By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
December 25, 2011
Charlie Batch #16 of the Pittsburgh Steelers lines up under center behind backup center Trai Essex #79 against the St. Louis Rams during the Christmas Eve game on December 24, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — The way Trai Essex sees it, July 23 was a life-changing day for he and Ben Roethlisberger.
On that day, Essex was among the many Steelers who helped Roethlisberger celebrate his wedding.
It was also a day when Essex realized that if he wanted to remain in pro football, he needed to get his life in order.
When Essex showed up for Roethlisberger’s wedding, his teammates almost couldn’t believe their eyes. They were shocked to see that Essex allowed himself to get fat and out of shape during the off-season. He weighed around 375 pounds, close to 50 pounds over his playing weight.
The Steelers coaches weren’t shocked and weren’t amused. They were disappointed. When camp started a week later, the Steelers were in no hurry to re-sign Essex, an unrestricted free agent.
Even though Essex had a terrific time at Roethlisberger’s wedding, he sensed that he was in deep trouble. He got the cold shoulder from his coaches. From that day forward, he dedicated himself to getting back in shape in hopes of getting one more chance.
On Aug. 22, he got that chance. He was the last of the Steelers’ free agents to sign.
Fast forward to Christmas Eve when the Steelers routed the Rams, and there was Essex turning out to be one of the surprise heroes.
“I particularly like the effort of Trai Essex,” coach Mike Tomlin said after the 27-0 romp.
When the Steelers got the ball for the first time in the first quarter, Essex was playing left guard for the second straight week. He had replaced Chris Kemoeatu, who’s struggled all year with injuries, inconsistent play and careless penalties.
But on the Steelers’ second offensive snap, the O-line was forced to re-shuffle for the umpteenth time this season. Doug Legursky, who was filling in for injured center Maurkice Pouncey, hurt his shoulder and was done for the day.
So Essex moved over, giving the Steelers their third different center in three weeks.
“When I saw Doug go down, my heart was beating,” Essex said. “I was nervous as hell. But after a few snaps I settled down and actually had fun.”
Overall, it was a fun day for all the Steelers, who improved to 11-4 and kept alive their chances of winning the AFC North.
Considering he’s 37 and making his first start since Week 4 of last season, Charlie Batch played well. He even showed nifty agility by twice eluding on-rushing defenders.The Heinz Field fans obviously enjoying seeing Batch play while Ben Roethlisberger rested his injured ankle. On several occasions, chants of “Charlie! Charlie! Charlie!” echoed throughout the North Shore.
Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 116 yards. Rookie John Clay scored his first career touchdown on his first pro carry. Antonio Brown set the Steelers’ single-season record for all-purpose yards. After serving a one-game suspension, James Harrison recorded a sack. Lawrence Timmons got his first sack of the season. The Steelers’ defense pitched their second shutout of the year.
“It was a good, necessary win,” Tomlin said.
But for Essex, it was a day in which he came full circle.
Since Roethlisberger’s wedding, he’s managed to salvage his career. He’s lost 50 pounds. And in a season in which the Steelers have had so many injuries, especially on the offensive line, Essex has been so valuable.
When he took over for Legursky at center, Essex was playing his fifth different position on the O-line this season. He’s played both tackle spots and both guard spots.
“Hey, I got a few snaps at tight end and fullback this year, too,” he said with a laugh.
Really, it’s Essex who’s been the poster child for Tomlin’s “next man up” and “the standard is the standard” mantras.
Early in his career, Essex was strictly a tackle. But in recent years as Tomlin continues to preach position flexibility, Essex has learned to play guard and center as well.
“The more things you can do, the better chance you have of staying in this league,” he said. “I’m just thankful I’m still here. I guess Ben’s wedding was the best thing to happen to him and the best thing to happen to me.”