Casey Hampton’s deep belly laugh, the one that could cut the tension in a meeting room or light up the sideline in an instant, is gone. So is the massive backside that could send opposing centers back onto their heels and the wisdom that comes with being a five-time Pro Bowler.
And for the man used to trotting onto the field for the Pittsburgh Steelers when Hampton’s familiar No. 98 came chugging off, it’s just weird.
“Sometimes, I wish he was still here,” Steve McLendon said. “There’s not much you can say about it. I miss him. I think we all do.”
While the decision to cut 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison in the offseason created headlines, the 35-year-old Hampton was nudged quietly toward retirement when the longest-tenured member of one of football’s most stable franchises was not offered a new contract. He remains unsigned, even though McLendon insists Hampton can still play.
McLendon may be right, but it most certainly won’t be with the Steelers, leaving defensive end Brett Keisel as the last man standing from a defensive front that led Pittsburgh to three Super Bowl appearances and two championships during a six-year stretch between the 2005 and 2010 seasons.
Chris Hoke retired at the end of 2011. So did end Aaron Smith. Now Hampton is gone and Keisel doesn’t have a deal beyond 2013.
“If it is the end, I want to go out on top,” Keisel said. “And I want to go out on top if it’s not the end.”
As has become tradition, Keisel arrived for training camp at Saint Vincent College on Friday in a dump truck with a Steelers hard hat perched atop his head and the barely-in-control thatch of hair that serves as his beard in midseason form. The entrance was more than a little symbolic, with Keisel pointing out the team is “under construction.”
If so, the strongest beam needs to be replaced.
Even as Hampton’s play declined as he approached his mid-30s, he remained the unquestioned heart and soul in the middle of Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense. He clogged up running lanes between the hash marks and served as a mentor on the sidelines and in the classroom, one who knew how to push buttons with his homespun charm.
The job has now been passed down to Keisel, coming off a steady season in which he picked up 4.5 sacks and was credited with 40 quarterback pressures. Surrounded by a bunch of 20-somethings, Keisel understands he’s now the old guy, one who is ready to carry on the legacy left behind by the players who molded him from seventh-round reach in 2002 to a veteran well into his second decade in the NFL.
“If we need answers, we look to him,” defensive end Ziggy Hood said. “If he leads us through, I’m just going to follow.”
The Steelers hope that path leads to the quarterback.