Steelers, donuts & sandwiches: How Pittsburgh rookies meet the city
Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt started his rookie season making donut runs for fellow Steelers. The errand gave him a dose of the city he plays in and some appreciated privacy, he said. Hear his and other Steelers’ stories of the food errands they run for teammates, here, ahead of their AFC divisional round playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
PITTSBURGH — Saturday mornings at the start of T.J. Watt’s first season as a Steeler began with a drive past houses that don’t match and don’t seem to need to, through some woods that lean over but don’t threaten the road beneath them and up into a gas station postcard-like scene of Greater Pittsburgh.
Behind the counter inside the storefront on a hilltop parking lot that barely has a curb an older Syrian man, Sam, would offer Watt a coffee with the four dozen donuts he was picking up.
Watt doesn’t really drink coffee. Not without French vanilla creamer and his Keurig at home. And so he politely declined, but would come back week after week.
The man was really nice, Watt said, and Ryan Shazier had told the rookie he was responsible for Saturday morning donuts.
Every Steelers first-round pick has been, at least since Ben Roethlisberger. And while first rounders handle donuts, rookies in position groups around the locker room pick up food for their older teammates.
JuJu Smith-Schuster gets Chik-Fil-A for the receivers. James Conner did the same, mixed in with other fast food, for the running backs. Kameron Canaday gets breakfast sandwiches from Nadine’s for Friday morning special teams meetings and Lavon Hooks has Popeyes delivered to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex for the defensive linemen on Saturday mornings.
They’re all part of what Cameron Heyward described as a light “coming of age” tradition, typically passed along from one rookie in a given group to the next. And while the bags of snacks are often just a beat in the weekly routine players try to stay locked into, the runs themselves also provide some of the first, most consistent interactions young Steelers have with the city they find themselves playing in.
And in the rigors of a lifestyle where a decision as simple as Smith-Schuster’s choice of puppy breed took months of planning, flashes of normalcy are appreciated.
“Do you want me to help you take them to the car?” Matt Voelker asked Canaday the first time the long snapper came in to pick up 30-plus breakfast sandwiches.
Voelker got to know Canaday in the spring and summer, when the February signing was living in a South Side hotel, over Reuben sandwiches. Chris Boswell had texted Voelker to let him know Canaday was taking over the special teams meal delivery that he and Robert Golden handled the previous season.
But for the first couple weeks of the regular season, Canaday didn’t have a car in Pittsburgh. Around 7:15 a.m. each Friday, Voelker would give him about a half-mile ride to work.
Voelker has always given Canaday more than the 30 sandwiches he orders. But the exact number and distribution shifted with the Steelers’ fortunes this season.
Before Pittsburgh’s Week 3 loss to the Chicago Bears, Voelker would make 12 each of sausage, ham and bacon sandwiches on English muffins. “So I never went back to 36,” Voelker said. He gave Canaday 34 sandwiches on the following two Fridays, but then the Steelers dropped a 30-9 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. “I think that’s why I started going with odd numbers,” he said.
Canaday’s taken 33 or 35 sandwiches back to his teammates since, Voelker said. Pittsburgh’s 27-24 loss to the Patriots didn’t change Voelker’s sandwich-making habits.
Like some Steelers, he doesn’t think Pittsburgh actually lost to New England.
“Yeah, I stuck with it. I didn’t think that was — that was stupid,” he said.
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Cameron Heyward laughs when thinking about his relationship with the staff at Krispy Kreme during his rookie year. They knew his name — not just because he was Pittsburgh’s first-round pick, 6 feet, 5 inches and 288 pounds. But because he would call into Krispy Kreme on Saturday mornings and ask for 48 donuts.
“Sir, we don’t have that available. You have to give us more time,” he recalled being told.
“It’s like, ‘No, I need it now. You don’t understand,'” he said, laughing at himself.
Heyward eventually learned to call in his order the day before as he would snag the donuts on his way to picking up the breakfast he had to get his defensive linemates.
Smith-Schuster gives the staff at the Homestead Chik-Fil-A about a day’s notice of his orders for 12 chicken and egg breakfast sandwiches with jelly. “A lot of jelly,” Smith-Schuster said. There are no customized sandwiches, he said, but the choice of Saturday breakfast comes from one man.
Antonio Brown breaks his obsessive dieting for the weekly receiver snacks. For the star receiver who often has mid-day meals delivered to team headquarters during the week, the Saturday morning menu is a perk of his production and not-quite seniority, Smith-Schuster said.
“Not the oldest,” Smith-Schuster said, “but he makes his plays.”
Steelers joke a lot about the junk-adjacent food they eat late in weeks.
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Le’Veon Bell credits James Conner for “improvising” to McDonald’s in Week 13 when Chik-Fil-A was closed the day before Pittsburgh’s Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Bud Dupree wishes he could’ve gone to Krispy Kreme rather than Dunkin’ Donuts when he was a rookie, that Dunkin’ didn’t have such thick donuts that tasted so artificial and weren’t as warm as the donuts he grew up around in Georgia.
Heyward was “pretty hurt” when the local Krispy Kreme closed, he said, though he did spring to Dunkin’ Donuts’ defense.
“Dunkin’s very good. Don’t shoot on Dunkin’,” Heyward said, “but Krispy Kreme has been pretty damn good.”
Yet what the Steelers get more than hollower calories from their team and position group snacks.
Heyward said he and all his teammates are “creatures of habit,” dependent on stringing a series of seemingly minor actions into patterns week to week. There are little things that keep Pittsburgh players going, he said. Sometimes those little things are donuts.
Artie Burns still visits the the Peace, Love & Little Donuts in Wexford where he’s recognized from his rookie year pickups weekly — “almost every day,” he said.
Watt moved north in the middle of the season, he said, leading to him going to a Dunkin’ Donuts for the 48 donuts – two dozen glazed, two dozen of anything else – he will have gotten Steelers a day before their most important game of the season to date.
Regardless of result, on Monday, Canaday will likely return to Nadine’s. It’s been his regular Monday morning spot throughout the season, Voelker said.
The third-to-last man to touch the ball in some of the most decisive moments of Pittsburgh’s season starts his weeks with a pancake and the mixed grille of sausage, potatoes, onions, peppers and ham scrambled together with cheese with a piece of bacon on top.
He likes to chat about the previous day’s game with Voelker and watch people drink over “The Price Is Right,” Voelker said.
People in the bar will notice Canaday is larger than most humans, but won’t bother to ask the manager, co-owner and bartender who the long snapper is until after he’s left. And if Canaday still has a special teams meeting to make the following Friday, Voelker will again give him more sandwiches than he pays for.
They’ll be ham and sausage – no bacon anymore, Voelker said – and the number of them will be odd.
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