Unlikely journey for Steelers lineman
As he was stretched out near the 50-yard line at Heinz Field earlier this season, Kelvin Beachum, writhing in pain from a torn knee, instinctively paused to reflect on an improbable journey to the NFL.
Remarkably, a sudden flash of life's perils and triumphs resurrected amid the staccato applause of appreciative Steelers fans, most of whom have watched the undersized left tackle protect the blindside of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for three years.
Beachum, 26, had begun to take for granted the evolution of his game.
He had forgotten how often coach Mike Tomlin scolded him as a rookie at training camp for every lapse in concentration. Or how All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey persisted in demanding he scale the mountainous challenge of proving a seventh-round draft pick could earn his way into the starting lineup.
Mostly, however, Beachum gained perspective about family and football.
A few days into his rehab, it occurred to Beachum that perhaps he hadn't appreciated what his wife of three years goes through every day.
She is a nursing school student saddled with the demands of nurturing a year-old baby girl and stitching together the sometimes-tethered confidence of a husband, who for the first time in his life was challenged to overcome a serious injury.
“When you're gone from the game, some don't do well,” said Beachum, who was the lost for the season in a win over Arizona in Week 6. “It's a humbling experience.
“I don't think I was a good husband during my wife's pregnancy. I regret not showing her more compassion. I wasn't there to be the best husband emotionally. I realized that when I got hurt. I've learned how to a better husband; to be more supportive.
“Football is very important,” he added. “It's a bread winner — a sport that had provided a tremendous opportunity, but my family has given me the strength to endure the greatest adversity of my life.”
Usually, Beachum arrives early at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex for treatment. He spends time with his teammates. He continues to study game film, gathering knowledge about defensive players he likely will see upon his return.
At times, he hasn't felt good. And the long, arduous road to recovery seems endless.
“It's been the hardest thing I've ever had to go through,” said Beachum, rhythmically tapping on his laptop. “It's a feeling of not being good enough. There are so many different emotions.
“I haven't been able to stay at the stadium too long. I haven't been to the practice field since the injury occurred. I go to help and be around the guys as much as I can, but it's been difficult — that's to say the least.”
Yet, Beachum is buoyed by his faith. He, too, is driven by a passion to prove he will be even better upon his return.
“They've been times when everyone can tell I'm not having the kind of day you want,” he said. “It's one of those days when your knee bites back at you.”
Beachum hasn't had any major setbacks during his recovery. He acknowledged some days have been more difficult than others, partly because he's navigating uncharted waters.
Beachum, though, isn't going it alone. Pouncey, tight end Heath Miller and running back Le'Veon Bell understand the immeasurable stress of rehabilitation and the inevitable sense of loneliness that grips a player's psyche when there are no games to play on Sunday.
“The hardest part for me was at the end,” said Miller, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2012. “I wanted to push through it, but I wasn't where I wanted to be yet. The last couple of months, which correlated with the season about to start, were difficult.
“It's easy to be patient when there are no football games to be played. I had to focus on the little things in the recovery process. I was trying to get my knee at 90 degrees, but not trying to look too far ahead.
“It was somewhat demoralizing,” Miller recalled, massaging his reconstructed right knee. “I had long-term goals, but I focused on the short term.”
Beachum points to more immediate goals while he works his way back onto the playing field. The SMU graduate has focused on life after football by investing invaluable time in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) project in Pittsburgh and meeting with executives of a major gas and oil company in his native Texas.
Beachum, a four-year starter at SMU, doesn't want to be typecast as an entrepreneur anymore than an NFL lineman. Again, he's defying conventional wisdom.
“I was put in a box as a seventh-round draft pick,” said Beachum, in the final year of his rookie contract. “I was put in a box as a student-athlete at SMU and as an African-American student at a predominantly white university.
“I want to live outside the box, and I don't want to be stereotyped. I don't want to travel the road that everyone does. I want to be a trailblazer.
“For me, it's about how I can influence something or someone,” he said. “I want to be part of a movement that hasn't been imagined.
“No one imagined me in the NFL. Now, I envision myself not as a Pro Bowler but an All-Pro because that's the ultimate reflection of respect from your peers.”
Beachum's teammates already have the utmost respect for the journey he's taken to arrive in the NFL and the one he's encountering to get back in the game.