PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers filed off the practice field past reporters and into the locker room with the enthusiasm of a group of kids getting out of school for summer.
These guys though were leaving football for a four-day holiday.
One of the big tight ends, Weslye Saunders, heard some jabs. Those were cloaked as paternalistic advice.
“Don’t do anything stupid tonight, Wes,” said one teammate.
“I don’t want to read about you tomorrow morning, Wes,” said another.
Were they parroting something they had just heard? Did Mike Tomlin just give one of his infamous post-practice/pre-holiday lectures? The one in which he warns the whipping boy du jour not to be “that guy”?
Well, Saunders is certainly a whipping boy these days. And he had better not be “that guy.”
“I’m behind the eight-ball more than I was last year,” Saunders said after Thursday’s third OTA at the Steelers’ practice facility.
“This is going to be tougher making the team this year than it was last year.”
Saunders is walking on eggshells right now because he has a four-game suspension hanging over his head at the start of the upcoming season.
Saunders indicated he has appealed the suspension, and can’t talk about the details, but earlier Saunders had tweeted that the suspension is for Adderall, normally used to treat Attentive Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The amphetamine aspect of the drug is also used to treat narcolepsy and to lose weight.
Another tweet by Saunders seemed to indicate the drug was his younger brother’s. But …
“I didn’t get it from my brother,” he said Thursday. “But it was a one-time occurrence. Out of a handful of tests, it was one test. It’s not like I’m a habitual user.”
Saunders was notified by the league about his suspension after the Super Bowl, and the guy who made the 2011 Steelers as an undrafted rookie – after having been forced off his college team – had reason to be gravely concerned about his career.
“Coming from what I came from you never know what people’s perception’s going to be,” Saunders said. “Was that the last straw? Was I out of here? As of right now I still have my job and I’m still working hard. That’s all I can ask for.”
Saunders heard from the Steelers (“they were definitely pissed”) and they told Saunders he had no excuse for not previously notifying the league what he was putting into his body.
“It was a big deal, and I was frustrated not being able to speak on it and everybody thinking it was illegal drugs and ‘this guy is a troublemaker; we should’ve seen this coming.’ It was just unfortunate. I apologize to the Steelers organization for bringing this unwanted attention on. If nothing else, I’m a rookie and this kind of thing will never happen again. Things are still pending right now and hopefully things will turn out my way.”
Saunders is entering his second season, but could've used a true rookie spring and summer last year.
“I’m not going to make excuses, but right now is when the rookies coming in are learning about what you can take and what you can’t take,” Saunders said. “Last year there was the lockout and we came straight from the house to Latrobe pretty much, so there was no real prep in that. But as a grown man I’m supposed to be responsible for everything that goes in my body.”
The 6-foot-5 Saunders is already in playing shape and has again put his deep speed, big body and soft hands on display during this first week of spring practices. His vast potential is the reason the suspension and subsequent place on the team matters in the first place. After all, he only caught 4 passes for 29 yards and 1 touchdown last season.
But now the guy with all of the potential is scared to death that he’s thrown it all away, and is determined to get into the best shape of his life before training camp.
“Oh, it’s about to get ugly soon,” Saunders said of his summer plans. “I want to go to Arizona with Ryan Clark and all those guys. It’s kind of pricey out there. Hopefully they can cut me a deal or something.”
The Steelers appear to be utilizing Saunders this spring as if they have plans for him this coming season. Saunders took that assessment with a look of surprise.
“I can only hope,” he said. “You never know. That’s the thing I learned about this league: You can never be too sure. I don’t want to be the guy who’s relaxing. I know we brought in some other tight ends for a reason and they’re trying to make a statement.”
Saunders gets it. He knows he’s down to his last strike. He knows he can’t be “that guy” again.