Jesse James remembers as an 11-year-old growing up in the Pittsburgh suburbs watching tight end Heath Miller and his hometown Steelers defeat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
A decade later, James, a rookie fifth-round pick embarking on his first tentative steps in the NFL, finds himself learning the ropes from the guy he studied so closely.
“It has been great and the Steelers are a great organization,” James said. “There isn’t a better place to play football.”
Miller, the Steelers’ first-round pick in 2005, was a fresh-faced rookie during the team’s run to a fifth Super Bowl title. He has appeared in two more Super Bowls since, helping the Steelers win a league-best sixth championship during the 2008 season. He’s well aware his role morphed from newcomer to mentor long ago. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, right?
“I think I’ve probably seen all the looks that I can see and been in all types of different situations,” said the 11-year veteran. “There’s a comfort level in knowing that and recognizing things and having a feel for what is about to happen before it happens.”
The 32-year-old two-time Pro Bowlers realizes he is on the back end of his career, but he’s not ready to hang up his cleats.
“I just try to approach each year and try not to think about the future,” Miller said. “I’m focused on this year and I guess when the time is right, maybe I’ll know. Right now, I’m all in for this year.”
That’s good news for James, a 21-year-old who attended nearby South Allegheny High School and played college football at Penn State.
“There wasn’t a better place to go as a tight end in this year’s draft,” James said. “To be able to come in and play under great tight ends here, it’s a great situation for me to be able to learn from them and hopefully take what I learn and display it on the field.”
James did just that in three years with the Nittany Lions. He started 31 games, including every one in the past two seasons. The 6-foot-7, 261-pounder caught 78 passes for 1,005 yards and 11 touchdowns, most by a tight end in school history and was an All-Big Ten selection in 2014 as a junior.
James took a slight gamble when he left Penn State a year early, but it’s paying off.
“I couldn’t be happier,” James said. “When I made my decision, I knew that I was able to contribute at the next level. That’s something I’m trying to prove here every day.”
He’ll have to continue to do it at the professional level.
The Steelers’ liked James’ frame and hope to use his natural strength as a blocking tight end. His size won’t hurt in the red zone either, another big target for Ben Roethlisberger.
“I feel I’m a balanced player and I can do whatever the team asks me to do,” James said. “You have to prove yourself in all phases of the game. It’s a new level, so I have to compete up to the level and make sure I’m doing my best every time.”
And he’ll have one of the best in the NFL as a tutor. There are worse ways to start a career. Way worse.
“I feel better every day, I’m learning each day in the meeting rooms and on the field and the veterans couldn’t be more helpful,” James said. “It’s going to carry into (training) camp and hopefully helps out a lot. I’m excited for it.”