LATROBE, Pa. - Alameda Ta'amu's second chance began with a daily knock on the door.
Nearly every morning during the offseason, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward would stop by the nose tackle's house. Together they would drive to the team's facility and go through a series of draining, mettle-testing cardiovascular exercises.
Hard enough when you're in shape. Even harder when you're a 22-year-old, 372-pound manchild trying to exercise the kind of discipline you lacked in abundance during a disastrous rookie season that nearly ended your professional career before it even began.
WORKING EARLY IN CAMP — Pittsburgh defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu, left, linebacker Sean Spence center right, and tight end Heath Miller, right, all players on the physically unable to perform roster, work with conditioning assistant Marcel Pastoor, center left, during training camp on July 31.
-- Associated Press
Ta'amu is mature enough to talk about it now, eager to put the night he sent police on a dangerous chase through the city's Southside bar district behind him. The chaotic pursuit ended with Ta'amu in handcuffs.
The Steelers cut him a couple weeks later and re-signed him to the practice squad. He eventually received probation and a vote of confidence from coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert, who told him he hadn't lost the trust of the franchise that selected Ta'amu in the fourth round of the 2012 draft.
What Ta'amu really needed, though, was a friend. He found one in Heyward, who wouldn't give Ta'amu a chance to say no.
"I was just trying to help," Heyward said. "I always tried to talk to him and be straightforward with him."
Perhaps more importantly, Ta'amu was ready to listen. Embarrassed by his behavior and well aware he was down to his last chance, Ta'amu responded by taking his job seriously. He cut more than 20 pounds off his 6-foot-3 frame and realized it takes more than just being bigger than the guy across the line of scrimmage to become an effective player in the middle of Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense.
Heyward helped show Ta'amu how to get in shape, how to use his hands for leverage and how to play to the whistle instead of stopping the second the play is past you.
The evidence of Ta'amu's transformation became evident in Pittsburgh's 18-13 loss to the New York Giants in the preseason opener on Saturday night. He played 20 snaps, picked up two tackles and showed the kind of technical proficiency that was foreign to him a year ago.
"I definitely thought he was physical," Heyward said. "He ran to the ball a lot better. He's just got to keep working on technique and hand placement. Overall I thought his effort was really good and he was ready for it."
He wasn't ready a year ago, on the field or off.
Ta'amu was out of shape during his first training camp and then nearly sabotaged his entire career in the early morning hours of Oct. 14. Ta'amu was driving the wrong way down a one-way street when police attempted to stop him. Instead he ran, crashing into four cars, injuring a woman in a parked SUV and attempting to flee on foot before being taken into custody.
He eventually pleaded guilty to charges of reckless endangerment, resisting arrest and driving under the influence and will be on probation until Oct. 2014.
If he wanted to stick around, he needed to change. The Steelers are searching for someone to replace departed five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton. Steve McLendon appears to have worked his way into a starter's role while Ta'amu and Al Woods are battling for the right to be the first guy off the bench.
It will be weeks before a winner is declared. Ta'amu's play against the Giants served notice that he has no plans to cede the spot to Woods. Heady territory for a player who began training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list with a hamstring injury that occurred when he tried to push himself during a sprinting drill shortly before the Steelers arrived at Saint Vincent College.
"I was trying to set a personal best," Ta'amu said. "My hamstring said 'You're too heavy to run like this.'"
While allowing he felt better on Saturday night than he did any time as a rookie, Ta'amu isn't exactly ready to say he's got everything figured out. Watching tape on Monday morning, there were as many cringe-worthy moments as there were slaps on the back.
"A lot of mistakes," Ta'amu said. "There were times I had good push. But even if a play is 50-50, it's an F. I'm working on my way to make it a better grade for next time."
Even the fact Ta'amu is talking about a next time is a victory of sorts. He understands it may be a while before people are ready to forgive him for his missteps. Hampton advised Ta'amu there is a surefire way to move forward.
"Casey always told me ... you start doing good things and everybody will forget what happened in the past," Ta'amu said. "I'm just trying to stay under the radar."
At least off the field. On the field he no longer gasps for air when forced to move more than a couple yards. Getting in nearly two dozen plays speaks to his improved conditioning. Sure, not having an additional 25 pounds helps. So does the improved confidence that comes with believing you belong.
Ta'amu isn't quite there yet. One more lapse in judgment and he's done in Pittsburgh and perhaps the NFL. He knows many teams already would have bailed on him. He also knows most teams are not the Steelers when it comes to providing an avenue for a troubled player to work his way back into the fold.
"Everybody makes mistakes," Ta'amu said. "They gave me a second chance to go out there and show what I can do. I'm going to try and make the most of it."
NOTES: WR Plaxico Burress underwent surgery on Monday morning to repair a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Tomlin said it's too soon to determine a timetable for any possible return but it appears doubtful that Burress, who turned 36 on Monday, will be back this season. ... TE Matt Spaeth had surgery to repair a foot injury. He is expected to be back at some point this season. ... CB Terry Hawthorne, the team's fifth-round pick in the draft, practiced in pads for the first time after spending the first two weeks of camp dealing with a hamstring issue. ... G Justin Cheadle was carted off the field with a right leg injury. ... The Steelers are off on Tuesday. ... McLendon was excused from practice for "personal reasons," according to Tomlin.