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Chris Steele, an undrafted 21-year-old with the Steelers, has the calm center of Minkah Fitzpatrick, sounds like Hines Ward, and talks about his heritage the same way Troy Polamalu did over a decade ago.
“That’s always been a big thing for me, carrying that pride Hispanics do have,” said Steele. “There aren’t a lot of us in this field. Me having the opportunity to be that dude little Mexican kids, Latino kids, can look up to has always meant a lot to me.”
Steele has a rich Mexican heritage, and Mexicans are in turn proud of him.
“Football in Mexico is the second biggest sport; a lot of people don’t know that,” he added. “Back in Mexico they don’t have the football fields, the equipment they need. They just don’t have the resources. A lot of dudes out there play baseball. Even soccer is a lot easier to get equipment, as opposed to having to get a football helmet, shoulder pads and stuff. That’s why it’s always been a big goal of mine, even with camps and stuff after this season. Moving forward I want to be able to help provide a little more resources for people back home. I still have a lot of family back there.”
Sure reads like Polamalu, who, with his fame and resources, made it a passion to help Samoans not only play football, but to eat, pray and grow better. Also like Polamalu, Steele was born in a southern suburb of Los Angeles and went to USC to play defensive back. Polamalu spent most of his teen years in Oregon and went to USC to play safety; Steele backed out of a commitment to attend Oregon before playing cornerback at USC.
“Troy has been a huge mentor to me through a former teammate named Talanoa Hufanga,” Steele said. “He’s with the 49ers right now. He’s somebody I tried to take away a lot of things from when I was at SC because of the way he carried himself. He’s a spitting image of Troy. Troy ended up training him for the whole draft process (2021). The way he carried himself is really cool.”
Él es Chris Steele (@KinggChris7), CB egresado de @USC_FB y orgulloso de su ascendencia Afro-Latina que busca llegar a la NFL en el #NFLDraft 2022. ??????#NFLEspañol pic.twitter.com/nFGx9VnZ5j
Steele’s mother emigrated to southern California from Michoacan, Mexico. She met Norman Steele, Chris’ father, when the defensive lineman left Cleveland to play football at Long Beach City College. He eventually transferred to New Mexico State and in 1992 compiled 8.5 sacks.
Chris Steele became a five-star recruit at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, Ca. He was named All-USA first team by USA Today in 2018, graduated a semester early, and attended Florida. But after one month, Steele requested a dorm change, and became upset that he was told to wait until summer. Soon thereafter, Steele’s roommate, quarterback Jalon Jones, was accused of sexual assault by two female students and so Steele entered the transfer portal.
Steele first announced he would attend Oregon, but a family crisis caused him to de-commit and stay home at USC.
That first season with the Trojans, Steele started six of the 12 games in which he played, made 35 tackles and recorded 5 passes defensed. In 2020, Steele started all six games and was named All-Pac-12 second-team with 26 tackles, 4 PDs and 1 interception. His final season was a disappointment. Steele started all 11 games and made 33 tackles with 3 PDs and 2 interceptions. He was named honorable mention All-Pac-12, but fans came down hard on him. One blogger had a theory: “Steele was the victim of terrible coaching by Trojan Defensive Coordinator Todd Orlando,” wrote Evan Desai. “While Steele was impressive his first two years at SC, he regressed in his third and final year. He had a tendency to be a bit too physical and be called for penalties.”
“Coming out of high school I was the No. 2 CB in the country behind Derek Stingley,” Steele said from the Steelers’ locker room this past spring. “Obviously, I think my development was there, but it also wasn’t toward the latter part of my career. My head coach (Clay Helton) got fired after Game 2 of this past season, making my position coach, the corner coach (Donte Williams), the new interim head coach, leaving me without a position coach the last 10 games of arguably the biggest season of my college career. It kind of put me in a bind because I had to play the player role while also being one of the older vets in the room for the younger freshmen and everything, so I was never able to focus on myself and my development throughout my last season.”
Steele was still invited to the NFL Combine, where he measured 6-0 3/8, 187 with a 4.48 time in the 40 and a vertical jump of 37.5 inches. Those are NFL numbers, but he wasn’t drafted. NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein wrote that Steele “plays with clear eyes and decent instincts, but lacks ideal short-area burst to stay connected with long-form routes.”
The latter perhaps was the reason Steele wasn’t drafted. “I gave myself a 24-hour period. I was mad all day Saturday,” he said. “But as soon as I got back home, it was time to get back to work. I knew what team I was going to and now I’ve got to make the most out of it.”
Steele sorted through a number of offers to sign with the Steelers.
“I definitely chose Pittsburgh because of the culture they’ve built around here,” he said. “Obviously, Coach Mike T’s a stand-up guy. He’s been here for a very long time. Since I’ve been watching NFL football he’s been coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers, so that was something that definitely intrigued me. On top of that, I feel like I have an opportunity to compete for playing time on the field. Of course, I have a lot of respect for the older dudes here. I think they’re really good guys to learn from. I love Ahkello (Witherspoon). I actually grew up watching him when he was coming out of Colorado. He and Cam Sutton are some older dudes here with a lot of knowledge, and I hope to pick their brains and eventually help them on the field.”
Steele regrets not being able to learn from Joe Haden, an 11-year pro who remains a free agent. Steele called him “one of the greatest DBs to ever play college football and definitely one of my favorite NFL corners.”
Clearly, and in spite of his shuttling between Los Angeles and his grandmother’s home in Mexico while growing up, Steele considers himself a student of the game.
“Most definitely,” he said.
During spring practices, Steele showed size, speed, and fluidity while playing cornerback on both sides of the field.
“It’s honestly been going amazing, a lot better than I expected,” he said. “With all the conflict I had to go through at SC, with all the controversy that went on over there, it kind of helped set me up for the NFL a lot better. I had to learn three different defenses – actually four, because I was at Florida for a little bit – in three years. And now you can slap a playbook on my desk and I’m going to know it by the end of the day. I’m a real smart football player. I enjoy it.”
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