With confetti falling around him, the former Clemson defensive tackle just relished in the moment of being a Super Bowl Champion.
“Oh my goodness man, we did it baby! We did it! We worked hard for this. We did it,” he said jubilantly.
What Eason and his Pittsburgh Steeler teammates did was win the storied franchises sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy – an NFL first – after outlasting the Arizona Cardinals, 27-23, in Super Bowl XLIII. It was an amazing journey for the Steelers, who battled through injuries and the most difficult schedule in the NFL in 32 years before reaching the summit.
Three times they survived a physical grudge match with the rival Baltimore Ravens, reminiscent of the old Raiders-Steelers rivalry of the 1970s. They beat the upstart San Diego Chargers twice and eventually rallied for what can best be described as a miracle comeback to beat Larry Fitzgerald and the high-flying Cardinals when all had seemed lost in the Super Bowl following Fitzgerald’s 64-yard touchdown with 2:32 left.
But like most every game the Steelers won during the 2008 season, someone unexpectedly stepped up and made that one play that separates the great teams from good ones. That player this time was wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who made a toe-tapping 6-yard catch on the sideline in the back corner of the end zone with 35 seconds left.
It was a perfect throw from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and an even better catch by Holmes in what is arguably the best catch in Super Bowl history.
“I couldn’t really remember where I was standing,” Eason said as he tried to recall the game-winning play “But it was a perfect pass and a perfect catch and the body control was just phenomenal how he controlled his body and got those two feet down.
“He’s done that all year and he’s been one of our clutch receivers that came on, and losing Hines Ward, who’s one of our other good receivers, in the game through injury – Santonio just stepped up and that’s what guys have done all year. When guys have been out, we’ve always had guys come in and step up. That’s been a huge thing for us this year.”
Eason speaks through experience. When a couple of guys got banged up during the course of the season along the defensive front, he was one of those players who stepped up a filled the void.
Though he did not start a game, he played in 15 regular season games and all three playoff wins as a key reserve on a defense that led the NFL in total, passing, scoring and red zone defense.
“I could go on with a list of guys that are great players, but you know we have a lot of great depth that a lot of people don’t know about, and that’s why we’ve been able to sustain what we have done all year,” Eason said.
In a way, the 2008 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was a lot like Eason’s career as a professional football player. There were a lot of peaks and valleys, but in the end they found their way back to the top.
At Clemson, Eason played in 47 games were he registered 153 tackles and 15 sacks. He started 35 games while playing for two head coaches in Tommy West and Tommy Bowden.
“Clemson paved the way for where I’m at today,” he said. “I had the opportunity to come over here and get a great education and play for two good coaches in Tommy West and Tommy Bowden. Both are good coaches and being in training here with Coach Joey Batson in the weight room really helped me.”
A Clemson starting defensive tackle between 1999 and 2002, Eason was a first-team All-ACC player for the Tigers in 2002 when he had 62 tackles and seven sacks. He graduated in three years and played his final two seasons as a graduate student.
He was also named the Most Valuable Player of Clemson’s 2000 season defense. That season, the Tigers finished 16th in the country in the final Associated Press Top 25.
“As I look back now and I couldn’t imagine doing some of the things that I did back then but you know it made things a lot easier for me when I got to the pros and I’m just thankful for everyone here, the coaches, the staff , IPTAY and everyone else. It was great,” Eason said.
After leaving Clemson, Eason was originally drafted in the 4th round (114th overall) of the 2003 draft by the Denver Broncos. His first season was ended by an Achilles injury, and in 2004, he was allocated to NFL Europe and played for the Scottish Claymores.
“As I look back now and I couldn’t imagine doing some of the things that I did back then but you know it made things a lot easier for me when I got to the pros and I’m just thankful for everyone here, the coaches, the staff , IPTAY and everyone else. It was great,” Eason said. (AP)
When he returned to Denver, he spent some time on the practice squad before being waived in September of 2004. Two months later, the Cleveland Browns signed him and he played in one game that year while recording two tackles.
The 2005 season was his first full season with the Browns and he played in all 16 games, recording 19 tackles and a career-high two sacks along the way. In 2006, he recorded 23 tackles in 13 games.
Though Eason was playing and making an impact on defense, the results were not showing up on the scoreboard. The Browns were a combined 11-29 in his two and half seasons in Cleveland so when he became an unrestricted free agent following the 2006 season, the Clemson graduate started shopping for a new team where he felt he had the best chance to contribute and help win a Super Bowl.
“Being in Cleveland actually worked out for me,” Eason said. “It was a blessing in disguise. I can’t look back on my experience in Cleveland and become angry because they paid my bills for three years and gave me opportunities to extend my career.
“When I came into free agency and I didn't really know if I was going to be back there. In Pittsburgh Coach (Bill) Cowher decide to leave and pursue other opportunities and they brought in Mike Tomlin and he’s a phenomenal guy. He actually gave me a call and I went over there for my visit and we sat down and talked with the other coaches and I felt like I had a great opportunity to fit in with the organization. But I didn't really know how I was going to fit in with the players because I’ve exchanged some harsh words with some of those guys on the other side.”
But as he continued his visit with the Steelers organization, Eason came to the realization that Pittsburgh was where he needed to be. The owners, the Rooneys, were different than the ownership and management that ran the Broncos and the Browns.
“It’s like night and day, and really the Rooneys take pride in the Steelers organization and they’re there every day,” he said. “They’re going to know your name, your wife’s name, your kids’ names and they’re going to walk by you in the hall and they’re going to shake your hand and ask how you’re doing and stuff like that.
“They don’t talk to you about football, they care more about you as a person and they’re great owners. Man, it’s a blessing and an opportunity to be able to play for an organization like the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
Eason says Pittsburgh, in a lot of ways, reminds him of his days at Clemson, especially the fanatical fan base known as Steeler Nation.
“Clemson fans are diehard too and I put them both on the same level,” he said. “I mean we have some great Clemson fans so I put them on the same level as good Steelers fans you know. As you well know some people bleed black and gold just like they bleedin’ orange around here.”
In his first season at Pittsburgh, Eason played in all 16 games and recorded 14 tackles. The Steelers obviously liked what they saw and resigned the former Clemson star to a two-year contract in 2008. He repaid them with one of his better seasons.
The defensive tackle recorded 17 tackles this past fall, including 1.5 sacks while playing in 15 of 16 regular season games. He had a season-high four tackles against Houston. He also played in Pittsburgh’s two playoff wins over San Diego and Baltimore as well as in Super Bowl XLIII.
“Coach (Dick) LeBeau’s system is very complicated, but he puts everybody in position to make plays,” Eason said. “Linebackers run and he puts the defensive linemen where they’re supposed to run and make some plays and get touches on the quarterback.
“It’s every man’s defense.”
Thanks to Roethlisberger engineering a game-winning 78-yard drive that actually started on his own 12 following a holding penalty and then Holmes’ great catch in the end zone, Eason is the 21st different former Clemson player to win a Super Bowl Championship ring, and the first since Chris Gardocki was the starting punter for the Steelers when Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XL.
Eason is actually the fourth different Tiger to win a Super Bowl with the Steelers. In addition to Gardocki, Bennie Cunningham was a member of the Steeler championship teams of 1977 and 1978 and John McMaken was a member of the 1974 Steelers team that won the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
“This has been a great opportunity for me to come in and have on opportunity to play and to play on a good defense,” Eason said. “It has given me the opportunity to become better as a player and I’ve done that. I play with a lot of great character guys, football players and pro bowlers.
“I’m playing for Dick LeBeau, who is a great coach who has been around the NFL for 50 years. These are great opportunities and now we’ve won the Super Bowl.
“This has been a once in a lifetime opportunity so I’m enjoying it.”