The Steelers had just suffered a gut-wrenching Thursday Night Football loss to the Tennessee Titans. A Friday team meeting — filled with somber faces — wrapped up with enough time for defensive end Brett Keisel to catch the last bit of archery-season daylight.
Shortly after reaching the woods, Brett heard a grunt and immediately dropped to his knees. He spotted a mature 8-pointer feeding, headed in his direction. The brute gave him a 20-yard broadside shot, and Brett watched him fall seconds after his arrow made contact.
"That good, clean kill came at a time when I needed it the most," he said.
Over the years, he's found solace and a source for dealing with stress, anxiety and depression in bowhunting.
"It's an exhilarating feeling that gets your heart pumping," said Brett.
A Family Tradition
Keisel comes from a family of serious bowhunters, including his dad who introduced his kids to the great outdoors as soon as they were potty trained. Going to hunting camp was a rite of passage and put dreams of bruiser bucks in Brett's head. He witnessed his dad harvest deer and was inspired to follow in his footsteps.
He started training with a fiberglass recurve at a young age before heading to the Bighorn Mountains with his Martin Lynx at age 16. Brett and his brother — 17 at the time — split off from their dad in search of elk. They were talking in a meadow when his brother made a cow call and a bull came running. Brett managed a 40-yard shot, and the bull dropped just 20 yards later.
"It was a proud moment," he said. "That experience baptized me into the bowhunting lifestyle."
The retired Steeler now does most of his bowhunting on his Western Pennsylvania property where he sees plenty of mature whitetails. Does are abundant in the area, and he's able to provide venison to families in need through meat donation programs.
But stalking elk is still where his heart lies.
"There's something about the high country that gets my blood boiling," he said.
In fact, Brett drew an elk tag and has been training to head back to Wyoming with his dad, brother and nephew this fall.
When he's not recovering from surgeries to correct old football injuries, Brett said he pulls "only" 90 pounds. He currently shoots a Bowtech Boss and is awaiting the arrival of his newest rig — an Obsession Huracon.
At 9, 6 and 4, Brett's kids already have their own bows and get practice in on Rinehart 3-D targets scattered throughout the yard — including their personal favorite, the velociraptor.
Brett's oldest has accompanied him on a few hunts, including some that didn't go according to plan. But he said these "messes" provide an excellent opportunity to teach his son how to learn from mistakes and improve as a hunter.
On the Field & In the Field
After 13 seasons in Pittsburgh, Keisel misses the adrenaline rush of hitting the field with his teammates.
"Nothing can compare to that feeling — but the closest thing to it is bowhunting. You gotta be able to perform under pressure. You gotta be able to keep your composure. You gotta be able to keep your cool," he said. "I love the closeness. The smallest twig break can completely bust you. You have to prepare and practice and put the time in."
Although the NFL season overlaps with archery season in Pennsylvania, Brett said it was early enough that his body wasn't too banged up yet and he was able to find time to bowhunt. The combination of balmy weather, autumn scenery and wildlife activity made it a perfect time to be out in the woods.
Brett has also introduced many of his Pittsburgh teammates to the outdoors through an annual pheasant hunt — something that provided a great bonding opportunity for the Steelers crew.
Two years into his retirement from the NFL, Keisel said he's grateful the Steelers picked him in 2002.
"It was an honor to play for Pittsburgh. We all molded each other into the men we are today."
Mighty Oak Adventures
From showing his buddies the ropes to hosting Field and Stream contest winners on trips, Brett loves to see the joy that comes over people's faces when they first hook a fish or hit a bullseye. And that was part of the inspiration for his latest endeavor — Mighty Oak Adventures.
Now in its second year, the organization replaces stale corporate teambuilding activities with fun group outings that get people outside — all led by Keisel himself. Participants can choose from a variety of activities including archery, skeet shooting, trail riding and fly fishing.
He teaches the groups a love and respect for nature, how to overcome adversity and how to be a champion — something the two-time Super Bowl winner knows a thing or two about.
Brett also focuses on the therapeutic element of the great outdoors.
"Just shooting at the range is like therapy for some people," he said.
For the past seven years, Brett has hosted Shear Da Beard, a charity event where the likes of Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin and James Harrison shave his notorious beard. He humbly credits the fans with raising nearly half a million dollars for cancer programs at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
"It's done so much good. The amount of money raised continues to grow each year — just like my beard. So, I have to let it grow."
Brett doesn't just shave his facial hair to financially support the kids; he also visits them in the hospital.
"Their spirit has been an amazing blessing," he said. "The kids are truly inspiring. They're the true heroes. I wish I was as close to as tough as they are."