Former Steeler Jeremy Staat embarks on ride to change lives
Jeremy Staat leaves today from Bakersfield, Calif., on a trip scheduled to last 100 days, cover more than 4,000 miles and span 13 states and the nation's capital, with many stops and turns along the way.
He will travel by bicycle.
"That's Jeremy," said his mother, Janet Staat-Goedhart. "He's always done things big."
Staat, who had a brief career with the Steelers before joining the Marine Corps and serving in Iraq, is calling the trek the "Wall-to-Wall Cross Country Bicycle Ride." With 66 scheduled stops that include seven military bases, he and Wesley Barrientos, an Army veteran of Iraq, hope to bring attention to veterans' issues, such as suicide prevention and health care, and other causes that include childhood obesity and promoting education.
For Staat, the venture is another leg of a longer journey: his transition to who he is.
"I was not living a productive life," he said.
Drafted by the Steelers in the second round out of Arizona State University in 1998, Staat was a character off the field and underachiever on it, a defensive lineman who rarely applied his impressive physical attributes. From 1998 to 2000, he started just two games for the team.
Staat failed with two other teams before playing long enough with the St. Louis Rams to earn his National Football League pension. Afterward, he enlisted, fought with the Marines in Iraq and began speaking to kids about education and life lessons. He formed the Jeremy Staat Foundation to raise money and bring attention to veterans' issues. He hopes to build a privately funded veterans medical center in Bakersfield, his hometown.
For the next 3 1/2 months, Staat, 35, will spread the word from a $5,000 bike custom-made to support his 6-foot-6, 290-pound frame. Barrientos, 27, will use a special bike built for a double amputee. He lost his legs when his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in 2007 during his third tour of duty in Iraq. His arms propel the bike.
"It's twice as hard," said Barrientos, a Guatemala native who lives in Bakersfield, "but the Army guy is not gonna rub it in the Marine guy's face."
The pair will start at Bakersfield's Wall of Valor -- a memorial to more than 1,000 veterans who lost their lives, for which Staat helped raise money -- and finish at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington. They hope to arrive on May 28, Memorial Day, the wall's 30th anniversary. Although Staat and Barrientos will address various topics along the way, their ride has a singular purpose.
"We want to ignite the spark of unity with something simple as a bike ride," Staat said. "Right now there's so much division. The country's in shambles. Somebody's got to take the reins and go with it."
Staat and his wife, Janelle, are expecting their first child. He designed his timetable to get home for the birth.
Support vehicles will accompany the riders, who encourage people who visit their stops to join them. Staat-Goedhart, a licensed Pentecostal minister who is retired from her job in real estate management, is the trip's accountant. She said her son's foundation had raised about $75,000 as of late last week, but much of the assistance will come along the way from donations of food, housing and medical assistance that might be needed.
"This is a leap of faith," said Staat-Goedhart, 63. "I'm just amazed he decided to do this."
'It wasn't a good fit'
Staat played two seasons at Arizona State after transferring from junior college, and the Steelers moved up in the NFL Draft to take him high in the second round. He was big, strong, quick and enthusiastic, the first rookie to show up for the start of training camp in Latrobe.
Then things soured. Staat had trouble adjusting from defensive tackle in ASU's 4-3 defense to end in the Steelers' 3-4 alignment. His parents went through a contentious divorce. His girlfriend dumped him.
"What it came down to was being in a foreign environment, and things that were important at the time were spiraling out of control," he said. "I thought everything was supposed to be perfect, and here I was having all this off-field garbage going on."
With the Steelers, Staat believes he was caught up in the well-chronicled power struggle between then-Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe, who drafted him, and Bill Cowher, head coach at the time. Staat said he was a "Donahoe guy," and when Donahoe was forced out after the 1999 season, Staat said, he believed he was doomed. He lasted just one more season.
Neither Donahoe nor Cowher returned phone or email messages seeking comment.
Staat takes responsibility for his difficulties.
"I was by no means a role model," he said.
Rebellious, he acted irresponsibly. He dyed his hair different colors, fancying himself "the Dennis Rodman of the NFL," and became a regular at Rosebud, a defunct Strip District bar. When it came to drinking, "I was an extremist," he said.
"I was a single guy and could do whatever I wanted, and I had the world by the tail feathers," Staat said. "It wasn't a good fit."
A 'turning point'
The Steelers released Staat during training camp in 2001. He thought he had a job waiting with the Seattle Seahawks, but he got cut.
Then came the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Working as a bricklayer in Bakersfield, Staat wanted to enlist in the Army. He ran the idea past Pat Tillman, his close friend from ASU and former Sun Devils teammate.
"Don't be stupid," Staat said Tillman told him, because Staat needed only four games to qualify for his NFL pension.
Staat failed to make the Raiders as an offensive lineman in 2002. In the next season, he played with the Rams long enough to secure his pension.
Meanwhile, Tillman left the Arizona Cardinals to enlist as an Army Ranger, a celebrated event that turned tragic when he was killed by friendly fire in April 2004 in Afghanistan.
Staat was playing for Los Angeles in the Arena Football League. When he left the team to mourn his friend, he said, he was told that he was suspended. He never returned.
His mother said that was a "turning point," and Staat agreed.
He said he was through with football and a lifestyle he described as "not a way of living, a way of dying." His motto became "Service Over Self."
"We had an image I thought we had to display," he said. "You believe the rap lyrics and all the trash. In the end, the joke is on us."
Staat enlisted less than two years after Tillman's death, serving seven months in Iraq in 2007 as an infantry machine gunner.
"Not that horrible," he said of his time overseas. "We were stressed out more over when and what to shoot than worrying about our own lives."
He was discharged in 2009.
"All I wanted to do was learn how to serve others," he said. "In the NFL, it was a very selfish way of life. I had learned how to become a complete (expletive)."
The Marines, not the NFL, "taught me how to be a team player, not worry about yourself but worry about who's to the left and who's to the right," he said.
Staat's father, Harold, served in Vietnam, "but he didn't talk about it much," he said. "Now I'm trying to bring veterans together, to release whatever shame and humiliation from their chests.
"The sacrifice and commitment that goes into serving is amazing."Additional Information:
NFL career: Drafted by Steelers, 2nd round (41st overall), 1998, and played from 1998-2000; played for St. Louis Rams, 2003
Military career: Served in Marine Corps, 2006-09
Other: Founder, Jeremy Staat Foundation, 2011