PITTSBURGH - Larry Foote still stops by the special teams meetings, partly out of habit, partly out of loyalty.
It wasn't so long ago - less than a year actually - the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker found the gatherings mandatory, all part of the life of an NFL backup, even ones with a decade in the league and a pair of Super Bowl rings.
"The older you get, the longer you play, the more you've got to convince them you're young and you still want to play," Foote said. "Guys upstairs are trying to replace you right now, they're trying to find somebody they can play cheaper."
Even if there might not be anybody playing better on Pittsburgh's defense.
The 32-year-old Foote, now back in the starting lineup following the release of longtime defensive anchor James Farrior, had 12 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in a season-opening 31-19 loss to Denver.
Not bad for a guy who spent the last three seasons as the football equivalent of duct tape, filling in wherever necessary whenever one of his teammates went down.
Who: New York Jets at Pittsburgh?Steelers
When: Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
It's not exactly the return Foote envisioned after coming back to Pittsburgh following a one-year sabbatical with the Detroit Lions in 2009. Originally drafted by the Steelers in the fourth round of the 2002 draft, Foote started 80 straight games between 2004-08 before heading back to his native Michigan hoping to turn around a moribund franchise.
Frustrated by a 2-14 season, he sprinted back to Pittsburgh only to find his starting job taken by Lawrence Timmons. No matter, Foote simply sucked it up and volunteered to do all the little things required to hang on to a roster spot, special teams included.
The unit valued his leadership, not to mention his penchant for finding his way to the ball. The fact he didn't consider himself above the work wasn't lost on some of his younger teammates.
"Guys like Foote are a hot commodity for any team," second-year linebacker Chris Carter said. "Not only can he fill in and be a starting middle linebacker for us, but he's been playing 11 years now and he still could start at every single special team because he's got the speed and he knows what to do."
Farrior's release/retirement opened the door for Foote to reclaim a starting role even as the team selected Sean Spence out of Miami in the third round of last April's draft as his eventual replacement. A nasty knee injury suffered in the preseason forced Spence to injured reserve, leaving Foote with a heavy workload. It's one he certainly looked comfortable with vs. the Broncos. In fact, he welcomed Denver quarterback Peyton Manning back to the NFL with a sack, dragging the four-time MVP to the ground on the Broncos' first possession to force a punt.
On Denver's second possession, Foote created Pittsburgh's first turnover of the season when he fell backwards into running back Willis McGahee, knocking the ball loose and giving the Steelers excellent field position.
It wasn't exactly the most jarring hit in league history. It hardly mattered.
"Sometimes when you're a baller, it just happens," Carter said. "I don't think even he knew he did it."
Nor did Foote care. The NFL actually adjusted his tackle total from eight to 12 after reviewing game film. Foote met the news with a shoulder shrug.
"I don't care what my stat line is," Foote said "I want to play good, without a doubt, it's natural. I'm just trying to win and this league is all about winning. When you lose, it's a quiet ride home."
Something hard to imagine for Foote. The wisecracking, playful Foote is one of the most popular players in the locker room. If he's not giving running commentary about the action on the ping-pong table near his stall he's shouting good-natured smack to young guys across the way.
Only when the whistle blows does Foote get serious. Though he's quick to point out the miscues by newcomers, he's also the first one with a friendly word of advice when things go wrong.
A year ago, Carter was a wide-eyed rookie just trying to get a toehold in the league. Few know the defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's intricate 3-4 scheme better than Foote, and he doesn't hesitate to offer pointers even though he knows the guys behind him are gunning for his job.
"Foote won't put you on blast," Carter said. "He'll whisper and say, 'Carter, remember you got this.' He does it to help me out. So, I definitely look up to him."
It's what veterans do at a franchise where "the standard is the standard." Foote is simply paying it forward. He was once a rookie, and though he's reached the pinnacle of the game twice, the memory of his first couple seasons remains fresh.
"I came in as a backup, a role player and you've got to work to prove yourself," he said. "First rounders don't have to prove themselves, they've got their money ... but us fourth rounders and guys that have to start off on special teams, you've got to steadily improve and when your opportunity comes along, you have to grab it."