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- “He’ll leave a footprint on the entire city of Pittsburgh”: How Joey Porter Jr.’s Pennsylvania ties mesh with a desire to be great
“He’ll leave a footprint on the entire city of Pittsburgh”: How Joey Porter Jr.’s Pennsylvania ties mesh with a desire to be great
As he strolled up podium stairs at the Indianapolis Convention Center in an army green “DB-23” sweatshirt, Joey Porter Jr. glanced out at a swarm of media members from around the country. No longer was he a Penn State cornerback swatting away passes in No. 9: he was now a highly touted NFL draft prospect with first-round buzz, with journalists asking if he’d met with nearly every team in the league.
One organization was distinct among them, though: the Pittsburgh Steelers, the organization for which his father garnered 98 sacks, 124 tackles for loss, four All-Pro selections and a Super Bowl win. What would it be like for Porter to continue representing the black and gold?
“I think it would probably mean a lot for me and my family,” Porter said with a slight smile, recalling running one-on-ones with seven-time Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.
Over a month and a half later, Porter — this time, in a beige suit and tinted sunglasses — sat idly and anxiously in the NFL Draft’s green room in Kansas City, his phone still. Despite having an expected draft position of 19.4 overall, Porter did not hear his name called in the initial 31 selections.
The team on the clock to begin the second round? The one he was intimately familiar with.
Steelers general manager Omar Khan nabbed Porter with the 32nd overall pick in the draft, halting the cornerback’s slide and realizing a dream that seemed almost too idyllic to come true.
Although he was born in Bakersfield, California, Porter spent the vast majority of his time growing up in the Pittsburgh area, with Porter Sr. playing for the Steelers from 1999-2006. The cornerback started high school at North Catholic High School in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania before transferring to North Allegheny Senior High School before his junior year in 2017. The school’s Wexford, Pa. campus is under 15 miles from Acrisure Stadium.
“It got to the point where, selfishly, we didn’t want him to get picked at the later part of Round One,” said Art Walker, North Allegheny’s head football coach since 2005, “because we knew the Steelers were going to be first on the next day.”
When Walker first met Porter after the corner’s transfer into the Tiger program, the coach gleaned early the physical attributes that separated him at the high school level — and which drew the attention of NFL scouts and teams.
“He’s always been long; he’s always been athletic,” Walker said. “He has a great closing speed, great recovery speed. He does have really good ball skills as well. It’s kind of rare to have a defensive back that they feel most comfortable in that bump-and-run proximity; he’s always been that way.”
Porter’s long arms and spacing skills made an immediate impact, with the transfer collecting seven interceptions in his first year at North Allegheny — Walker went so far as to say that “if the ball was in the air…you just kind of knew he was going to be the one to come down with it.” But, Porter also played receiver, leading NA in receiving touchdowns as a senior, and ran track.
John Vardzel, a Pitt Panthers receiver from 2018-21, also transferred to North Allegheny that same summer as Porter. The two were teammates on both the gridiron and on the track, pushing for their mutual success. Vardzel, who led the Tigers in receiving yards/game and touchdowns as a senior, recalls lining up against Porter during that summer. Friendly competition in drills such as the 40-yard dash and shuttle was so intense that the two were “diving across the line to beat each other.”
“It was always, ‘I’ll get you here, he’ll get me here.’ We always made each other better,” Vardzel said. “I think we brought out the best out of both of each other.”
When Porter and Vardzel were taking the field together in games, that intensity never waned, even if it took the form of a child’s game.
Vardzel recalls that when he and Porter both lined up to return punts, the two would play rock, paper scissors to determine who would field the boot. In one particular instance, Porter’s acumen allowed him to corral a dribbled punt and run it all the way to the house — as Vardzel describes, in a “half circle around the entire field.”
“That’s when I was like, ‘Okay, this guy can play,’” Vardzel said.
Though Porter did play on both sides of the ball as a senior at North Allegheny, he particularly honed his technique at defensive back. Offers from colleges known to produce premier DB talent — such as LSU, Miami and, of course, Penn State — began accumulating prior to his senior year in 2018, at which point Porter became ranked as the 24th overall cornerback in the country. That more permanent position change wasn’t a surprise to Walker.
“He was a dynamic player [on offense], but where he really stood out was on defense,” Walker said. “It just felt like that’s where his home was; that’s where he belonged. From Day One, before even coming to North Allegheny, you knew that’s what he wanted to do.”
On Sept. 11, 2018, Porter committed to play for the Nittany Lions, ensuring his personal and football education would proliferate in Pennsylvania. After redshirting as a freshman, Porter garnered Third Team All-Big Ten honors in his second and third seasons.
As a redshirt senior in 2022, Porter truly began to distinguish himself. The North Allegheny Tiger turned PSU Nittany Lion posted a 73.2 PFF grade, tied for 14th among cornerbacks to see 400 or more snaps. His consistent lockdown coverage, highlighted by his 11 pass deflections, established a spot on the All-Big Ten First Team. More specifically, Porter made plays on the ball that most corners could not, simply because of his gargantuan 6-foot-2 1/2 frame and 34-inch arms — in the 98th percentile for cornerbacks, per Mockdraftable.
“He’s got freak abilities,” said Penn State safety Keaton Ellis, who played with Porter for four years in Happy Valley. “His arms touch the ground.”
There’s little doubt Porter’s physical measurables — including his 10-inch hands, 129-inch broad jump and 1.5-second 10-yard split — played a considerable role in him ascending NFL franchises’ draft boards this past spring, a perfect piece of clay for a pro corner coach to mold into a star. But, Porter’s off-field characteristics also strike a chord in those who know him best.
“Probably the first thing that comes to mind is hard work,” Vardzel said about Porter. “Even from the first day I met him, he was always training, doing all the extra things: get faster, work on his craft. It doesn’t surprise me at all to see how far he’s come.”
Despite his industrious desire to succeed, Walker noted that Porter is more reserved, at least until he straps up the pads and hits the field.
“As quiet as he may have been in the hallway or locker room or during practice, the competitive spirit always came out on Fridays,” Walker added. “You could tell he was always locked in and ready to go.” The coach noted that Porter was disappointed if the Tigers dropped a game.
Personality-wise, both Vardzel and Ellis called Porter a “great person,” stressing how happy they are for his NFL dreams, with a local tie, are to be coming true.
Porter officially donned Steelers black and gold and walked the tunnels of 100 Art Rooney Ave. for the first time on Aug. 19, in Pittsburgh’s second preseason contest against the Buffalo Bills. Entering the game in the second quarter, Porter’s debut didn’t disappoint. With just 1:06 left in the first half, Porter snared an interception after stifling his receiver in Cover 2. The ball, of course, was promptly issued to his dad watching in the stands.
As the Steelers officially begin the 2023 season, Porter’s immediate role in Pittsburgh’s defensive back-end is somewhat unknown. Despite his raw talent and ability to bolster a rather thin cornerback room, the rookie played only 53 snaps in the preseason and was behind veterans Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace.
Whether or not Porter becomes a mainstay contributor in his initial months removed from college, those most familiar with him are confident in his long-term trajectory, especially playing for an organization near and dear to his family.
“He’s going to be competitive. He’s not going to back down,” Walker said. “He’s going to understand that his game now has to go to another level. He’s not going to ever want to let the organization down, or Steeler Country down — he’s a part of that.”
Ellis had a front-row seat to Porter’s maturation under James Franklin at Penn State. The current senior safety feels that Porter will continue that trend.
“I know he’s only going to just get better,” Ellis said. “I’m just really excited for him.”
Even if Porter has more of a developmental year in 2023, he’ll be a prospect that many around the NFL will continue to monitor closely, due to his blue-chip pedigree, bloodlines and sky-high potential. In keeping on the black and gold — like what he wore at North Allegheny, and in which his dad struck fear in linemen across the sport — those closest to Porter feel it’s almost destiny for him to excel.
“I have no doubt in my mind he’ll leave a footprint on the entire city of Pittsburgh here soon,” Vardzel said.