Tomorrow Ryan Shazier will already be in some rarefied football air as he'll become one of only a few rookies to open the season at inside linebacker for the Steelers in the past 40 years. One of those was Kendrell Bell, who after a bright debut in 2001 flamed out with chronic injuries.
One of the others, was this guy:
But before he would embark on a legendary career, Jack Lambert too, was a rookie, and made enough of an impression on his coaches that he would become an opening day starter. In the Aug. 22, 1974 Pittsburgh Press column below, Phil Musick explains how a rookie caught even Chuck Noll's eye.
Lambert: Rare Praise
By Phil Musick, Press Sports Writer
LATROBE -- By the nature of their calling, professional football coaches are blase. Plays which would cause the fan to beat his neighbor with a hot dog while swallowing his program draw yawns from the coach, who sees the extraordinary so often so as to become jaded.
But, occasionally, a player will perform an act so impressive as to make the coach's whistle fairly tremble. Let us now listen to one such occurrence as described by that well-known verbal conservative, Chuck Noll:
"We're running a play where the flow goes to the right. Only the quarterback fakes the handoff, bootlegs the ball and throws to his left. Lambert goes with the flow, catches himself, goes the other way and dives in the air and takes the ball out of the receivers hands. Fantastic play."
You must understand that the word fantastic is as much a part of Noll's vocabulary as the word Watergate is of Gerald Ford's. Noll is a very prudent user of the adjective. He would describe the Matterhorn as a hill. He uses words like fantastic about as often as Pete Rozelle calls Ed Garvey to chat.
But in the space of a week, he has referred to Lambert, the club's No. 2 draft pick, using both words fantastic and sensational. Either will do in defining Lambert's progress to date.
Presently, he is one of three middle linebackers on the Steeler roster. The incumbent, Henry Davis, remains hospitalized with a mild concussion; next in the line of succession would be third year pro Ed Bradley.
Lambert must be making both of them extremely nervous despite the old NFL tenet that says to use rookie middle linebackers on a regular basis is to invite a plague upon your house.
But, when it came to crunch in the overtime period Saturday night in Philadelphia, the middle linebacker was Jack Lambert, which may mean nothing ... or everything. Noll evades the question of which, but his eyes twinkle while he is doing it.
"I can't sit here and say that I'm better than Henry Davis," Lambert says, "But I can do the job. I want to start ... to play. Not to play is wasteful."
That Lambert will play already seems a foregone conclusion. He surely inspire that tale about being nimble and quick, but more importantly, he is a hitter. As Noll says, "He's tough and he hits anything that moves. His progress has been sensational."
Certainly it has been enough for defensive assistant Woody Widenhofer to go about for weeks calling Lambert "tremendous." Lambert, himself, will only agree that he is capable.
"I have a lot of confidence," he says. "I feel I can do it. The Philadelphia game made me feel the coaches have confidence in me too."
The original rap on Lambert was that he was too small to play the middle, and as NFL middlemen go, he is smallish. One local sportscaster, observing Lambert has 215 pounds stretched tautly over a 6'4 1/2 frame, suggested he be named Jack the Beanstalk. And various pro observers have expressed skepticism when informed the Steelers were using him primarily in the middle.
But Lambert, who can bench press 350 pounds, although he doesn't look it, is unworried about a lack of heft. He likes the middle. "I think I play better there," he says. "The last four years all I heard was 'go for the ball, go for the ball.' Outside, you have to slow down a little."
Restraint would seem unnatural to Lambert. On the field he gives the appearance of being wound tighter than a cheap wristwatch. "Because of my size, I have to be intense," he explains.
Lambert has been intense since he he played high school ball in Mantua, Ohio. When he hit people, the shock waves were felt two miles down the road in Hiram.
"The other coaches gave me a reputation as a dirty player," Lambert says. "One coach called me the dirtiest player in the whole conference. But they said that after I'd gotten a really good hit on their quarterback."
Signed by Kent State -- I was 6-3 and 185; they recruited me as a monster" -- he was converted to middle linebacker midway through his sophomore year.
"I was a late starter ... slow and clumsy," he smiles.
Now he is neither, and there is evidence he may be a great stretch runner.