News

The Diesel

December 7, 2006

Sitting atop Ben Roethlisberger's locker early this season was a half-empty bottle of water. There was nothing particularly distinctive about the crystal-clear H2O, at least not at first glance.

But teammate Brett Keisel insisted that this was no ordinary drink. He described it as a magic potion, an elixir for his seemingly cursed quarterback.

Huh?

Surely this was nothing more than 16.9 fluid ounces of water. It even said so right on the label: Pure Water-Perfect Taste.

But Keisel wouldn't relent. He saw things differently than most observers.

Like Keisel usually does.

"I drank about half of it," Keisel said. "I put a little backwash in the rest and said, 'Put this in your locker and leave it up the rest of the year'. I closed it, locked up all the medicine inside. He's good for the rest of the year."

Keisel provided Roethlisberger with this 'potion' following the quarterback's appendectomy surgery, which forced him to miss the season opener. Roethlisberger has missed half a game since, brought on by a concussion in Atlanta.

As a result, psychologists and Shamans everywhere will probably study this Great Water Debate for centuries in an effort to corroborate Keisel's findings.

Or, they might just determine what many around the Steelers locker room already know: Brett Keisel is about as off-beat as they come.

If the NFL had an All-Quirky team, the energetic defensive end would be a unamous selection. In fact, if the league created a wing for quirky players, he'd be a first-ballot hall of famer.

Keisel is a throwback to the old days, a guy who would make the great storyteller Art Donovan smile. Because even though his water story didn't hold much, water, Keisel has a way of enrapturing.

Listen to what some of his teammates had to say about his colorful ways.

"Taught me how to shoot a bow and arrow," said defensive end Rodney Bailey, one of Keisel's closest friends on the team. "And he likes to share his deer jerky.'

Added guard Alan Faneca: "He's always cutting up around here, having a great time. It's great to have that type of personality in the locker room."

On the football field, Keisel's quirkiness turns into controlled rage. He is a 6-foot-5, 90 pound powder-keg who is fast enough to chase down quarterbacks and strong enough to go toe-to-toe with hulking tackles and tight ends.

His move into the starting line-up for free-agent defector Kimo von Oelhoffen has been seamless.

"Quck study," fellow defensive end Aaron Smith said of Keisel, who goes by the nickname "Diesel."

It's hard to argue with the results. Because 12 games into his first go-round as a starter, Keisel had 50 tackles and four sacks. Those numbers are better than von Oelhoffen's 2005 stats-and here's the rub: von Oelhoffen needed 16 games to put up such totals. Keisel still has four games left.

"It's not surprising he made the transition to starter so well,"Faneca said. "You could see he was ready to step in and help us."

Against the New Orleans Saints in mid-November, Keisel chased quarterback Drew Brees from start to finish, collecting eight tackles and a sack. A week later, he added four tackles against the Cleveland Browns.

Without question, Keisel is paying dividends after signing a four-year deal in the offseason.

"He's always been a playmaker," Smith said of Keisel. "He did it on special teams for years, then he just waited until it was his time to become a starter. He just fits in here so well. He's strong and he's athletic. That's why he's such a difficult matchup for opposing teams. He's not the average guy."

Smith can say that again. Average is a word that rarely applies to the 28-year-old Keisel.

After all, this is a guy who spends his off-time staring down mountain lions in his native Greybull, wyoming.

And he likes it.

Honest.

"They look into your soul, I swear, with those big yellow eyes. They look right through you," said Keisel, who traps mountain lions. "They're like, 'Man, if those dogs weren't protecting you, I'd come down and get you.' They're quiet and sneaky...and you do not want to get them mad!"

Keisel realizes that some folks might view him as a bit off-center for confronting the lions, but at least he isn't as daring as some of his friends.

"They'd climb up into the tree and see if they could touch the tail," Keisel said. "I'm not that crazy."

No, but Keisel is the Steelers' resident mountain man. He goes by the nickname Jeremiah Johnson-a movie character played by Robert Redford who sported a coarse beard and toiled as a fur trapper-which was bestowed oh him by Aaron Smith.

"He had this huge beard when he got here," Smith recalled. "And..well...he was a mountain man. He was Jeremiah Johnson."

Keisel can barely argue the point. He was raised in a one-stoplight town of 1,500 that sits at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains. His father was a recreational fur trapper. Brett and his brother eventually followed suit.

It was nothing for Keisel to go out on weekends and trap bobcats and those nasty mountain lions-for fun. His favorite was venison, which didn't come from the local grocery store but from the sprawling 1,000 acres at his family's home.

He would tend to cattle and horses around the farm when he wasn't hunting or fishing. And then there were the moose and elk that would run wild on the property.

"It was a way of life," Keisel said.

Pittsburgh, of course, is nothing like Greybull, but that doesn't mean Greybull isn't pouring through Keisel's veins. He still hunts, still eats venison {"Better than beef;I love to crunch it down."}, and he's married to a hometown girl, Sarah, whom he's known since the fourth grade.

"{Greybull}is where I train during the offseason. It might be different to some people, but I've had a great life there," Keisel said.

Life isn't so bad with the Steelers either.

A seventh-round draft pick in 2002 of of Brigham Young, Keisel opened the eyes of coach Bill Cowher early in his career by flashing his speed {4.6 seconds in the 40-yard-dash}, lightning-quick first step and all-out athleticism {he is a highly skilled basketball player who was recruited by Ben Howland when the latter coached at Northern Arizona}.

He even has a nasty disposition, evidenced by his kamikaze missions on special teams since the day he first donned a No. 99 jersey with the Steelers.

In fact, there were fewer scarier sights on the football field in recent seasons than Keisel running full-bore on special teams waiting to explode through a wedge.

"It's pretty unnatural for a guy that big to be so athletic," linebacker Larry Foote said.

Foote would know, because Keisel once went stride for stride with the much-smaller linebacker in a 60-yard-dash. Keisel won the sprint, but Foote claims the latter false started.

Whatever.

"He is probably the best athlete on the defensive line," von Oelhoffen said of his understudy while still with the Steelers. "He has a great motor. This guy can pretty much do it all. You should see him on that basketball court, he's dunking, doing 360's, the whole thing."

It wasn't so long ago that Keisel was the talk of Wyoming for his prowess in basketball and football. He was a candidate for the McDonald's All-American team in hoops and was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Wyoming in football and basketball.

After deciding that he couldn't make a living on the hardwood, Keisel toiled as a junior-college football player a couple of years before spending his final two years at BYU, where he finished with 66 career tackles, nine sacks, and 19 tackles for losses.

The Steelers used their second and final pick of the seventh round on Keisel, who was taken 242nd overall in 2002.

"I was about 10 guys away from {Mr. Irrelevant status}," Keisel said. "Wouldn't want to relive that experience again."

Keisel knew the odds weren't in his favor when he arrived in Pittsburgh, so he approached special teams coach Kevin Spencer and asked to be summoned to any and all units, even if that meant working as a practice dummy.

Keisel quickly began making an impact with that speed.

"I knew special teams was my chance to make it," Keisel said. "If I would have messed it up, I would have had myself to blame. "

It was his attention to detail on special teams that opened other doors, namely as a starting defensive end on the defending Super Bowl champions.

"Brett's an intelligent football player," said defensive line coach John Mitchell, who says he often can't tell whether it's Keisel or Smith on the field when viewing tape. "He uses his hands real well and he gets off blocks, and he can run. Brett has a feel for this game."

If there were any questions about Keisel's ability to contribute in big games, he answered them in the Steelers AFC title-game victory in Denver last January.

He put the finishing touches on a 34-17 victory with a sack {his second of the game} and forced fumble on the Broncos Jake Plummer in the waning moments.

It was vintage Keisel, as he tracked down Plummer with that impressive speed, then sent a jolt through the rattled quarterback.

"He's always been a great player for us," Smith said. "You could see it. He's just a quick, athletic guy."

Not to mention, fearless.

"I guess when you grow up around wild animals, playing this game isn't the hardest thing in the world," Keisel said, laughing.