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"Paul F------ Pierce!" everyone howled. Porter scowled. An explanation was in order: Two years earlier Porter and his crew were partying in Las Vegas, a frequent destination, only five hours by car from Bakersfield. The Steelers had gone an AFC-record 15--1 the previous season and been to the conference title game, and when Porter and his boys rolled up to the House of Blues, the doorman recognized him and waved them in. "We bought a lot of bottles and had a lot of fun," Porter remembers. "We stayed late, and everyone was loving us."
The next night Porter and the crew returned. This time the scene was more hectic, and the doorman started sweating them about the dress code. An argument broke out, right in the middle of which Pierce, the Boston Celtics swingman, and his entourage walked up to the velvet rope. The doorman's eyes lit up, and he immediately let them in--even though Pierce was wearing sneakers. "That's Paul F------ Pierce!" the doorman gushed.
"This is Joey F------ Porter!" the linebacker's friends screamed, to no avail.
Porter learned something that day. "Oh, man," he says. "He played me so bad. I saw then that I still hadn't done enough."
If Porter is truly getting neglected in comparison with peers such as Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher, it's not because he's shy, off the field or on. At 29, with an unyielding engine and a motormouth to match, the 6'3", 250-pound Porter may be the most fearsome outside linebacker since Lawrence Taylor. Just ask New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, whose experience lining up opposite Porter as a first-year starter in the AFC Championship Game in January 2002 left him wondering whether he should have pursued a baseball career. "It was scary," Brady recalls. "Joey is one of the most physically intimidating players you'll go up against. He talks the talk, but he walks it too--he's coming after you, hard, every single snap. Now that I've gotten to know him, he's like my favorite guy in the world, but on the field you know there'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 not Joey. Joey's got Ray Lewis energy for four quarters. It's not wasted energy. He hits you as hard in the fourth quarter as he did in the first, which tells you that he backs up everything he says."
A three-time Pro Bowl player who led all NFL linebackers with 10 1/2 sacks in 2005, Porter has a killer combination of strength, size, speed and intensity that allows him to wreak havoc in Pittsburgh's aggressive 3--4 scheme. Says fellow Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans, who also played with Porter at Colorado State, "When he steps on the football field, I swear his eyes change colors and he grows a couple of horns, like he's turning into Satan himself."
Porter has been giving 'em hell since 1999, his rookie year, when the third-round draft pick refused to wear 95, the jersey number of former Pittsburgh All-Pro Greg Lloyd, once the season started. Porter chose 55 instead, wanting to avoid comparisons with 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 becoming a starter his second season. (His next regular-season sack will be the 54th of his 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 the team's nickel alignment, and he's quick and nimble enough to make plays in pass coverage. He had seven interceptions and 23 passes defensed over the past four seasons.
On top of all that, his motivational value to the Steelers can't be overstated. Rocking out pregame 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 inside of them." Cowher, himself a former linebacker with a hot temper, says Porter is "without a doubt the emotional leader of this team."
PORTER'S EMOTION is so genuine and so much a part of him that Cowher's instincts are not to try to tame it, but there are times when the coach feels his linebacker goes too far. Porter's not difficult to provoke, as the Ravens' Lewis demonstrated in warmups before the 2003 season opener when he mocked his injured rival by doing Porter's signature leg-kick celebration, the Boot. A week earlier Porter had been shot through the left buttock while fleeing random gunfire outside a Denver 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 convinced that the bullet, which lodged in his right thigh, would have hit him in the most sensitive of regions had he not assumed a "sprinter's" stride while fleeing.