Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made headlines during OTAs when he joked that rookie running back Najee Harris is such a hard worker that his coaches have to tell him to go home. The only thing is, he wasn’t joking, as the coach in question, Eddie Faulkner, confirmed.
And it’s not a new habit that he just picked up. It’s how he grew up, always diving headfirst into football, in no small part because it was a place of respite from the outside world. For a young man who spent a portion of his upbringing homeless, to say that the field was a second home to him takes on all the more meaning to him.
Last month, he talked to Teresa Varley for the Steelers’ website all about his journey into the NFL, preceding his first-round selection in April, and he explained how football was an escape for him, at times, and how he came to know the stadium staff at Alabama.
“In high school, my coach would go to the practice field and just turn the lights on for me”, he told Varley, so he could practice when everyone else had long gone home. “He would show me how to turn off the lights, things like that”.
“At Alabama, it was always open to the players. I would get cool with the janitors because they would be there at night. I would talk to them”, he added. “It was just an outlet. Some people turn to drugs and alcohol. I turned to working out”.
This is not uncommon for many professional athletes who have managed to ascend to this level, though perhaps the extent of his after-hours training is. Many young men and women, particularly those from less advantaged backgrounds, fall into sports as both a physical and mental outlet, a respite from the pressures and influences of their exterior world.
It’s a healthy means of channeling your energy while staying physically fit and strengthening yourself emotionally and mentally, but it also doesn’t hurt that, for the best of the best, the light at the end of the tunnel could be a multimillion-dollar contract.
Harris is already a millionaire—his four-year, $13 million rookie deal included almost $7 million in a signing bonus, and the entire deal is actually fully guaranteed—don’t expect him to suddenly lose his working edge.
“Sometimes I would have so much going on in my life that I would just go work out”, he said. “When everything is stable, you have to remind yourself where you want to go, where you started. Most of the times it wasn’t a challenge, but sometimes it was”.
And there there’s just the sheer love for the game, for the guys who play with and your coaches. He has that, too. We saw that when he drove to his own Pro Day in which he was not a participant due to an injury, just because he wanted to be there to support his teammates. That’s the person the Steelers are getting this fall.