PITTSBURGH (AP) — As he lay on the Heinz Field turf last September, his right knee in tatters, Maurkice Pouncey admits there was a small part of him that feared his football career might be in jeopardy.
The Pittsburgh Steelers never doubted. They signed him to a five-year contract extension Thursday that averages $8.8 million per season, making Pouncey the highest-paid center in the NFL.
Words can't explain it," Pouncey said while fighting back tears, barely nine months removed from a torn ACL that ended his 2013 season moments after it began.
The only center in league history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons is nearly all the way back from surgery to repair the knee after teammate David DeCastro fell on it eight plays into last fall's season opener against Tennessee.
The 24-year-old Pouncey insists he's "totally fine." The new financial deal puts him just ahead of the agreement signed by Cleveland's Alex Mack in April.
However, getting paid was the least of Pouncey's concerns. Entering the final year of the contract he signed after the Steelers took him with the 18th overall selection in the 2010 draft, Pouncey simply ordered agent Jason Segal to get to work.
"I didn't have much role in it," Pouncey said. "I told my agent to get it done as soon as possible so we could move on to other things."
Namely getting the Steelers back into the postseason. Considered one of the most athletic linemen at any position in the NFL, Pouncey provides Pittsburgh with a gifted anchor to protect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"That group up front is a special group as it is," Roethlisberger said. "He's the glue that holds them all together."
Even if the glue comes at a significant price.
Pouncey has only played a full 16-game schedule once in his first four seasons and was forced to sit out Pittsburgh's loss to Green Bay in the 2011 Super Bowl with a sprained ankle. Though he won't turn 25 until August, he finds himself as the linchpin of a unit whose oldest player is 28-year-old guard Ramon Foster.
"He's worked his butt off man," Foster said of Pouncey. "It's good to see his hard work is coming around to him. We're glad to have him back and the team commit to him like that."
It's a commitment that never wavered as Pouncey underwent surgery and a grueling rehab last fall. Although Roethlisberger maintains Pouncey could have returned before the end of the 2013 season, the arduous recovery process isn't quite over. While Pouncey was a full participant in organized team activities that wrapped up on Thursday, he remains involved in near daily rehab work.
The goal is to be 100 percent by training camp in July. The contract means Pouncey won't have to deal with any potential distractions about his future. Besides, he never planned on leaving anyway. Free agency didn't appeal to him, particularly after the loyalty shown by the Steelers from the moment they chose him to follow in a line of great centers that includes Hall of Famers Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson.
Pouncey's career arc is trending in that direction. Having the game taken away from him last September makes him eager to get back to work.
"I'll do anything for this team," Pouncey said. "There's true love here."
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