COOK: Ex-Penn Stater James makes most of first chance with Steelers
The kid wore a No. 84 jersey. His face was painted black and gold with an 84 on his cheek. He had the run of the Steelers locker room after their win Sunday against the Oakland Raiders and managed to cop a significant autograph for his collection.
"Are you Jesse James?" Antonio Brown Jr. asked of the Steelers rookie tight end.
"Yes," James said.
"Good. Sign this."
James gladly autographed his football card.
It was a really nice moment.
It added to the wonderful start to James' NFL career.
It took James until the ninth game of the season to get a helmet from coach Mike Tomlin. He dressed Sunday in place of injured Matt Spaeth after being inactive for the first eight games. James didn't just play; he was on the field for 33 snaps and made significant contributions in the Steelers' 38-35 win. He scored a touchdown on a 4-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger and threw key blocks on two other big plays.
"I loved it," teammate Ramon Foster said. "I'm happy for that kid. He stayed the course. He's worked. I'm glad to see the payoff. There's nothing better than seeing someone work hard and get a payoff."
Local kid on hometown team: There was another feel-good element to James' performance. It's always great to see a local kid do well for his hometown team. James played at South Allegheny High School. He left Penn State after his junior season last year and was drafted in the fifth round by the Steelers in May.
"It's a dream come true in a lot of ways," James said.
No, James didn't have the day that Antonio Jr.'s pop did. Nor was he as critical to the offense and to the win as DeAngelo Williams. But, as Tomlin noted, the Steelers needed contributions from everyone to win a tough game against a good team to stay relevant in the AFC wild-card race. James gladly obliged. His block on linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong led to a 53-yard run by Williams on the final play of the third quarter. His block moments later on safety Larry Asante was a big part of Roethlisberger's 14-yard touchdown pass to Martavis Bryant. He then beat linebacker Curtis Lofton with a nice swim move to get wide open on his touchdown catch, which gave the Steelers a 35-21 lead with 11:24 left.
It's no wonder offensive coordinator Todd Haley made it a point late in the game to share a few private words with James on the sideline.
"He was happy for me and told me, 'Way to take advantage of the opportunity,' " James said. "They all knew what I was capable of. I enjoyed it. I had a great time out there. I kept preparing every week as if I was going to play. To finally get an opportunity, I was ready to go. I stayed motivated and stayed ready for my shot."
Tough start: It wasn't always easy. James had a tough start with the Steelers, dropping passes in their first two exhibition games. But he said he never lost confidence. Clearly, the Steelers didn't lose confidence in him, either. They did their homework on James at Penn State. They knew he had 78 career catches and 11 touchdowns, a Penn State record for a tight end. They were patient with him. The payoff, as Foster said, came Sunday.
"I felt like I did a great job in practice," said James, who has a sizable Penn State logo tattooed on his right side. "Obviously, I had some struggles in those first few preseason games, but I kept working, kept doing my best each day. I got through it."
James likely will return to the inactive list Sunday against the Cleveland Browns if Spaeth (knee) is ready to go.
"Obviously, Matt has been great here for so many years," James said. "Any chance you have to get a guy like that on the field, you take advantage of it."
His time will come: James didn't turn 21 until June 4. He figures his time is coming. So do his teammates.
"He's going to do well," Heath Miller said. "He works hard. He's prepared. He knows what to do. He obviously has talent."
Foster took that a step further.
"I think he's going to be really good."
The day is coming when James will sign a lot of autographs. Little Antonio just beat the rush.