The Steelers and Antonio Brown did not have a cordial split when he forced his way out after the 2018 season. It is hard to understate how many connections Brown and the Steelers have made over the years, however. Within his nine years with the team, Brown was an elite receiver who took the Steelers’ offense to new heights. It was then the ‘Killer Bs’ were born with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Brown as the three faces of the Steelers high octane offense.
With his less than ideal exit from Pittsburgh and his rocky road since, Brown may have played his last down in the NFL. So, when Brown tweeted back in May that he wanted to return to Pittsburgh, the alarm bells went off. There was no way that Brown could return to the Steelers and actually play for them again, right?
On The Pivot Podcast, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin completely shut down any speculation of that potentially happening. There was simply no way Tomlin could envision Brown coming back into the Steelers locker room.
“Ya’ll know that ain’t happening,” Tomlin said when asked about Brown returning to the Steelers. “In terms of putting the helmet on, running out of the tunnel, and playing ball, he’s moved on and we’ve moved on. We can sit around and pretend that’s a realistic conversation, but we all know that’s not realistic.”
Tomlin did not close the door on Brown potentially signing a one-day contract and retiring with the Steelers, which is what Brown’s intention was when he sent out the tweet. If that is what Brown wants to do, it is likely it will be granted by the Steelers. Tomlin responded to that with a simple “of course, yeah” to that assertion. Brown will never come out of the Steelers tunnel in a helmet and pads again, though. For both sides, it seems that the bridge has long passed.
That does not mean Tomlin can not appreciate what Brown brought to the team. He was 5-foot-10 and not all that big, but Brown was a special player. It was easy to argue that he was potentially the best receiver in the NFL at his apex. Tomlin will never forget the player that Brown was during his time in Pittsburgh. No matter how that relationship ended or how sour it may be, Brown was a phenomenal wide receiver.
“But what I will say about AB is this, man we had nine great years,” Tomlin said. “I appreciate that dude in ways I can’t explain to y’all and in ways I won’t even bother to attempt to explain to y’all because it sounds like I’m defending him in some way. To me, the nature of our relationship and what we did together requires no defense. You can digest it however you want to digest it. But I don’t think enough gets said about the will of that dude, the work ethic of that dude, about the fearlessness in which he played the game.”
It was not just that fearlessness that drew Tomlin to Brown. It was more than that. Brown’s size and frame would not be the special physical tools someone would put on a wide receiver made in a lab. Still, Brown ended up being a dominant receiver in the league and defenses feared him. That is what Tomlin can remember about Brown.
“Think about how many played the wideout position you can say that about,” Tomlin said. “He wasn’t a goon wideout. He wasn’t 6-4, two-and-a-quarter, but I’ve never seen him blink. I’ve never seen him shy away from anything that wasn’t comfortable on a football field. We talk about all of this stuff man but we don’t talk about that. Unbelievable will, unbelievable work ethic, unbelievable belief in himself. That’s what I think about me when I think about the nine years I spent with that dude. I think he was the best punt returner on the planet. The first time he touched the ball in an NFL football game he ran a kickoff back. I had a ringside seat for all of that special stuff.”
When Brown did not suit up for the regular-season finale against the Bengals in 2018, it was an odd case. It led to Brown demanding a trade, which would eventually occur when he ended up with the then Oakland Raiders. That is what the public saw about Brown. It was the saga of tweets and craziness. Over the last few seasons, there have been even crazier things happening, like Brown running off the field against the Jets. Tomlin has personal connections to Brown, though, and sees him for who he is that way. Namely, Tomlin remembers the type of dad that Brown was.
“So when people want to talk about craziness or negativity as it pertains to him, I choose not to participate,” Tomlin said. I’ve got so many other things to talk about. I witnessed this dude grow and have a desire to be an unbelievable dad. When he was young and he was open and transparent with me in ways he grew and learned not to be, he hit me up. He said, ‘hey man, it’s Easter, what should I do for my boy?’ I said, ‘man, get that dude a suit, take him to church, and after church come around my house around one o’clock tomorrow and we’ll have an egg hunt around this joint.’ That real intimacy man, to see that his rookie year as a single dad, he had little AB and we would take turns with little AB. We were laying at Pittsburgh International (Airport) after the game and I would tell him to let him sleep and we can come get him in the morning. Real dude stuff.”
As more fame hit Brown, it seemed that he crumbled against it in the NFL. Brown played for four different teams since his exit from the Steelers, and never suited up for the Raiders. Instead, he ended up having a successful stint with the Buccaneers where he won a Super Bowl. His time did not end well there, either, but he did get a ring. Tomlin will look back on Brown at who he was in his fondest moments. He simply may have changed with the more attention he received.
“Because with success comes a lot of things,” Tomlin said. “Some we deal with well, some we don’t. Some he dealt with well, some of it he didn’t and some of it changed him in ways that weren’t as attractive. Some ways he grew in a big way. He was really naïve when he got here. He’s not a naïve dude in terms of ways of the world, business and how to market himself now. He grew, we all grow. We grow in life and because of a lot of things; but particularly, success is a slippery red carpet.”
While it seems like Brown will not ever don the black and gold again in a game, he could retire a Steeler if he so chooses to do so. That could be a happy ending to all parties invovled.