Kamis, 06 Oktober 2011

Starks contrast: Lineman makes difference in locker room

By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
October 6, 2011

PITTSBURGH - Maximillian Weisner Starks IV strolled into the Steelers locker room Wednesday morning and his larger-than-life presence immediately made it a better place.

"Max has been one of our brothers for a long time," said guard Chris Kemoeatu. "I'm excited to have him back."

"I gave Max a big hug," added wide receiver Hines Ward. "I'm just glad to see him. He's always been that veteran guy you could depend on."

Once again, the Steelers are depending on Starks. They may have parted ways with him on July 29. But with an offensive line that's struggled miserably at the quarter point of the season, the Steelers welcomed back No. 78 with open arms.

At the start of training camp, coach Mike Tomlin and general manger Kevin Colbert had little use for the big man whose 2010 season ended after seven weeks due to a neck injury. With Starks weighing close to 400 pounds -- that's 55 pounds over his playing weight -- management cut him just as the team reported to St. Vincent College. They didn't want to pay $5.14 million to an out-of-shape left tackle.

But with injuries and poor performance on the O-line slowing the offense during a disappointing 2-2 start, Starks became a wanted man. That's why the Steelers signed him to a one-year contract.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who's been taking a beating, specifically asked his coaches to bring back Starks. Remember that during the first camp practice, Roethlisberger wore Starks' jersey instead of his own No. 7.

So, Colbert called Starks' agent on Tuesday while Starks was working out for the Detroit Lions.

When he came in for a physical Tuesday, Starks revealed a new-look physique that proved he's ready to play football for the first time in 11 months. After an extensive training program in Phoenix, the 6-foot-8 Starks says he's very close to his usual playing weight of 345 pounds.

"I thought he'd be 600 pounds," Ward said. "But he looks good. You can tell he's worked hard to get back into shape."

Wednesday in his first practice since Oct. 22, 2010, Starks said he split time with Jonathan Scott at left tackle.

"It felt great. I do remember how to do this," Starks said with a smile.

When asked if he's ready to play Sunday when the Steelers host the Tennessee Titans (3-1), Starks said, "It's a bit premature to think that far ahead. But I definitely feel I have the opportunity to at least dress."

In all likelihood, Scott and rookie Marcus Gilbert will start Sunday at the tackle spots for the Steelers. But even though the Steelers' official announcement of Starks' signing said he was brought back for depth, it's hard to imagine he won't be starting soon.

So now the Steelers once again have two members of their 2004 draft class on the roster. Roethlisberger was the first-round pick. Starks was taken in the third round.

Since then, Starks had played in 95 games with 68 starts.

He started every game of the 2005 Super Bowl season at right tackle. In 2007, he lost his starting job to Willie Colon, but a year later, became the first stringer at left tackle. He was there in 2008 when the Steelers won another Super Bowl.

That year, the Steelers put the transition tag on him and paid him $6.85 million, the average salary of the top 10 highest-paid tackles. A year later, they put the franchise tag on him and were prepared to pay him $8.45 million, the average salary of the top five tackles. But then the Steelers ripped up that contract and signed him to a four-year, $26.3 million deal with $10 million in guaranteed money.

When the Steelers cut Starks on July 29, he lost out on $5.14 million. But the one-year deal he signed Wednesday will pay him $810,000.

"It's a circle of life," he said. "I've gone through every possible situation during my career with the Steelers. I've definitely gone through the full gamut of the NFL experience.

"Yes, it was tough getting cut this year. It definitely blindsided me. You have that expectation level going into camp ... we're going to compete, we're going to have a good time and we're trying to build a good squad.

"But when I found out I had been released, I took it as a learning experience. I wasn't bitter, I didn't sit in the corner and cry ‘Woe is me.' I said, ‘What do I have to do to retool and get myself ready?'"

Starks did retool. He did get himself ready. Now he's back with the Steelers as they try to prove they're much better than their 2-2 record suggests.

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