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Been there, done that; Fort Wayne's Trai Essex makes Super Bowl a habit

Friday, February 4, 2011 - 11:00 am

Offensive linemen rarely have a chance to tout their individual numbers, but the Pittsburgh Steelers' Trai Essex boasts a pretty good one.

Essex, a graduate of Harding High School, has been in the NFL six seasons, and he's reached the Super Bowl three times. It's a fact: Essex has spent half his career enjoying a trip to the Super Bowl.

“This is my third time, and it doesn't get any less sweet,” Essex said in a recent radio interview with Pittsburgh's The Fan. “We've had to go through a lot to get to this point, and that makes the experience that much better.”

Essex won't start when the Steelers play the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday in Dallas, but he could end up playing a pivotal role. He has been the backup at every line position except center. Sunday, he could add that backup role if starter Maurkice Pouncey is unable to play because of a high-ankle sprain.

Essex can relate to Pouncey's injury because a high-ankle sprain sidelined Essex for several weeks early in the season. He came back to start at right guard, but lost his starting spot to Ramon Foster. That put Essex back in the role of offensive line utility man.

As a result, Essex's ability to move from spot to spot makes him one of the most valuable players on the Steelers' offense.

It will be critical for the Steelers to control the line of scrimmage on offense and sustain drives. The fact they are very adept at both of those facets goes back to the tradition of excellence the line has established.

Essex has played alongside a variety of linemen during his time with the Steelers.

“You have to give a lot of credit to (offensive line) Coach (Sean) Kugler in the offseason,” Essex said. “He made a point of position flexibility. He made sure the guys we would keep would have that.

“It's been tested this year, ever since the second game when I went down and Doug (Legursky) came in to Flozell (Adams) going down…We've definitely been tested. We've been able to overcome everything with good coaching and no personal vendettas. We all root for each other, and it helps when you have that close chemistry.”

Essex showed some of that offensive line chemistry when he organized a salute to Adams for the team's arrival in Dallas. Adams, 35, played his previous 12 seasons for the Cowboys before being released, so this Super Bowl is a homecoming of sorts.

Essex remembered how the team had worn Jerome Bettis jerseys back to his Detroit hometown for the Super Bowl after the 2005 season. He headed up a similar honor for Adams, but instead of Adams' Steelers jersey, the linemen wore his old Michigan State replica jersey. The move touched Adams and demonstrated the team's unity.

Pouncey keeps telling reporters he expects to play in the Super Bowl, but most believe that's unlikely. Legursky would step in at center, with Essex then being the next in line if necessary.

Essex was a tight end at Harding, where he also played basketball, before switching to tackle at Northwestern University. He's never played center in a game at any level. It would be a huge deal, to say the least, if his first experience came in the Super Bowl. Essex was actually listed as the backup center when the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals after the 2008 season.

If the Steelers need him to play center, he'll be ready. He has taken some snaps in practice this week.

“Those were the first center snaps I've had all season,” Essex said during a Super Bowl media session Wednesday. “It's a little different in that you have to snap the ball. But other than that, it's just like playing any other line position. The coaching staff has confidence in me to get it done.”

As for Super Bowl pressure, Essex is used to it.

He finishes his season there half the time anyway.

“This is my third time, and it doesn't get any less sweet. We've had to go through a lot to get to this point, and that makes the experience that much better.”

— Fort Wayne native and Pittsburgh Steeler Trai Essex