Keisel a real-life mountain man

August 29, 2005

Given the choice between staring down a mountain lion or a Detroit Lion, Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel would take the latter every time.

Mountain lions hypnotize ... mesmerize ... paralyze.

"They look into your soul, I swear, with those big yellow eyes. They look right through you," said Keisel, who traps the menacing carnivores in his hometown of Greybull, Wyo.

"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 its 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 on him by fellow defensive end 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, who recently turned his beard into a goatee, can barely argue the point. He was raised in a one-light 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 dish 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 rustle cattle and horses around the farm when he wasn't hunting orfishing. 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.

"My mother and father-in-law are still there -- my brother's there, my wife is from there," he said. "It's where I train in the offseason. It might be different to some people, but I've had a great life there."

Life isn't so bad with the Steelers these days, either. Keisel, 6-foot-5, 285 pounds, continues to open eyes at training camp with 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 the 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he received after tangling with a Philadelphia Eagles player in the preseason opener.

In three preseason games, he has six tackles, including three solos, and a halfsack. Keisel is the backup to the Smith, a Pro Bowler, and he is capable of playing either end position. In a pinch, the multi-dimensional veteran can set up at outside linebacker, a position that lacks experienced depth for the Steelers. He is also a scary sight for the opposition on special teams -- imagine a 285- pound mountain man speeding downfield full bore. Some believe he could be the sleeper of the Steelers defense this season.

"He is probably the best athlete on the defensive line," starting defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen said of Keisel, who went stride for stride with linebacker Larry Foote in a 60-yard dash this spring. "He has a great motor, and he can start for any team in the NFL. This guy can pretty much do it all. You should see him on that basketball court, he's dunking, doing 360s, 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 college seasons at Brigham Young, 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."

Added Foote: "He moves down that field, man. You don't want to get in his way."

Keisel remains an integral part of the special teams this year, but he also is making a case for more playing time behind Smith and von Oelhoffen.

"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. Some guys come into your program, and it takes a long time. He's been watching Kimo and Aarron play for a while. He's learned a lot. And when he's got his chances, he's taken advantage."

"The best thing is, if I come out of the game, I know we're not going to drop off," Smith said. "He's that good."

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