I keep on rowing into the sea
Because this dream of mine was meant to be....
And in my heart there burns a fire
I'm on The Journey of My Desire.
Steve Avery sat down with his Fender Stratocaster just a few
days before Pittsburgh's final roster cut of 1994, slipped the
guitar's tattered leather strap over his shoulder and composed
these lyrics while hoping his dream of making an NFL roster
wasn't about to come to an end. The fullback had already been
cut seven times by four different NFL teams in five years. At
one point, in 1993, he left football altogether to work as a
groundskeeper at a golf club in Fort Myers, Fla. As the notes
and words to the melodic rock tune flowed out of him, Avery
realized that this was probably the last chance for him to
complete the journey of his desire.
"Before it was too late, I wanted to write a song that captured
the emotions of a guy like me trying to make it in the NFL,"
says Avery, 29, who can play five instruments. "I couldn't help
but think of the movie Ben-Hur, when the guy yells to his men in
the galley, 'We keep you alive to serve this ship--so row well
and live.' That's pretty much how it can feel in the NFL if
you're not a top draft pick. It doesn't matter if you're hurt,
tired, sick or dying. Keep rowing, or they'll throw you
overboard and put someone else in your seat."
The Steelers, however, decided to keep Avery aboard, and the
6'2", 225-pound back has yet to give up his seat. A punishing
blocker with a heavy-metal approach to the game, Avery tied for
second on the team with 13 special teams tackles last season.
This year he has started two games in place of injured fullback
John L. Williams, while his indomitable spirit has become a
fixture in the locker room. "Steve's a guy you can't tell no
to," says Pittsburgh running backs coach Dick Hoak. "There's no
quit in him."
That type of persistence helped Avery develop his skills as a
musician. Growing up in Brookfield, a suburb of Milwaukee, he
pounded holes in the Mickey Mouse drum set his parents bought
him as a six-year-old. He mastered the saxophone in grade school
and was kicked out of the Brookfield High band after he
improvised a few too many percussion solos during group
symphonic pieces. He channeled his musical rebelliousness into
several garage bands--Bedlam, Backscatter ("We just pointed to a
word in the dictionary for that name," says Avery) and The
X-Tensions, to name a few--and performed at University of
Wisconsin frat houses and in Chicago-area bars.
After high school Avery attended Northern Michigan, where he
walked on to the Wildcat football team as a freshman and
finished as the school's alltime leading rusher. During
off-seasons he drove home every weekend with his drum kit to
play and record demo tracks with The X-Tensions. And although
the band broke up in 1989 during his first NFL training camp,
Avery still manages to play and write music in a wide range of
styles--from Black Flag to the Black Crowes to Clint Black.
In his downtown Pittsburgh apartment, packed with a guitar,
bass, piano, drums and a digital eight-track recording system,
Avery keeps himself in tune by giving music lessons to several
Steelers. Thanks to Avery, tackle Justin Strzelczyk can now
crank out a lot of Neil Young on the electric guitar. "Noisewise
it might be a little bit quieter for my neighbors if I owned a
pet elephant," says Avery, who has written and recorded nearly
two albums' worth of material, which he hopes to release after
his NFL career. "When I'm jamming, I can make a huge racket."
Nowadays, he's making a bit of noise on the field, too.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE The Steeler fullback brings a heavy-metal spirit to his play on the field and off it. [Steve Avery]