached not to throw certain balls that could get their receivers killed. Now, the onus is on the defender.
“Which is crazy,” he says.
Take all those shallow crosses Kirkland used to eliminate via the Art of Defense. Today, receivers run freely without any fear of repercussions. The turning point for this was also the unofficial turning point for softening the sport in general — when Pittsburgh’s Harrison demolished Mohamed Massaquoi underneath. That hit got Harrison on the cover of SI like Porter… only for the wrong reasons. Flags have been flying since.
“He got him ended!” says Williams, with glee. “You weren’t throwing no mesh routes into Cover 3 back in the day! I think it’s about giving fans what they want to see and if that’s what they want, you can give them what they want to see but it’s not going to change my approach to the game.”
So, that’s the key: He’ll be himself as long as he can.
Williams believes “football is football,” too. He believes this is still a sport played by grown men running into each other and, until the league literally makes this two-hand touch, there is nothing they can do to make this sport safe. Anyone claiming this is safe is spewing drivel because every single play is still ripe with physical ramifications. Williams knows “any football player who’s ever played” would rather get hit high than low and guarantees more players are having problems with their hips and lower backs than concussions.
No amount of league-sponsored infomercials will ever change the fact that it’s dangerous out there. Williams knows what he signed up for.
He’ll unleash that animal.
“I couldn’t care less about Pro Bowls and all that other pussy shit. Man, I don’t care about that!” he says. “I want my teammates to be like, ‘Man, Vince is out there. Y’all ain’t running nothing because if 98 gets to you, he’s going to knock you out. You know that right?’ … I want to win a Super Bowl! And I want the most respect out of my teammates.”
Those Steeler forefathers are optimistic.
Except for Lloyd. He claimed that, by 2025, “you might see the first female sign up for football. That’s how soft it’s getting.” (Related: He doesn’t give a damn about your cancel culture.) Kirkland and Porter and Brown? They believe certain collisions are nonexistent now — the mano-a-mano iso shots in the hole, dinging a QB a tick after he throws, smashing receivers across the middle. But they also see a needle to thread.
Kirkland’s advice? Blast away.
“You can definitely still let people know what time it is,” Kirkland says. “If they catch that ball, they have to pay the price. Now, it’s ‘Do I hit the guy or not? Am I going to get a penalty?’ Back then, we didn’t give a damn. You can throw that flag all you want to but this is how it’s going to go down. And if you can set a tone like that — at some point — they have to let you play. They can’t call everything. So, I think there’s room for it.”
Porter begins by breathing a sigh of relief that he played in the era he did, as if there’s no way he could put up with this BS.
His era was his “normal” and he pummeled opponents into submission.
“As graphic as it sounds, that’s what football used to be about — who can pound somebody out?” Porter says. “Who can hit you more times and more times and more times until you say, ‘I don’t want to do it anymore.’ And then the game breaks open. That’s what football used to be about. People just need to understand that they’re not going to let you play that kind of football anymore.”
When told that this is exactly how Williams believes he can play, Porter thinks back to his four years of coaching Williams, to how Williams is wired and agrees with him.
Era to era to era, one certainty sticks.
Society softens. The league softens.
Rules change. People freak out. We write stories like this one declaring a war on football.
And yet, the Steelers linebacker finds a way. It’s as guaranteed as those yellow towels waving in January and intense bowel movements after a visit to Primanti Bros. So, Porter makes it very clear: These Steelers will find their normal. These Steelers can impose their will on offenses.
“You can be nasty!” he says. “Shit, TJ Watt does it. Watt’s still out there kicking ass. Bud’s kicking ass. Vince is kicking ass. They ain’t telling you that you can’t go out there and hit nobody. You can still smash somebody on third and 1 if they’re out there trying to get the one yard. You’re still allowed to stop ‘em. I hope you’re still allowed to stop ‘em.
“You can still play football in an aggressive way. Nothing has changed from that standpoint. They still line up in front of you and you can still kick their ass.”
All it takes is one play, one moment.
You never know how a January as a Steeler will unfold. Harrison got a ring in ‘09 and there’s no way the Steelers win that Super Bowl against Arizona if he doesn’t pick Warner off and rumble the return 100 yards to the house on the last play of the first half. Porter got a ring in ’05. He believes the Steelers had better teams than that one. Much better, actually. But that team played for a cause: Getting Jerome Bettis a ring. And when everybody puts the team first to that extreme, he says, you win a championship. You get Ben Roethlisberger’s immaculate tackle vs. Indy. You get a wide receiver throwing a touchdown in the Super Bowl. And as epic as those 90s defenses were, they’re also a Shakespearean tragedy: They never won a ring. Kirkland points to his ’94 unit as their best and that team inexplicably lost to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship.
One year later, they lost in the Super Bowl.
Two years after that, they fell in another AFC title game. By three points.
Right now is when legacies are made. Williams knows this. Williams relishes this. This is why he doesn’t fret over the world going soft.
One play can change everything.
“I want a ring, man!” he says. “I cannot leave here without it. I’m not going to do it.”
First up, the Cleveland Browns on Sunday night.
There is zero doubt Williams took another long look at that wall this week, too.
“I feel like football should be played a certain way,” Williams says. “And I want to be the living embodiment of that.”