Joey Porter Jr. once saw another side of training camp … as a Steelers ball boy

LATROBE, Pa. — Joey Porter Jr.’s nights at the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ training camp always used to end the same way.

A ball boy during middle school and high school, the cornerback spent three weeks embedded with his dad’s former — and his future — franchise every August. Being a Steelers ball boy comes with great perks: living in the dorms next to NFL players, taking occasional practice reps against Pro Bowl talent and learning the game from a future Hall of Fame coach. But it also comes with monotonous, unglamorous chores, including scrubbing footballs caked in debris.

With a sack of footballs, a brush and a bucket of cleaning chemicals, Porter and the rest of the ball boys — a group of 10 to 12 every summer — ended each night sitting behind the weight room, tediously dislodging grass and dirt from every pebbled crevice.

It wasn’t a quick task, especially for the teenage Porter.

“It could take you up to four or five hours if you’re just procrastinating, that was Joey’s problem,” said Sean McCaskill Jr., who became friends with Porter during their ball boy stints. “At that age he was a great starter, but a terrible finisher.”

Mason and Dino Tomlin, sons of coach Mike Tomlin and close to Porter’s age, would stop by, tempting Porter with pickup basketball and video games back in the dorm. Often, Porter gave in and left his station.

“The scrubbing of the footballs was the worst part of everything,” Porter said, shaking his head. “The fun thing we used to do was, when it rained and we had to put the tarp out on the field and all the young guys had to do that. But scrubbing the balls, I just try to forget about those moments.”

By his own assessment, Porter was an “average” ball boy, but the work ethic and professionalism he learned from the sideline and in the dorms at Steelers training camp was a formative part of his journey back to Latrobe, returning this summer as the Steelers’ No. 32 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft.

“I remember when we were little, and when the fans were saying ‘Joey,’ they were calling his dad and now it’s reversed,” McCaskill said. “For us to be wearing our ball boy gear, to now, he’s in the NFL and playing with the Steelers, and his dad played there. That’s pretty crazy.”

Porter first suited up in that ball boy uniform — a team-issued yellow shirt, black shorts and white socks — when his dad, vaunted outside linebacker Joey Porter Sr., returned to Pittsburgh as a defensive assistant in 2014 after playing for the Steelers from 1999 to 2006. That summer, Porter went to work at St. Vincent College alongside his dad as a ball boy and with other Steelers progeny. Porter became fast friends with Tomlin’s sons, who went to school with McCaskill, and Porter completed their foursome.

“That’s what I liked about Coach T and [former Steelers] Coach [Bill] Cowher, they allowed our kids to come up and stay in training camp,” said former Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, whose son Ivan was a ball boy for one year with Porter. “They’ve been here before, not as a player but as an actual kid and seeing what it took, seeing the hard work. … The stage ain’t too big for them because they were allowed to be here, especially during the times when we were winning Super Bowls and in the playoffs.”

Along with cleaning the footballs after practice, Porter and his cohort were responsible for keeping up with the footballs during practice. That meant paying attention to the drills and promptly corralling errant throws and loose balls.

“They want everything on schedule,” said former Steeler and current Bengals defensive back Mike Hilton, who was on the team while Porter was a ball boy. “They want the yardage correct. They just want to be on time with the offense. If they were a little late, you will hear from Mike. … It didn’t matter [if you were a legacy]. If you were on that field, whether you were a ball boy or a water boy, trainer, player, you’re getting it.”

While some guys felt Tomlin’s wrath for being distracted, Porter stayed locked in during practice.

“I never wanted to be that guy,” Porter said. “Coach T always says, ‘Don’t be that guy.’ So I’d never try to be that guy. I’ll always hustle, run, whatever they need from me. I just tried to do my best.”

For Porter and his friends, being a Steelers ball boy was almost as good as being on the roster.

“When we were ball boys, it felt like we were players,” McCaskill said. “People were asking us for autographs and stuff like that, and we were just little kids.”

They lived in Rooney Hall alongside players and adhered to their schedule. They played video games with them, and even got in a couple one-on-one practice reps against some of the best wide receivers in the league. Porter already knew about NFL life from his dad, but being around current players at training camp gave him an even greater advantage as he prepared for his own college and NFL career.

“All the old heads used to always support me and give me tips and clues on what I got to do to be in the next level,” Porter said. “Taking care of your body, what the coaches want from you, what the GM wants to see from you.”

And they heard it from the coaches themselves, too. Porter, McCaskill and Tomlin’s sons often joined the head coach in his dorm room — one that was “way bigger” than the players,’ per Porter — to watch practice film and talk about life.

“That was lit because you got to see an NFL’s coach perspective on how he views things,” McCaskill said. “We were younger, so we obviously didn’t know what he was really talking about, but as we got older, the things that he was saying and telling us, it’s coming to fruition now, especially for Joey.”

Taylor, who watched Porter grow up when Taylor played for the Steelers with Porter Sr., is now a defensive backs scout for the organization. He spends most practices silently watching Porter, only stepping in afterward to give him tips about his technique. He’s not surprised when Porter stays calm and level-headed after being on the wrong side of a George Pickens highlight-reel catch.

“He’s seen it before,” Taylor said. “He was a ball boy, so he’s seen the training camps, he heard [former Steelers defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau tell them, ‘Let that play go, I need you for the next one.’ So it’s instilled in him. And to play corner, you’ve got to have that trait. Yeah, you can be pissed off and not get it, but at the same time, my teammates need me on the next play. I got to let the last play go.”

Being immersed in training camp gave them a glimpse of the life they wanted and allowed them to dream about a day when they could trade the yellow T-shirts for a black and gold jersey.

“It was always in the back of our minds,” said McCaskill, now playing college football at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania [IUP]. “We could make something out of it, just got to keep putting in work.”

Porter did just that earlier this year when the Steelers made him the first pick of the second round. Now the roles are reversed, and because he remembers what it was like to be in that yellow T-shirt, Porter goes out of his way to befriend the ball boys.

“I kind of always chat with the ball boys,” Porter said. “I’ve got a special heart for them. I know what they’re going through. It’s a lot. They’ve got a lot of respect from me.”

ESPN Cincinnati Bengals reporter Ben Baby contributed to this story.

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