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Porter finds target early, doesn't let up

DETROIT -- It was a throwaway play in a meaningless late-September game against the Tennessee Titans, but it revealed the elocutionary genius that is Joey Porter.

"Steve McNair was running out of bounds, and he wasn't all the way out," the Steelers' linebacker remembered last week. "You know how they act like they're trying to go out of bounds and get those extra two steps? Well, I caught him, knocked him into the sideline. They had me trapped over there, but I was talking my way through it, talking mess and…"

…And a Titans assistant coach grew so incensed he threw a cup of hot coffee at Porter, the linebacker claimed. It wasn't a standard Gatorade shower; on a personal level, it might have been better. It was a tangible sign that Porter had struck a nerve -- something he does more often than a bad dentist.

Actions may speak louder than words, but with Porter words are a very close second.

"I'm just looking for feedback," Porter said, laughing. "Because the more you feed back, the harder I've got to play to come get you."

In the macho, hard-hitting culture of the NFL, nobody does trash-talking better than Porter.

"One of the best," marveled Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "He's a big guy, so he's kind of scary and intimidating anyway. And then when he yells, his mouth gets real big and he's real loud. He comes with it strong and bold."

Said Pittsburgh linebacker Larry Foote, who is acknowledged as the team's second-best wordsmith, "He's going 100 miles an hour. He doesn't back down. Even when we're losing, and stuff don't look right, he's still talking."

Yes, Porter could well be the most talented double threat on the field in Sunday's Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks.

He's a swift, 250-pound outside linebacker with a high-impact presence. Porter recorded a team-high 10½ sacks this season and five forced fumbles. And his timing is exquisite. Porter was in on two sacks of Peyton Manning in the divisional playoff game at Indianapolis, both on the Colts' next-to-last drive. He dropped Jake Plummer in the AFC title game and forced a fumble. The Steelers recovered and turned it into a 10-0 lead at Denver.

Porter was named to his third Pro Bowl in four seasons. In the realm of "mess," he has even fewer peers.

Webster's Dictionary defines trash as worthless, useless, discarded rubbish -- even foolish and pointless.

"No," said Foote, growing agitated. "No, no, no. Trash-talking is a big part of the game. You need it. At this level, I don't think it gets into people's heads, but it gets you going."

Indeed, with the exception of an assistant coach or two, or the random running back or wide receiver, trash-talking is mostly about putting your boast on the record with the opposition, then backing it up.

"If I'm doing all this talking and not performing," Porter said, "my teammates will be like, 'Joey, shut up and start playing. You're letting them get you out of your game.' Or vice versa: If I'm making him so mad to where he's going out of their scheme to get me -- he doesn't care if he needs to block the safety behind me, he just wants to come after me -- that's a win for me."

In search of a huckleberry
It all begins during the pregame warm-ups. Porter said the process is similar to fishing or hunting.

"I'll be out there, getting myself warmed up, saying something like, 'Who you looking at? You see something over here you like?' And then if the other guy says something slick back, there goes my huckleberry -- I got him. That's the guy I'm going to target for the whole game."

Research, according to Porter, is a valuable source of material. He seems to know everyone's salary; rookies often hear their minimum wage in a painfully public forum. If you have had any recent difficulties on the domestic front, trouble with the law, well…

"You can't be in the paper or doing something and then being a player because I'm definitely using it," Porter said. "If it's out there, I'm using it."

There are very specific rules and protocols.

"You can't talk back to me if you don't play," Porter said. "If I'm jawing with somebody else and you're running off to go on the punt team and you've got something to say to me, I'm going to say, 'Don't talk to me, you're not a starter. You need to be doing something to have something to say.' I don't even give those guys one-liners."

Foote begs to differ.

"He'll talk to people that don't play. He doesn't discriminate," Foote said. "He's getting into it with kickers -- a hurt kicker. A kicker that was on injured reserve.

"He comes from all angles. From talking about your mother to talking about your grandmother. It gets a little elementary out there."

For the record, Porter claims that grandmothers are taboo.

"Mother jokes -- you do that to provoke them to the highest level," Porter said. "'But it's touchy with grandmothers. You don't really want to shoot the grandmas, because you don't now if his grandma has passed. I haven't used the grandmas."

For Porter, words, like the field itself, are a territorial issue.

"I'm not just going to let you come over here, pee on my plant," he said. "I'm not going to let your dog loose and come over there and use the bathroom in my yard. I'm going to tell you to get back in your yard -- this is our side right here."

In conversation, Porter is engaging and consciously PG-13. On the field, he talks, as they say, a blue streak. An analysis of several pregame field tapes shot this season reveals that Porter consistently displays a full command of the seven words the FCC historically has banned. One of his favorite conventions: calling an opponent out with the effective use of the P-word that is sometimes used to refer to a cat.

Porter's pregame activity -- particularly a 2004 run-in with Cleveland Browns' running back William Green that resulted in $10,000 fines for each player -- might have been the genesis of the NFL's new rule that was invoked in mid-September. Previously, the 50-yard line was the line in the sand that separated the two opposing teams during warm-ups. Now, thanks to Porter (and a tiff between the Eagles Jeremiah Trotter and the Falcons' Kevin Mathis), there is a 10-yard neutral zone between the 45-yard lines. Only kickers are allowed in this no-fly zone.

When Porter was asked if he considered himself an artist, he paused and said, "Yes. For the simple case they made rules for me. The Joey Porter rule. I compare myself to Shaq [Shaquille O'Neal], because they say they brought in the 2-3 zone for Shaq. They brought in the 45-yard line rule for me."

Porter said his trash-talking comes from his childhood. Growing up in Bakersfield, Calif., he was a precocious athletic talent and often found himself playing with older kids.

"Me being the youngest, I had to learn quick," he said. "I took my licks, and now it's time to start handing them out. Whether it was basketball or football, you've got to be able to have some savvy -- you better be able to back up your play.

"I go home and watch my little cousins play. You don't even have to be out there watching them play, you can just hear them from the window, jawing at each other. It's just part of where we grew up."

One of Porter's goals is to ignite the passion in his teammates.

"Say I'm out there talking to a running back," Porter said. "And then he says something slick back, that doesn't only get me, but the rest of my 10 guys are like, 'What'd he say? Who said it? What?' And once they get to saying that, oh, not only did you tick me off, you ticked off every one of the 10 men that I'm with."

Porter's mouth has gotten him in trouble. There was a time when he was the Steelers' defensive signal caller. No more.

"They relieved me of my duties because they said I talk too much," Porter admitted. "But I told them I could do it -- look over here and get the call, and still argue with this guy and get the defense in."

Porter made national headlines in September 2003 when he took a bullet in the backside while standing with friends outside a Colorado sports bar. One of the six shooting victims was left dead and a bullet passed through Porter's left buttock and into his right thigh. For a time, the incident changed the chemistry of his trash-talking.

"They took my mean streak out of me," Porter said, sounding sad. "Everybody's congratulating me, 'Oh, man, I'm sorry about what happened.' I can't sit up there and get mad at this guy who just got done telling me, 'Man, I was praying for you,' and all this stuff.

"How am I going to curse out [someone] who just prayed for me? That year, they was killing me, man. I'm like, 'Damn it, stop telling me that.'"

Eventually, he snapped out of it. Porter said he has Rams tight end Brandon Manumaleuna to thank for that.

"We was playing in the game, and he said, 'You're lucky it wasn't me, because I would have shot you in the face.' I was like, 'Good one,' because he had me ready to jump on him right then. I almost got out of character and we was about to have it out right there. I was looking for him."

Porter beamed.

"I'm happy that whole year is over -- they took it out of me a little bit. Now, I'm right back the same way I was."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.