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When he was not recovering from back surgery, resting in a hyperbaric chamber or taking shots at his teammates and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, James Harrison could sometimes be found floating on Lake Erie. On several days during the lockout—a four-month period during which Steelers players dominated the headlines for all the wrong reasons—Harrison chartered a fishing boat, leaving the land and its complications behind. Defensive end Brett Keisel joined him on some of the excursions, and they would go miles off shore, deep into the choppy waters, fishing for walleye. "I had to take Dramamine," Keisel says.
The Steelers had the kind of turbulent off-season that could sicken a franchise. Receiver Hines Ward, who became a crossover sensation by winning Dancing with the Stars, was arrested on a DUI charge. (He has an Oct. 6 court date.) Running back Rashard Mendenhall took to Twitter to offer his nonmainstream theories on Osama bin Laden and Sept. 11. Then in an inflammatory interview in the August issue of Men's Journal, Harrison posed with a pistol in each hand, called Goodell "a crook and a puppet" (and those were the nicer terms he used), and criticized Mendenhall and Ben Roethlisberger for committing costly turnovers in Pittsburgh's 31--25 loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV. The Steelers, it seemed, were fighting something akin to collective depression. "I definitely didn't appreciate winning [a Super Bowl] until I lost one," says safety Troy Polamalu.
But this Pittsburgh team has showed it's resilient enough to overcome turmoil. Last season Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy, and the Steelers went 3--1 in his absence. Harrison incurred more than $100,000 in fines for various hits, and the Pittsburgh defense only tackled harder. Despite the conflicts (or perhaps because of them), the Steelers advanced to their second Super Bowl under coach Mike Tomlin. And after they came so close last year, no controversy looks big enough to trip them up.
Says Roethlisberger, who discussed Harrison's comments in a phone call with the linebacker: "It was nothing. There [were] no lingering affects. He plays the game with a passion that we all recognize, and off the field he's the same sort of emotional guy. That's just who James is. We're fine. We were joking about it that day."
Mendenhall says of Harrison, "Everything's cool. He's my teammate. We're always good."
Their message is uniform: What matters most is what happens on Sundays. It's the perspective of a team dominated by thirtysomethings who realize the Lombardi Trophy is the only goal and the only measure of success. And the most immediate concern will be staying a step ahead of Baltimore in a division that promises to come down, as usual, to those two bitter rivals. The Steelers drafted defensive lineman Cameron Heyward out of Ohio State—another athletic body to throw into Dick LeBeau's 3--4 defensive machine—and are bullish on the prospect of second-year receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, who played beyond their years in 2010. Pittsburgh also added a solid veteran wideout in Jerricho Cotchery, the former Jet.
Overcoming injuries will also be critical. Harrison had surgery in February to remove part of a herniated disk in his lower back (and follow-up surgery in March). Polamalu won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season but was hobbled by an Achilles injury that clearly slowed him in the Super Bowl. Defensive end Aaron Smith missed most of the season, including the Super Bowl, with a torn triceps. All three say they're now at full strength.
While still tough and demanding, Tomlin has been calibrating his practices to get the most out of his aging players. "We played longer than every team other than the Packers," says Steelers safety Ryan Clark, a 10th-year veteran. "[Coach Tomlin] knows he can come to us and ask, 'Is this too much, guys?' We'll be honest with him." Adds linebacker James Farrior, entering his 15th season: "Rest is the key nowadays. Getting your body back healthy."
In two of the last three seasons the Steelers have either celebrated a Super Bowl victory or mourned a Super Bowl defeat. But their intensity and focus didn't waver in the face of major distractions. Harrison says his vituperative off-season comments were out of anger and frustration, and that his teammates "understand me and I understand them." They've had their wills tested and their bodies beaten. Only a seventh Super Bowl title will make their minds right.