Maurkice Pouncey, one of the best centers in the NFL, endured a stretch in which adversity proved to be a tonic for complacency.
The Steelers’ former first-round draft pick suffered a season-ending right knee injury on the first series of the 2013 season against the Tennessee Titans. He spent the rest of the season agonizing over something out of his control.
As Pouncey worked his way back, he regressed amid a couple of missteps. That’s when, he said, he reassessed his priorities, putting football and fatherhood ahead of the actions that jeopardized his leadership role on the team.
It took an injury and off-field problems for the three-time All-Pro to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: He had taken his talents for granted.
“I honestly thought I was at the point where no one could tell me anything about how to play this position,” Pouncey said. “When my injury happened, it humbled me.
“I appreciate being at the top more than ever because I know it can all be taken away from you. It takes work to be the player you are, and it’s something you can never forget.”
Pouncey has rebounded to help the Steelers stay afloat in the tightly bunched AFC North. The Steelers, humbled by the reeling New York Jets last Sunday, will try to rebound at Tennessee on “Monday Night Football.”
Pouncey credits offensive line coach Mike Munchak for getting him back into form after reconstructive surgery. The former Titans head coach helped improve Pouncey’s blocking technique and footwork.
“I’m a smarter player, and I see things a lot differently,” Pouncey said. “It’s been a blessing to get Coach Munchak to teach me different things as far as setting up on blocks, which has helped my game tremendously.”
While quarterback Ben Roethlisberger assaults the record books, Pouncey continues to assume more control of the locker room. It’s a role he coveted, in part, because of the troubled waters he navigated during the past year.
“When (Pouncey) talks, people listen,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s been through a lot on and off the field, and it’s made him a better player. He’s as determined a player as I’ve ever met. Whenever he has a setback, it pushes him even more and makes him stronger.
“He takes any loss personally. It’ll bug him for five or six days. It’ll bother me for a day, but then I have to move on.”
Personally, Pouncey couldn’t move on until he dealt with his past. He was determined not to let his personal life impact his career.
Pouncey’s support of former Florida teammate and ex-New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez thrust him into an untenable position. It was difficult to explain why he and twin brother, Mike, a guard with the Miami Dolphins, boasted support of an alleged murderer by wearing “Free Hernandez” caps in July 2013.
Then he was involved in an incident at a South Florida nightclub this past July. Ultimately, the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office concluded it didn’t have enough evidence to charge Pouncey.
“We knew what the deal was,” guard Ramon Foster said. “When he was exonerated, everyone was excited about it. As a team, his problem was our problem.”
Said Pouncey: “Mike and I aren’t going to change because everyone else thinks we should change. We’ve been doing things the right way, but everybody has some slip-ups in life.
“We know people bash us about who we hang around with, but we do our jobs, and we take care of our family.”
Tackle Marcus Gilbert, who three times faced Pouncey in state high school championship games in Florida, never wavered in his support for the Steelers’ co-captain.
“(Pouncey) has been more aware of things that he does and the people he surrounds himself with,” Gilbert said. “At times, trouble has found him.”
Pouncey reasoned that his support of Hernandez was borne of loyalty. He couldn’t turn his back if he wanted to. Yet he knew that moment would somehow come to define him, at least by some measure.
“People judge us because of our tattoos and the way we party, but they aren’t aware of the good things we do for our communities. All they see is the ‘Free Hernandez’ cap or that we’re accused of beating someone up in a nightclub,” he said. “They see us as gangsters and thugs, but we know who we are.
“Heck yeah, I made some stupid mistakes. I think the biggest thing is to own up to those mistakes. I decided I was going to change things, and I believe people accepted it.”
‘Have to grow up’
Pouncey sees much of himself in Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston: a young, talented athlete trying to reconcile conflicting personas.
Winston wants to be treated like everyone else on campus. But he can’t escape the reality that a freshman Heisman Trophy winner isn’t likely to escape scrutiny.
“At some point, you have to grow up. And he’s learning that. I had to learn that,” Pouncey said. “At some point you decide to do the right thing. At the end of the day, Winston is a role model for younger kids. He should see that now and change some of the things he does.”
Pouncey, too, has changed. He insists he’s more enlightened after being challenged by injury and adversity.
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].