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Steelers

Return to Steelers buoys the spirit of Starks

| Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011

Sweat dribbled down his face as he not only talked with reporters, but answered questions with a smile.

It seemed like nothing had changed with Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks, and to think a day earlier he had been in Detroit auditioning for the Lions.

Starks signed with Steelers on Wednesday morning, rejoining the team that released him in late July. By the afternoon, the guy who had been unemployed 24 hours earlier was working with the Steelers' first-team offense.

"I definitely feel like I have an opportunity to at least dress Sunday if I continue on this path and keep getting after it like I have been," Starks said after his first practice in 11 months.

Starks said he practiced exclusively at left tackle and split first-team repetitions with Jonathan Scott, who returned to practice after missing last Sunday's game because of a sprained ankle.

It is unlikely that Starks is in good enough football shape to immediately push Scott at left tackle — if that's what the Steelers wanted when they signed him to a one-year deal for the $810,000 veteran's minimum.

What coach Mike Tomlin did tell Starks during a meeting Tuesday night — Starks met with the Steelers at their headquarters after flying from Detroit to Pittsburgh — is that he wants the eighth-year veteran to provide leadership along the offensive line.

"With anything else, the offense has to be on the same page," said Starks, who had started 38 consecutive games at left tackle before sustaining a season-ending neck injury last November. "I always preach it. Run block, pass protect, sustained drives, keep(ing) the defense fresh — those all stem from the offensive line, so it's a big thing to have chemistry within that group."

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been pushing for the Steelers to bring back Starks, one of his closest friends on the team. And it's not just out of guilt, with Roethlisberger conceding that his late July wedding didn't do Starks or Trai Essex any favors.

The wedding gave Steelers coaches an opportunity to see Starks and Essex, each of whom had gained a significant amount of weight during the NFL lockout.

The Steelers re-signed Essex in August, but only after he had worked his way back into shape.

"It was a difficult offseason for everybody," Roethlisberger said. "Nobody knew how to prepare."

The 6-foot-8 Starks, who is listed at 345 pounds, turned heads at Steelers headquarters yesterday with how much trimmer he looked. Yet, Starks insisted the Steelers didn't release him because he was grossly out of shape, or because of concerns about the herniated disc that he said has been healed since January.

Starks said director of football operations Kevin Colbert told him in July that the Steelers were releasing him because of salary cap considerations.

Starks, who had been due to make $5.14 million this season, said he didn't take his release personally.

"I wasn't bitter. I didn't sit in the corner and cry 'woe is me' or be bitter when I was walking around the city," Starks said. "I just went out to Arizona and started doing the same training regimen I normally would do, and it felt good."

Nothing felt better to Starks, who also worked out for the Minnesota Vikings while he was unsigned, then reported for his first day of work.

He only had to pay $20 to practice squad tackle Trevis Turner to get his uniform No. 78 back. And Starks again found his locker next to Roethlisberger and in the same neighborhood as fellow offensive linemen and University of Florida products Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert.

"I'm making a sign that says, 'Entering the Swamp,' " Pouncey said.

Just one more thing to make Starks feel right at home.

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