By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
December 10, 2011
PITTSBURGH -- Casey Hampton knows his days are numbered. After all, he is now the oldest defensive lineman on the Steelers' roster.
Hampton looks around the locker room and no longer sees two long-time teammates and friends. Veteran defensive end Aaron Smith was placed on injured reserve on Oct. 22 with a neck injury that required surgery. Veteran nose tackle Chris Hoke, Hampton's backup for most of the past 11 seasons, will soon go on IR with a similar neck injury.
Smith and Hoke, both 35, may never play again.
Next year, Hampton will be 35. Right now, he's the Steelers' second-oldest starter behind 36-year-old linebacker James Farrior. But Hampton has every intention of finishing out his existing contract that runs through the 2012 season. Hopefully, he'll play for a few more years after that.
"I'm good," Hampton said. "They'll have to wheel me out on a wheel chair if they want me out of here."
Hampton really misses Smith. For over a decade, they started side by side on the D-line, Hampton in the middle and Smith at left end. They had worked so hard, played so well and accomplished so much, including victory in two Super Bowls.
Because defensive ends in 3-4 schemes usually don't receive much notoriety, Smith seldom got the accolades he deserved. Only once was he chosen to play in the Pro Bowl. But the Steelers always thought that Smith was the NFL's most underrated at his position.
Hampton will miss Hoke, too. Although Hoke wasn't good enough to be a full-time starter, he was a reliable backup whose work ethic and upbeat personality added to team chemistry.
Like Smith, Hampton has been a warrior who'll go down as one of the all-time Steeler greats. Remember, a few years ago when the Steelers named their all-time 75th anniversary team, Hampton was on it. He may not be as dominate as he was earlier in his career when he played in five Pro Bowls. But he's still the anchor of a defense that right now is ranked No. 1 in the league.
Recently, I asked Hampton how he'll know when it's time to call it a career. He answered by rehashing a conversation he had at training camp with "Mean" Joe Greene.
Now working as one of the Steelers scouts, Greene comes to camp for a few weeks each summer. Hampton always enjoys talking to arguably the greatest Steeler ever and remembers the time when he asked Greene about retiring from football.
"Joe told me that when you start to struggle with guys you're used to whipping, or when guys you're used to whipping start getting the best of you, it's time," Hampton said.
And with that, Hampton smiled and said, "I haven't had that problem yet."
Before this season started, there was doubt about the Steelers' defense. Even though it finished second in the league last year in total defense and first in scoring defense, the knock on the defense this year was that too many of the veteran defenders were too old to do it again.
The "too old and too slow" idea gathered steam after the Steelers opened the season with a 35-7 blow-out loss in Baltimore. But since then, the defense has played well for the most part, and those aging veterans are doing their jobs at a high level.
Among them is "Big Snack" as Hampton is called.
"It's been a great ride," he said. "What's nice is that a lot of the guys on defense have been here a long time. I don't think you see that very often across that league. That's made it all even better as far as I'm concerned.
"These guys are more than just teammates. I've been able to make a lot of good friends, friends I'm sure I'll have forever. Coming to work for the past 11 years with these guys has really been a pleasure. ... It's been a great ride."
It's a ride that still has more to go.