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Steelers' Starks has proven key

| Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012

You are sitting in your car before school, wiping the remaining sleep out of your eyes, when a 1957 Cadillac Hearse pulls into the space next to you.

You can't help but stare, as if the space shuttle has just touched down on the football field at Lake Highland Preparatory School. The new kid at the private school in Orlando has been a curiosity because of his immense size. Now, dressed in a black suit, a white shirt and a tie, he rolls down the window and calls out with a smile: "Hey, how you doing?"

Max Starks laughed in a quiet corner of the Steelers' locker room as he recounted the start of a friendship that lasts to this day -- and also revealed why his teammates at the University of Florida later nicknamed him the "Undertaker."

What is more relevant to Starks' story is how he has risen from a near-football-death experience to again become an anchor on the Steelers' offensive line.

Since re-signing the left tackle they released in July, the Steelers have won 10 of 12 games. The stabilizing effect Starks has had on the offensive line is one reason why the Steelers, who visit Denver tomorrow for an AFC wild-card game, have posted a second consecutive 12-4 season.

"It's been a roller coaster this year, but I wouldn't change it for the world," Starks said. "When you look back on life, it is always about the journey, not the destination, and it has been a pretty fun journey this year."

Odyssey is more like it, considering Starks watched the Steelers' regular-season opener at a sports bar in Arizona.

The irony is that Starks has become one of the few constants on a line that faces more shuffling in Denver with All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey likely out after aggravating an ankle injury this week.

"He's playing like he was three or four years ago, when he was light and in excellent shape," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said of Starks. "He came back in shape and ready to go and played extremely well coming off the shelf and has played solid ever since. I think the guys were playing OK, but he has done a good job of leadership in the (offensive line) room."

"It definitely boosted the room a little bit to see him back," said right guard Ramon Foster, whose 13 consecutive starts are tops among the Steelers' offensive linemen and only one more than Starks. "He's very wise, and I respect him a lot. If there's ever anything to ask about the program, I go to (quarterback) Charlie Batch first, and if Charlie's not available, Max Starks is definitely No. 2."

Starks had been released because of salary cap considerations -- he was due to make more than $5 million this season -- and some concerns over his weight. The 6-foot-8, 345-pounder did not become a part of the Steelers' plans again until early October. By then, he had spent more than a month training in Arizona and visited the Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings.

Starks was eating lunch at the Detroit Lions' training facility on Oct. 4 when his agent called and told him that he had a flight to Pittsburgh in two hours.

Starks met with coach Mike Tomlin and director of football operations Kevin Colbert that night at Steelers' headquarters. He said it took about "15 minutes" before deciding to return to the team that had taken him in the third round of the 2004 draft.

Starks nearly did a double-take the next day when he walked into the offensive line meeting room and saw that he had been penciled in as the starting left tackle.

Starks, whose 2010 season had been ended by a neck injury the previous November, hadn't practiced in almost a year.

"We're going to act like business as usual," offensive line coach Sean Kugler told him.

That Starks made a seamless transition from street free agent to the starting lineup, that he hadn't taken it personally when the team he helped win a pair of Super Bowls released him can be attributed, in part, to his upbringing.

Starks' family owns several funeral homes in the Orlando area, and he worked in the business. He transported bodies from hospitals to the medical examiner's office in the mornings. That explains why Starks frequently drove a Cadillac Hearse to school -- and changed from funeral home attire to school clothes in the gym locker room.

His exposure to death, Starks said, steeled him at a young age and is why he has always been "just kind of even-keeled."

"You never see emotional highs or extreme lows," he said.

That mindset is why Starks, who signed a one-year deal in October, is not stressing over an uncertain future with the Steelers.

The Steelers signed right tackle Willie Colon to a five-year deal worth almost $30 million in July, and Colon will return next season after sustaining a torn triceps in the first game of the season.

Rookie Marcus Gilbert took over at right tackle for Colon, but the second-round draft pick's future may be at left tackle.

That could leave Starks as the odd man out.

"I would love the opportunity to come back, but I have to be as realistic as possible and know there's a chance I might not be able to come back," Starks said. "But if the opportunity presents itself, it is something I would love to pursue."

Closing the gap

The Steelers were 7-1 at home during the regular season and 5-3 on the road. They will need to play better away from Heinz Field as they embark on the playoffs Sunday in Denver. Here is what they averaged at home and on the road in four major categories:

Offense at home

Stat -- Avg.

Scoring 25.0

Rushing 137.9

Passing 253.3

Total 391.2

Offense away

Stat -- Avg.

Scoring 15.6

Rushing 100.0

Passing 250.8

Total 350.8

Defense at home

Stat -- Avg.

Scoring 10.0

Rushing 88.3

Passing 163.8

Total 252.1

Defense away

Stat -- Avg.

Scoring 18.4

Rushing 111.4

Passing 180.1

Total 291.5

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