- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- The beard has its own Facebook page now, 700-plus admirers strong. It is the source of admiration and stares, high-fives and complaints, love and hate.
Brett Keisel emerged from the showers Saturday night, and there were hundreds of things to say. There was the Pro Bowl invitation he'd received earlier in the day, the first ever in a nine-year career. There was the fumble he pounced on that helped the Pittsburgh Steelers gut out a blood-and-mud 31-24 divisional playoff victory over the Baltimore Ravens.
Keisel walked to his locker, and a throng soon gathered.
"The beard lives on," he said.
And so ended another night in Pittsburgh, where the defense does little to live up to its on-the-field persona. James Harrison, the beastly linebacker known for his jarring hits, could be found late Saturday hanging out with his little boy, who sat in a stall next to his locker. Troy Polamalu, the fearsome safety with the wild mane, walked gingerly out of the shower with a giant, wooden cross around his neck. He spoke in quiet tones.
Keisel is known as "The Diesel." He stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 285 pounds. He didn't just grow a beard, he unleashed something so out of control that it looks as if two small animals were laid to rest on his face. Yet, it's clear he's part of the soul of this team. In a 10-minute span Saturday night, two players -- one current, one former -- walked up to Keisel to say they loved him.
Last week, coach Mike Tomlin put on the board the names of some of the team's youngsters, guys who haven't been to a Super Bowl or the playoffs but would probably be called upon Saturday to help push the Steelers toward their seventh ring. Tomlin asked his veterans to show the younger guys the way. Keisel was more than happy to help.
He has been with the team since 2002 but was never one of the more recognizable faces. The Steelers' schemes don't allow Keisel to put up big numbers like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, defensive ends for the Colts who are Pro Bowl staples. Keisel has always been fine with that.
He joked that the P.A. guy picked a bad time to announce his Pro Bowl selection, delivering the news when the Steelers had just given up a touchdown and fell behind 14-7 in the first half.
"I'm sitting there pissed off on the sidelines," Keisel said, laughing. "I wanted to stand up and blow the crowd kisses, but I couldn't."
There was no joking around at halftime. Pittsburgh was down, 21-7. Against a defense like the Ravens, it seemed like 41-7. Keisel said the Steelers were hanging their heads, and it was the veterans' jobs to lift the team up.
"We came in at halftime, and everyone just checked himself," Keisel said. "We understood where we were at, down 14 points. And everybody gut-checked himself."
The Steelers decided then that they needed two turnovers to make up for the two the Ravens had in the first half. They came up with three. And all of them came in the third quarter, which ended in a tie at 21. Keisel recovered the last one, a fumbled snap by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
It was one of the defense's most inspired games of the season. It gave up just 126 yards, surrendering 28 in the final 30 minutes. When it was over, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said nothing is ever surprising in the Ravens-Steelers series. The defenses are tough. The outcomes are draining.
But Keisel didn't seem all that tired. He's going for a third ring, which he said would look good on his pinkie. He's keeping the beard, which isn't good news for his wife.
She reportedly bought him a razor for Christmas, which is collecting dust. Keisel has been growing the beard out since June, and he can't get rid of it now. Not with the AFC Championship looming. Not when the defense is playing so well.
"I don't mind the beard," Keisel said. "But I'm sick of the mustache getting into my food. I can't put my mouthpiece in without biting on it.
"I'm sick of it, but I'm a team guy, and I'm going to ride this 'til the very end."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com. ESPN reporter Greg Garber contributed to this report.
8hDoug Clawson, ESPN Stats & Information