‘Steeler Nation’ a cross-country look at a diverse team

By Neal Coolong  |   Saturday, December 27, 2008  |  Comments( 1 )

Pittsburgh Steelers
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Pittsburgh Steelers beat writer Jim Wexell shines a spotlight on the well-known but infrequently explored niche of an athlete’s hometown in his newest book, “Steeler Nation.”

Wexell spent a good chunk of the first half of the 2007 season on the road, driving from his home in Irwin, Pa., across the country, visiting the hometowns and cities of current and former Steelers players. He conducted interviews with Steelers players after games (posted on Steel City Insider, the Fox Sports-owned Scout Network Web site he publishes) and interviews with their high school coaches, parents, friends and teachers.

It’s the story of someone who lived in an RV for six weeks, and got closer to a team than most authors would dare. The result is a wonderfully engaging story from a writer who understands the difference between telling a story and showing it to his readers.

Wexel's buddy Jan accompanied him for much of the trip, culminating in a fantastic interview with former Steelers and current Cardinals offensive line coach Russ Grimm in Phoenix after Arizona’s 21-14 upset win in 2007. Grimm’s disarmed quotes prove Wexell’s street cred when it comes to maintaining relationships with his subjects inside and outside the organization.

This is an excerpt from the conversation between Wexell and Grimm.

“I told Grimm that he looked healthy, but I didn’t say what I was thinking, that being rejected by the Steelers may have been the best thing to happen to him."

“It’s obviously motivated him. Only three beers in the cooler!?"

‘I like it here. I’m getting used to it,’ he said. ‘I lost about 20 pounds since I got here. Christ, you don’t have a choice with this heat.’

“Was this a circle game?

‘It really was,’ he said. ‘I looked forward to it.’

“On top of the world?"

‘No. I mean, we’re 2-2. After the game, I wished them all the best of luck. I hope they all stay healthy. They are a bunch of good friends of mine. I want to see them have success. I hope the next time we meet will be out here in February.’

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect is the lack of cliché answers from those interviewed. He didn’t spend much of his space talking to the player, but rather, he sat in coffee shops discussing Troy Polamalu with those who know him from his days in Tenmile, Ore. Wexel shared a car with Casey Hampton’s family in Texas. He got a haircut from A-Train, an acquaintance of Ike Taylor’s uncle Herman in New Orleans.

His final product isn’t flowery or heavily slanted. The book exudes the feeling of hearing a story told by a subject matter expert in a very relaxed atmosphere. Wexell provides a beautiful description of driving through Colorado from Phoenix, and despite the scenery, he adds in the anxious feeling of driving a vehicle for 400 straight miles (and running out of gas).

Wexell told RealFootball365 later that he had great memories of the driving aspect.

The fact Wexell has enough trust built with the players that they allowed him access to their families is enough of a precursor to anyone possessing an interest in the Steelers. He highlights the conversations he had with Hampton and James Harrison before adding their hometowns to his itinerary. It paints a wonderfully human picture of two Steelers fan favorites, also providing the reader a warm, humanistic look into the environments from which these players arrived in the NFL.

It’s written in the same energetic yet poignant style his day-to-day coverage of the team contains, and despite having multiple opportunities to do so, he rarely injects himself into the story. The times he highlights parts of the trip that didn’t specifically deal with a player, it was done humorously with great color of the backdrop, but it was never a “look-at-me” glimpse of his experiences.

Wexell said he envisioned having chapters with other players and with coach Mike Tomlin, but what made it through the final edit is nonetheless an entertaining read for any Steelers fan.
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About Neal Coolong

Neal Coolong is a freelance sports writer with contributions to Scout.com, AOL and Steelers Live. He lives with his fiance in St. Paul, Minn., and saves every dime (that she knows about) for their wedding next June. He's already made the prediction that the Steelers 2007 draft class will be one...
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