Every year, dozens of underclassmen declare for the draft. As that number increases, annually pushing 100, it’s inevitable some players get drafted late, if they’re selected at all. From an outsider view, it’s easy to criticize the junior who leaves early only to hear his name called late on Day Three.
But for those who’ve had to make that decision, it’s a lot more complicated than a binary, drafted late so it was a bad idea notion. Former Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver Demarcus Ayers knows that well. He’s one of those stories, leaving Houston a year early to become the Steelers’ 7th round selection in 2016. But he holds no regrets. Declaring early wasn’t about him. It was about the chance to provide for his family.
“I had some personal problems going on with my family,” Ayers tells me in a recent phone interview. “My brother had gotten killed right before my junior season. Trying to move my family out of the situation they were in. Just see a new life man. Grew up kinda rough. My mom, the best thing she could have ever taught me and my siblings was how to work for everything we ever had. I knew all the hard work I put in was going to pay off. I just had to take advantage of the opportunity that presented itself.
“Where I was at school in terms of graduating, I felt comfortable leaving because I knew I would be on pace to graduate early as well. All those things played a factor in me wanting to take some pressure off my mom. My sister was trying to get through nursing school. I took that burden of I gotta go work myself to put my family in a better situation. Help my sister get through nursing school. Take a lot of pressure off my mom. ”
It’s almost certain Ayers would’ve gone higher had he not suffered a broken hand in the pre-draft process. It limited his training and impacted his Combine performance, running an ugly 4.72. Ayers didn’t even decide to run until hours before and unable to push off from his sprinter’s stance, his usual high 4.4 time plummeted.
For all the glitz and glam the Combine shows on the surface, Ayers has a different take.
“It’s a pain in the ass. From waking up at five in the morning, to doing the drug tests, meeting with coaches in the meeting room whether it’s one-on-one meetings or in the ballroom, going from table to table, people are grabbing you.”
Leading up to the draft, the Steelers held the world’s worst kept secret. Ayers’ teammate, cornerback William Jackson, was the Pittsburgh’s guy. So each time they sent a scout to practice or watch a game, which became a frequent occurrence, Ayers made sure to go against him every rep to soak up all the exposure.
That included Houston’s Pro Day, which Tomlin attended. Jackson was the main attraction but Tomlin stayed through the whole workout, watching Ayers run routes and catch punts during the special teams session to finish out the day. That performance was valuable, as were his three years at Houston, but Ayers’ dad earns an assist for sealing the deal.
“Tomlin was one of those guys who stuck around the whole workout from the 40 to me catching punt returns at the end. I never knew he was there to watch me. Come to find out my dad having a really good conversation and to a certain extent, it probably led to you guys giving me an opportunity. On top of my film and me catching punts and working out but the conversation with my dad, he’s a great guy, he could walk into a room and act like he’s known a guy for years. It was a connection there.”
Ayers had to wait but the Steelers called his phone late in the 7th round. That was the opportunity he needed but injury nearly robbed him of the chance. Le’Veon Bell rolled into his leg during a training camp joint practice against the Detroit Lions and Ayers suffered multiple torn ligaments in his foot. It wasn’t severe enough to undergo surgery and still competing for a roster spot, 7th round rookies have no wiggle room, he played through the pain.
“It was my heart, my passion. When I think about having opportunities to do something I love, the ability to put a smile on my face and be proud of myself. Give my family something to be proud of. For all the people in my hometown and all the kids who look up to me around the world. I can’t let these guys down.”
The team placed him on the practice squad for most of the year, offering some time to heal. It would’ve been easy to coast but Ayers took the chance to learn all three receiver positions: X, Z, and F. When Pittsburgh promoted him to the 53 at the end of the season, he was ready.
His first game was an all-timer, Steelers/Ravens on Christmas, capped off by Antonio Brown’s Immaculate Extension.
Week 17 earned his first start and touchdown, a double-mesh concept that found him open over the middle. Ayers’ mom was in the stands for her first NFL game, there to watch him celebrate.
“I’m in the huddle with a Hall of Fame QB, Hall of Fame receiver, Hall of Fame running back. I’m playing for a Hall of Fame coach. I’m in the moment at this point, I’m just enjoying everything that comes with it.”
Pittsburgh doesn’t have an official name for it but it’s a phenomenon that exists for any team with a franchise quarterback. Ayers calls it the Ben effect.
The goal? Be in #7’s good graces and you’re going to make the team.
“If you have his trust, you’re going to play. It’s that simple. Whatever Ben says, goes.”
Meaning being in the “Ben line” in practice, the 1’s group catching passes from him in individual drills and team work, as critical as anything. Ayers began in that group his sophomore year but he pulled a hamstring, derailing his summer. Sidelined, he fell out of favor.
He returned for the preseason finale but it wasn’t good enough to capture a spot. Pittsburgh cut him but offered another practice squad role. Media reports indicated Ayers refused to accept it, a notion he disputes today.
“That was a weird situation. The way it came out [through the media] wasn’t the correct way I wanted it to come out.”
On his way to the South Side and accept Pittsburgh’s offer, New England came in with a stronger one at the last moment. The Patriots’ receivers and return game were ravaged by injury, losing punt returners Cyrus Jones and Julian Edelman, and offered the chance to earn more money on the practice squad and potential promotion a few weeks into the year. He jumped on the chance to go to Foxborough. Ayers doesn’t live life with many regrets but one of the few he has is not talking to Pittsburgh first before leaving.
“I still think about it to this day. Everything was going so fast in that moment. New England’s waiting on me, they literally have the flight booked, the contract ready. Pittsburgh’s waiting on me. I wish I had the chance to go to the facility, got a chance to talk to Coach Tomlin. Maybe they could’ve matched the deal.”
New England ultimately never gave him that chance and he spent the next few years bouncing around the league. He spent time in Chicago, a brief stay in the XFL with New York, and is currently on Saskatchewan’s roster in the CFL. Their season is currently up in the air – Ayers says he hopes to know the league’s future later this week. He’s unfortunately well-traveled as a football journeyman and says no team compares to his experience in Pittsburgh .
“I felt the love every time I walk inside those walls. I loved coming to work when I was in Pittsburgh. There was never a day where I’m like, aw fuck, I gotta go here, I gotta do this. It wasn’t like that.”
Not many players can say they’ve played for both Pittsburgh and New England like Ayers can. Many similarities exist, great coaches, wildly successful organizations, but there are differences.
“Coach Tomlin is as real as it comes. He’s fair. But he also has a job to do. He understands and allows his players to be loose. He allows his players to have a voice…Belichick is like the principal or mom or dad who walks in and you gotta button up and be on point.”
Both coaches treated their Canton bound quarterbacks differently too.
“I’ve seen Belichick cuss Brady out, not disrespect him but get on his ass. I’ve never seen Coach Tomlin do that with Ben. Ever. The first time I saw it [in New England] it was like, ‘oh, this is very different.'”
It’s easy to look at Ayers from an outsider perspective and believe he should’ve stayed in school another year. But he did the selfless thing for his family, his mother, his sister, to get to the NFL not just for himself but for them. Ayers is a fighter, a fierce competitor, and though not done with football, just as Chuck Noll would tell players, preparing for life’s work with a new business venture that’ll be revealed in the near future.
A former 7th round pick who made it into the NFL, caught a touchdown pass, made his mom, his dad, his family, his town proud. It wasn’t a long career in Pittsburgh but it was a successful one.