HE STOOD at thepodium seething inside, yet appearing as sapped of ferocity as a zoo lion. Thisshould have been a great day for Joey Porter, an opportunity for one of theNFL's most voluble players to unleash his stream of consciousness on aninternational media horde gathered before him at Ford Field. Instead, on mediaday before Super Bowl XL, the Pittsburgh Steelers' All-Pro outside linebackerwas making brief, flattering statements about the Seattle Seahawks,disappointing the crowd that had come to prod him in his cage. Why did Ipromise my coach I'd do this? Porter thought to himself. And why is he muzzlingme in the first place?
Earlier inJanuary, before an AFC divisional playoff game in Indianapolis, Porter hadcalled the Colts soft, and afterward he'd accused the refs of cheating to helpPeyton Manning win an NFL title. Before the Super Bowl, Steelers coach BillCowher had instructed his players to avoid inflammatory quotes. So now Porterstood--fighting his every impulse--near one end zone of the Detroit stadium,resenting questions from reporters about sensationalistic subjects, such as thetime he'd been shot in the butt outside a Denver bar, when they should havebeen asking about his recent destruction of three of the AFC's top-ratedoffenses. He dutifully praised the Seahawks, lauding their MVP running back andtheir All-Pro left tackle. That was killing him.
After theinterview session Porter felt like showering. He was still in a funk the nextmorning when, under a large tent adjacent to the Steelers' hotel in suburbanPontiac, he took a seat at his preassigned table and prepared for another 60minutes of torture. Then it happened: Blessedly, beautifully, a reporterapprised Porter of a media-day quote from Seattle tight end Jerramy Stevens. Inresponse to a question about retiring Pittsburgh halfback Jerome Bettis'sreturn to his hometown to play in the Super Bowl, Stevens had said, "It's aheartwarming story and all that, but it will be a sad day when he leaveswithout that trophy."
September 3, 2006
To Porter thewords felt like warm sunshine on an early spring morning. He closed his eyes."You ever seen the movie Underworld: Evolution, where the blood drips downthere, and it wakes up Marcus?" he asked excitedly, comparing himself to adormant vampire. "Well, Marcus now got woke up. I was asleep all week. Ijust tasted blood right there ... and you crave it when you haven't tasted itin a while. Now I'm thirsty."
Few reportersunderstood what Porter was talking about; they just knew their week had becomeless boring. For the next two days Porter was the best story at the world'smost-hyped sporting event. In a pair of interviews televised live by the NFLNetwork, Porter skewered Stevens with increasing intensity, calling him softand "almost a first-round bust" and vowing to remind him of what hesaid "every time I put him on his back." Porter promised to try to"tap out" as many Seattle players as possible--slang for when a guytaps his helmet to signal he wants to leave the game. Reporters loved it.Porter was ecstatic.
He was stilljaw-jacking late on Super Sunday when Stevens, who'd scored the Seahawks' lonetouchdown, dropped his fourth pass of the day with three seconds remaining inthe Steelers' 21--10 victory. "You could've been the difference in thegame," Porter barked at Stevens. "Now you'll be mad the wholeoff-season." Part of Porter wanted to hug the guy for his efforts; instead,he kissed the Lombardi Trophy and kept right on yapping through the long,glorious night.
FIVE MONTHSlater, in the pool house behind his lovely home in Southern California's leastglamorous city--Bakersfield, where foam truckers' hats never went out ofstyle--Porter was again talking, in his gravelly rasp, about a player unworthyof being a champion. This time the target was point guard Jason Terry of theDallas Mavericks, who were down three games to two before Game 6 of the NBAFinals. As more than half a dozen members of Porter's Bakersfield crew suckeddown Budweisers before the game, the room was alive with the sound of spiritedtrash talk.
"Jason Terryain't got no A jumper!" Porter growled. "Dirk [Nowitzki] does; RayAllen does. Terry, he's got a C."
"Terry's aB," fired back Corny Asada, a.k.a. Kanieln Inouye--he was given hisnickname by Porter at a Vegas craps table--prompting a protracted debate overNBA shooters. Soon Porter was screaming, "Terry ain't no B! Gilbert Arenasis a B. D-Wade is a B. Paul Pierce is a B!"
"Paul F------Pierce!" everyone howled. Porter scowled. An explanation was in order: Twoyears earlier Porter and his crew were partying in Las Vegas, a frequentdestination, only five hours by car from Bakersfield. The Steelers had gone anAFC-record 15--1 the previous season and been to the conference title game, andwhen Porter and his boys rolled up to the House of Blues, the doormanrecognized him and waved them in. "We bought a lot of bottles and had a lotof fun," Porter remembers. "We stayed late, and everyone was lovingus."
The next nightPorter and the crew returned. This time the scene was more hectic, and thedoorman started sweating them about the dress code. An argument broke out,right in the middle of which Pierce, the Boston Celtics swingman, and hisentourage walked up to the velvet rope. The doorman's eyes lit up, and heimmediately let them in--even though Pierce was wearing sneakers. "That'sPaul F------ Pierce!" the doorman gushed.
"This is JoeyF------ Porter!" the linebacker's friends screamed, to no avail.
Porter learnedsomething that day. "Oh, man," he says. "He played me so bad. I sawthen that I still hadn't done enough."
If Porter istruly getting neglected in comparison with peers such as Ray Lewis and BrianUrlacher, it's not because he's shy, off the field or on. At 29, with anunyielding engine and a motormouth to match, the 6'3", 250-pound Porter maybe the most fearsome outside linebacker since Lawrence Taylor. Just ask NewEngland Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, whose experience lining up oppositePorter as a first-year starter in the AFC Championship Game in January 2002left him wondering whether he should have pursued a baseball career. "Itwas scary," Brady recalls. "Joey is one of the most physicallyintimidating players you'll go up against. He talks the talk, but he walks ittoo--he's coming after you, hard, every single snap. Now that I've gotten toknow him, he's like my favorite guy in the world, but on the field you knowthere's nothing he'd rather do than take the quarterback's head off."
Or ask Manning,who says, "Some guys in the NFL who talk like Joey are all talk--but notJoey. Joey's got Ray Lewis energy for four quarters. It's not wasted energy. Hehits you as hard in the fourth quarter as he did in the first, which tells youthat he backs up everything he says."
A three-time ProBowl player who led all NFL linebackers with 10 1/2 sacks in 2005, Porter has akiller combination of strength, size, speed and intensity that allows him towreak havoc in Pittsburgh's aggressive 3--4 scheme. Says fellow Steelerslinebacker Clark Haggans, who also played with Porter at Colorado State,"When he steps on the football field, I swear his eyes change colors and hegrows a couple of horns, like he's turning into Satan himself."
Porter has beengiving 'em hell since 1999, his rookie year, when the third-round draft pickrefused to wear 95, the jersey number of former Pittsburgh All-Pro Greg Lloyd,once the season started. Porter chose 55 instead, wanting to avoid comparisonswith Lloyd. A former college H-back and defensive end, he made a quick impact,with 17 special teams tackles as a rookie and then 10 1/2 sacks after becominga starter his second season. (His next regular-season sack will be the 54th ofhis career, moving him past Lloyd into fifth place on the team's alltime list.)Porter's a powerful enough tackler to have once played middle linebacker in theteam's nickel alignment, and he's quick and nimble enough to make plays in passcoverage. He had seven interceptions and 23 passes defensed over the past fourseasons.
On top of allthat, his motivational value to the Steelers can't be overstated. Rocking outpregame to the Beastie Boys and 50 Cent, railing at opponents during warmups,doing backflips and dancing wildly as his team gathers in the tunnel, Porter,in Haggans's words, "is the visual image of all the fury people have insideof them." Cowher, himself a former linebacker with a hot temper, saysPorter is "without a doubt the emotional leader of this team."
PORTER'S EMOTIONis so genuine and so much a part of him that Cowher's instincts are not to tryto tame it, but there are times when the coach feels his linebacker goes toofar. Porter's not difficult to provoke, as the Ravens' Lewis demonstrated inwarmups before the 2003 season opener when he mocked his injured rival by doingPorter's signature leg-kick celebration, the Boot. A week earlier Porter hadbeen shot through the left buttock while fleeing random gunfire outside aDenver sports bar, and he was in a fragile state of mind. The shooting spree,which killed one man, nearly deprived Porter of his manhood; he's convincedthat the bullet, which lodged in his right thigh, would have hit him in themost sensitive of regions had he not assumed a "sprinter's" stridewhile fleeing.
Porter screamedinsults at Lewis on the field, blasted him afterward to reporters and got intoa shouting match with him near the Steelers' bus. At a late-December rematch inBaltimore, the two co-captains had to be separated before the coin toss. Theypatched up their differences last February in Hawaii, a few days before the ProBowl. Lewis, serving as an analyst for the NFL Network, praised Porter in thedays leading up to the Super Bowl and, as a former MVP on the field for apregame ceremony, wished him luck. "Ray and I have come a long way,"Porter says. (Lewis, through a Ravens spokesman, said, "There was nohatchet to bury" and declined to comment further.)
Aside from thetwo games he sat out following the gunshot wound, the only game Porter hasmissed was in November 2004, when he was ejected before the kickoff because ofa fight with Cleveland Browns halfback William Green during warmups. Aremorseful Porter was chewed out by Cowher and by the one person whoseauthority he respects even more: his wife, Christy. Unlike Sammy Hagar, this isone person who can drive 55. "She's his Kryptonite," Bettis says ofChristy, a Bakersfield native with whom Joey has four children: daughtersJayla, 9, and Jasmine, 7, and sons Joey Jr., 6, and Jacob, 2.
Christy met herfuture husband when she was a third-grader and Joey, one grade behind her,"was the class clown," she recalls. "I thought, God, does this kidever shut up? The older he got, the louder he got. I can still remember ourjunior high school principal, Mr. Seams, standing in the balcony looking justlike the teacher from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, screaming, 'Joey Porter--shutup!'"
Part of Porter'sresistance to zipping it stemmed from his hardscrabble surroundings. "InBakersfield everybody's always trying to challenge you," says Porter'solder brother, Amosis (a.k.a. Moss). "It's the bully syndrome: If you toneit down, they'll step on you. And Joey has the biggest mouth in all ofBakersfield."
Christy mostlywanted no part of it but agreed to accompany Joey to their high school promafter both were stood up by their respective dates. Eventually he won herover--even after he showed up late for their wedding in 1999. According toPorter, his best man, Colorado State (and future Cincinnati Bengals) linebackerAdrian Ross, was being cited for parking illegally on an east Bakersfieldstreet, and the groom-to-be bristled when the officers called for a search ofRoss's tricked-out Chevy Impala. One cop ordered Porter to cross the street andkeep quiet; predictably, he refused. "Typical Bakersfield cops, doing whatthey do--harassing and intimidating," Porter says. "They threw me inhandcuffs for asking questions and left me in the back of the police car in110° heat with the engine turned off. I'd pissed them off so much, they droveme all the way downtown and then let me go. We were so damn mad, we all wentback to my house and started drinking." When he finally arrived at hiswedding, he says, "we were drunk and almost three hours late. My wifeprobably thought I wasn't coming."
Wouldn't it havebeen easier simply to obey the cops in the first place? "What's right isright, and what's wrong is wrong," says Porter, who later pleaded nocontest to obstructing or delaying an officer. "It's hard for me to sitback in those situations."
PORTER APPEAREDto be gearing up for another confrontation this off-season. He skipped some ofthe Steelers' voluntary workouts because he was unhappy with his contract--afour-year, $18.9 million deal that will pay him $9.2 million in salary andbonuses through 2007. But a conversation with Cowher defused the potentialsquabble with the front office. Now that he's back in black and gold, Porter,who missed the early part of camp while recovering from May arthroscopicsurgery on his right knee (his third minor knee procedure in less than fouryears), intends to be louder and prouder than ever. He has been chilly to theSteelers' beat writers because he thinks they made too much of his lighthearteddeclaration that he would "have something to say" to President Bushwhen the team visited the White House in June. (In the end Porter merelydeclined Bush's invitation to do the Boot.) But there's little chance thatPorter will remain subdued for long.
As he said on ahot, dusty late-June afternoon while turning his Dodge Ram 500 onto RosedaleHighway in Bakersfield, "If you don't want me talking, tell the media notto even come near me, because you're asking me to tuck my tail, and I don't getdown like that. I'm through doing the pat-on-the-back interviews--'He's great;we'll have our hands full.' I mean, when we say that s---, who are we reallydoing it for? The coaches? Do they all have a pact: 'Don't bash my players, andI won't bash yours'? Who are we trying to protect?"
Driving past alarge field dotted with oil rigs, Porter stuck his head out the window and letout a loud yell--"Woo-oooo!"--into the barren expanse. Though thetemperature had reached triple digits, this was anything but hot air."People try to make it like, If you speak your mind, you're a bad guy,"he said, his eyes gleaming. "But hell, I'm 29 years old. I'm a grown-assman. No more lying."
Read Michael Silver's take on the league every Thursday at SI.com/nfl.
"If you don't want me talking, tell the media notto come near me. You're asking me to TUCK MY TAIL, and I don't get down likethat. Who are we trying to protect?"