LATROBE, Pa. — Alameda Ta’amu’s second chance began with a daily knock on the door.
Nearly every morning during the offseason, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward would stop by the nose tackle’s house. Together, Heyward and the former University of Washington star would drive to the team’s facility and go through a series of cardiovascular exercises.
Hard enough when you’re in shape. Even harder when you’re a 22-year-old, 372-pound manchild trying to show the kind of discipline you lacked during a disastrous rookie season that nearly ended your professional career before it even began.
Ta’amu is mature enough to talk about it now, eager to put the night he sent police on a dangerous chase behind him. The chaotic pursuit ended with Ta’amu in handcuffs.
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The Steelers cut him a couple of weeks later and re-signed him to the practice squad. He eventually received probation and a vote of
confidence from coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert, who told him he hadn’t lost the trust of the franchise that selected Ta’amu in the fourth round of the 2012 draft.
What Ta’amu really needed was a friend. He found one in Heyward, who wouldn’t give Ta’amu a chance to say no.
“I was just trying to help,” the son of late NFL running back Craig “Ironhead” Heyward said. “I always tried to talk to him and be straightforward with him.”
Perhaps more importantly, Ta’amu was ready to listen. Embarrassed by his behavior and well aware he was down to his last chance, Ta’amu responded by taking his job seriously. He cut more than 20 pounds off his 6-foot-3 frame to try to become an effective player in the middle of Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense.
Heyward helped show Ta’amu how to get in shape, how to use his hands for leverage and how to play to the whistle instead of stopping the second the play is past you.
The evidence of Ta’amu’s transformation became evident in Pittsburgh’s 18-13 loss to the New York Giants in an exhibition opener on Saturday. He played 20 snaps, made two tackles and showed the kind of technical proficiency that was foreign to him a year ago.
“I definitely thought he was physical,” Heyward said. “He ran to the ball a lot better. He’s just got to keep working on technique and hand placement. Overall I thought his effort was really good and he was ready for it.”
He wasn’t ready a year ago, on the field or off.
Ta’amu, a member of The News Tribune’s Northwest Nuggets in 2008 as a senior at Rainier Beach High, was out of shape during his first training camp and then nearly sabotaged his entire career in the early morning hours of Oct. 14.
Ta’amu was driving the wrong way down a one-way street when police attempted to stop him. Instead, he fled, crashing into four cars, injuring a woman in a parked SUV before being taken into custody.
He pleaded guilty to charges of reckless endangerment, resisting arrest and driving under the influence.
While at UW, Ta’amu was arrested during a December 2009 incident and later pleaded guilty to negligent driving.
The Steelers are searching for someone to replace departed five-time Pro Bowl player Casey Hampton. Steve McLendon appears to have worked his way into a starter’s role while Ta’amu and Al Woods are battling for playing time.
“Casey always told me … you start doing good things and everybody will forget what happened in the past,” Ta’amu said. “I’m just trying to stay under the radar.”
Ta’amu knows if there’s one more lapse in judgment, he’s done in Pittsburgh and perhaps in the NFL.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” Ta’amu said. “They gave me a second chance to go out there and show what I can do. I’m going to try and make the most of it.”