By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
January 27, 2012
PITTSBURGH — Although it wasn’t a full-blown retirement dinner, Chris Hoke couldn’t have asked for a better farewell meal.
Not only did Hoke break bread with team president Art Rooney II and coach Mike Tomlin, but also seated at his cafeteria table at Steelers’ headquarters Thursday were a trio of veterans sure to be remembered as three of the finest at their positions in the franchise’s proud history.
Aaron Smith. Casey Hampton. Brett Keisel.
Over the past several seasons, those three provided excellence on the defensive line. They comprised the second-best defensive front in the team’s first 79 years of the existence.
The “Steel Curtain” of the 1970s is one of the most famous front fours in NFL annals. But the Smith, Hampton and Keisel collaboration has been special, too.
Smith and Keisel, defensive ends in the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme, have each played in one Pro Bowl. Hampton, the burly nose tackle, has played in five NFL all-star games. They’ve been part of three Super Bowl experiences, including two won by the Steelers.
However, that trio will probably never play together again.
Smith will likely follow Hoke’s lead.
Hoke, the 35-year-old back-up nose tackle, announced his retirement Wednesday. Like Hoke, the 2011 season ended prematurely for Smith because of a neck injury that required surgery. Hoke cited his health reasons for calling it quits.
Smith, who turns 36 in April, should do the same. After all, he’s missed 33 of the last 48 regular-season games with injuries. His body is clearly breaking down.
Hampton, who’ll be 35 in September when the Steelers open the 2012 season, has no intentions of retiring. However, there are no guarantees he’ll be back. He’ll have surgery Friday to repair a torn knee ligament. That doesn’t bode well for a man of 350 pounds or so who’s had trouble making weight in recent years.
Plus, Hampton is due to make $4.89 million next season. With the Steelers close to $20 million over the proposed cap of $125 next season, Hampton may be cut for financial reasons.
Keisel, who’ll be 34 in September, has job security for at least one more year. But as just as Ziggy Hood replaced Smith this year, Cameron Heyward is destined to take away Keisel’s starting job in a year or so. After all, Hood (2009) and Heyward (2011) are former first-round draft picks.
And although it’s a bit early to say who the Steelers will draft in the first round this year, there’s a chance it could be Dontari Poe, a mammoth defensive tackle out of Memphis.
“History will look back very fondly on that group of guys,” Hoke said at his retirement press conference Thursday while Smith, Hampton and Keisel stood by his side in a show of support.
“You have these guys ... Casey, Brett and Aaron ... all they did was go out and work every day. They did their jobs. They will be compared and be in the same class as those (“Steel Curtain”) guys in the 70s.”
After the press conference, those four defensive linemen who bonded so well on and off the field for so many years, headed to the cafeteria.
It may have been their last lunch together.