"He's not spoiled like so many athletes who have always been stars," says Hughes. "He never complains. He studies so hard, does everything you tell him, and it's just because he wants to play. It's really refreshing, believe me."
Merriweather's personality also was forged in the dreary streets of Vallejo, which lies north of Oakland. "It's really a poor region, and there is a lot of crime," says Merriweather. "My neighborhood wasn't that bad, but there were a lot of people hanging out with nothing to do."
When he was 11, Merriweather was accused of breaking into a school and was arrested and charged with malicious mischief. He was sentenced to six months' probation. "I was being influenced by the wrong kids," he says.
The embarrassment of having to visit a probation officer gave him a new perspective. "I knew I never wanted to get in trouble again," he says. Having earned his degree in history, Merriweather plans to return to college and get his master's in sociology and then start working with disadvantaged kids.
The Steelers view Merriweather as a growth asset. "As good as our linebackers have been here through the years, we've never had anybody with his physical ability," says defensive coordinator Tony Dungy. "He's got 4.55 speed, he's quick, strong and has great ball skills. In five years he could be the best ever."
The Steelers dropped their traditional 4-3 defense three years ago and started to use the 3-4, a boon for a rushing linebacker. "We had the best down linemen for years, so we didn't need to send our linebackers," says Dungy. "With three linemen we can send any one of the backers and get the same four-man rush. It looks like a blitz, and the fans say, 'Hey, I like this,' but it's very safe. And we can go for the best match-up." Which usually means Merriweather against anybody.
Oddly, if Merriweather has a flaw, it is that, as he says, "Contact is not my favorite part of the game." He likes going for interceptions, making big plays while out of position, running around blocks. He's changing, though, learning that certain techniques can't be finessed. "In time he may become less spectacular, but even more effective," says Dungy.
Jack Lambert, Mr. Middle Linebacker, flicks his cigarette into the ashtray screwed to his locker and looks at the remnants of the Steel Curtain. Donnie Shell over there. Dwayne Woodruff and Gary Dunn, if you can count them. Robin Cole. Who else? Nobody, really. Just Lambert, hobbled with a dislocated big left toe these days.
The Steelers had some kind of line-backing crew in the '70s—Lambert, Andy Russell and Jack Ham: 23 career Pro Bowls among them. Lambert isn't about to let any momentary giddiness detract from that. "In my opinion Jack Ham is the best all-around outside linebacker who ever played," he says.
Merriweather, of course, is the man who took over for Ham when he retired after the 1982 season. So what about this new kid?