When we talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive ends, there are a few common tropes. The greatness of Cameron Heyward, the promise of Stephon Tuitt, and the relentless jokes thrown at Cam Thomas.
Obviously, there are several other, less talked about candidates at end. One trying to stick to the team’s roster – permanently this time – is Ethan Hemer.
Hemer failed to make the practice squad out of training camp. It wasn’t entirely for a lack of performance as the then-rookie managed to record a sack in just 54 preseason snaps. The impressive showing of Josh Mauro and Nick Williams – the latter with a draft pick pedigree – proved to be too power obstacles for the undrafted rookie to overcome.
Due to injuries, he was re-signed in October and yo-yo’d on and off the Steelers practice squad before finally sticking for good in mid-November.
It’ll be a difficult battle for Hemer beginning next month but that’s a journey he knows all too well.
Despite being named second-team All-State by the Associated Press in high school, and first-team by other outlets, Hemer could not earn a scholarship to Wisconsin. He chose to walk on, he and his family taking on the burden of tuition. Though it’s tough to find an exact figure, the total cost for one year at Wisconsin falls around $13,000. Far from pocket change, is the point.
He was redshirted his freshman year in 2009 but worked hard in the hopes of earning a scholarship. One didn’t come in 2010 either but he stuck with the team, starting the Badgers’ final six games.
As the 2011 season was set to begin, two scholarships opened up. Presumably, one for Hemer, the other for wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who would go on to be a fifth round pick by the Green Bay Packers.
Instantly that changed when Russell Wilson showed up on Madison’s campus. The new starting quarterback gobbled up one of the two scholarships and head coach Brett Bielma left with a decision over what to do with the remaining one. Hemer or Abrederis?
The head coach chose door number three, choosing neither, deeming it unfair that one would get it over the other.
For the third season, Hemer played without scholarship. He started all 14 games, recording 34 tackles and a sack.
After the season, he and Abrederis were awarded their long overdue scholarships.
“I think that earning that scholarship has been one of my greatest accomplishments in life. That’s something that I will forever cherish my memories here and that I was able to be a part of the walk-on tradition that is great ones like [Jim] Leonhard, coach [Ben] Strickland and all of these guys that have left a mark on this university,” he would tell SB Nation’s Bucky’s 5th Quarter in January of 2014.
There was more good news in 2013, Hemer’s senior season. His brother, Ben, joined the Badgers as an offensive lineman. And, you guessed it, as a walk-on, following in big brother’s footsteps.
Football is a family affair for the Hemers. Ethan’s parents missed just one game his entire career, a September game in Oregon. I think they can be forgiven.
His mother, Kathy, would explain their traveling routine.
“We’d get off the field at 9-9:30 [p.m.], and we’d get in the car and drive until midnight-12:30 [a.m.]. We’d usually go and part ways on Friday night, then get up early and do the rest of the drive.”
After signing with the Steelers and switching to a 3-4, Hemer put on roughly 15 pounds to clear north of 300 pounds.
In hindsight, the mindset he developed as a walk-on at Wisconsin will persevere him through camp. He outlined it to Ismtmus in 2012.
“I think guys that come in as walk-ons maybe play with a little chip on their shoulder. They realize they have a little more to prove.”