Death of friend rattled Steelers tight end Jesse James before poor outing in Hall of Fame Game


Jesse James dropped two easy passes in Sunday night's preseason opener in Canton, Ohio, each with their own set of negative consequences.

The first came in the second quarter on a fourth-down play at the Minnesota 2, costing the Steelers a sure touchdown. The second drop, which was ruled a fumble, came in the third quarter and was recovered by Vikings linebacker Brian Peters.

On top of that, in practice Tuesday at Saint Vincent College, James dropped another easy pass from quarterback Landry Jones in an 11-on-11 drill.

It's not the way a rookie tight end wants to start his NFL career, especially when he was a fifth-round draft choice by his hometown team.

"It was the first game, and I was pretty mad at myself," said James, who played at Penn State and South Allegheny High School. "But you've got to get back to work and focus. You know you've got to make the next play, and, even at that, I didn't make the next one. But I'll be back and make the next one."

How James bounces back from his preseason debut is among the things coach Mike Tomlin said he wants to see from his young players when the Steelers play their second preseason game Friday night at Jacksonville. However, what happened to James against the Vikings — the drops, his lapse in concentration — is perfectly understandable.

Two days before the game, James' best friend from high school died suddenly. The Steelers were leaving the next day for the bus ride to Canton, and James was distraught, wondering if he would even be able to attend the funeral.

"It's tough to hear and get over when you're that close with somebody," James said Wednesday after a light morning practice.

That's why the Steelers aren't overly concerned about the dropped passes against the Vikings. Nobody was using it as an excuse — not even James — but several coaches said they can understand why the situation would have been a distraction for the young tight end.

"You've got to be able to separate it," James said.

Tomlin did not mention the circumstances surrounding James in a morning media briefing Wednesday, but he included him by name among the young players he will be watch to see how they bounce back from their mistakes against the Vikings.

"Young guys freeze up sometimes," Tomlin said. "I mentioned to some of them, I would've liked to have shown them cutups of Lawrence Timmons from the Hall of Fame Game in 2007. It was pretty ugly. It provides a little window, a ray of light if you will, for those who are mentally weak enough to need it. You've got to start somewhere. Some starts are better than others. Regardless of how you start, it isn't going to define you."

James is being counted on to be the third tight end behind Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth and a possible big target in the red zone. At Penn State, he was more than a capable receiver, especially last season when he caught 38 passes and finished his career with 11 touchdowns. But at 6 feet 7, 261 pounds, Jones has a long frame capable of adding even more muscle.

Not that he needs more strength. James held the power-clean record in the Penn State weight room until this year.

He said he is ready to forget about the drops against the Vikings.

"I wasn't too excited, I just turned my head for a minute, things I don't normally do, bad fundamentals, instead of just looking the ball in," James said. "It's an easy thing to fix. I've got it covered."

The Steelers are willing to understand.