"Every day, Vance always terrorizes me about my locker. I think my locker's pretty decent."
That's Derwin Gray, all 6-foot-4 inches, 320 pounds of him, towering just to my left here at the Rooney Complex as I approach Vance McDonald for a chat. I follow McDonald to his locker, but Gray interrupts — "No, record this first" — to make sure we all know just how ruthless McDonald is with his need for cleanliness.
I turn to McDonald.
So you expect a cleaner locker from your teammates?
"Yeah," McDonald begins. "I expect, when a man takes off his trash and throws it on the ground for another man to pick it up..."
He literally shakes his head.
"There's something a little bit disrespectful about that."
It was perfect — and it provided an inadvertent segue for what I wanted to ask McDonald in the first place. Throughout training camp and OTAs, the quiet and humble McDonald was anything but on the field, barking, pointing and instructing the tight end group at all times. Additionally, McDonald told me he led Bible study for his teammates, a role he took seriously and cherished.
McDonald is a leader. And at 0-2 with a second-year quarterback making the first start of his professional career Sunday against the 2-0 49ers in San Francisco, these Steelers need leaders.
"When you're faced with adversity, I think human beings in general are just naturally going to find the easiest door," McDonald was telling me. "In a position like this, when you're losing, when you're not having the success that you had initially planned, and the plan's not going right, you know, a lot of guys just might have that moment of weakness where, when you have a veteran who understands it's bigger than just one week, to maintain that trust with the guy next to you, it's really important."
He wasn't done there.
"No one's going to get you out of your problem except for you," McDonald said. "No one else is going to do you any favors. You need to get out of the rut. It's all about putting it behind you and moving forward with your best effort. And that's the only way that we're going to get out of the hole that we're in. So we, I think the leaders on this team, we're being consistently challenged and [we're] motivating and encouraging and just trying to emphasize that we can't lose the trust that we've built up to this point."
On the other side of the ball, that chemistry and that trust is still alive and well. After practice, the defensive backs scooted over to the JUGS machine, racing to see who would be first in line to work on his hands. Steven Nelson made it first, Terrell Edmunds made it second and the rest filtered in accordingly.
But after Nelson took his reps and hit the showers, it was Joe Haden — not Edmunds — up next.
"Oh, yeah, yeah. A nod to the vet. You gotta do it," Edmunds was telling me of letting Haden take his spot.
And that's it, that trust and that chemistry McDonald was telling me about. The team hasn't won in 2019, but they're not giving up on the things they worked on this offseason and the positives they took out of training camp.
"Man, it's still feeling good," Edmunds was telling me. "It's a long season. A lot of people, they're writing us off, but we all trust in each other. We all believe in each other. We're all ready to go."
Haden echoed that:
"We all want to win games," Haden began. "We all want to be the best that we can be. We take coaching. I think it's just a really good group of guys that just want to be the best and are ready to do whatever it takes. So just being with those dudes, learning in that room, and then myself, just still taking the coaching, still trying to get better. I think it's just a good room to learn and just try to maximize and get better at your position."
"Maximizing" begins with one thing: Winning Sunday in San Francisco. The Steelers do that, and all those "writing them off," as Edmunds put it, might steady their pencils and turn to the eraser instead.
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