PITTSBURGH (AP) — Larry Foote still stops by the special teams meetings, partly out of habit, partly out of loyalty.
It wasn't so long ago — less than a year actually — that the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker found the gatherings mandatory, all part of life as an NFL backup, even one with a decade in the league and a pair of Super Bowl rings.
"The older you get, the longer you play, the more you've got to convince them you're young and you still want to play," Foote said. "Guys upstairs are trying to replace you right now, they're trying to find somebody they can play cheaper."
Even if there might not be anybody playing better on Pittsburgh's defense.
The 32-year-old Foote, now back in the starting lineup following the release of longtime defensive anchor James Farrior, had 12 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in a season-opening 31-19 loss to Denver.
Not bad for a guy who spent the last three seasons as the football equivalent of duct tape, filling in wherever necessary whenever one of his teammates went down.
It's not exactly the return Foote envisioned after coming back to Pittsburgh following a one-year sabbatical with the Detroit Lions in 2009. Drafted by the Steelers in the fourth round of the 2002 draft, Foote started 80 straight games between 2004-08 before heading back to his native Michigan hoping to turn around a moribund franchise.
Frustrated by a 2-14 season, he sprinted back to Pittsburgh only to find his starting job taken by Lawrence Timmons. No matter, Foote simply sucked it up and volunteered to do all the little things required to hang on to a roster spot, special teams included.
The unit valued his leadership, not to mention his penchant for finding his way to the ball. The fact he didn't consider himself above the work wasn't lost on some of his younger teammates.
"Guys like Foote are a hot commodity for any team," second-year linebacker Chris Carter said. "Not only can he fill in and be a starting middle linebacker for us, but he's been playing 11 years now and he still could start at every single special team because he's got the speed and he knows what to do."
Farrior's release/retirement opened the door for Foote to reclaim a starting role even as the team selected Sean Spence out of Miami in the third round of last April's draft as his eventual replacement. A nasty knee injury suffered in the preseason forced Spence to injured reserve, leaving Foote with a heavy workload. It's one he certainly looked comfortable with against the Broncos. In fact, he welcomed Denver quarterback Peyton Manning back to the NFL with a sack, dragging the four-time MVP to the ground on the Broncos' first possession to force a punt.