During challenging rookie season, Steelers' Pressley Harvin learns: 'It's OK to not be OK'

Pressley Harvin had to deal with more than punting responsibilities this season, including the deaths of his father and grandmother. Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire

PITTSBURGH -- A day before the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Tennessee Titans on Dec. 19, rookie punter Pressley Harvin III gathered with his entire family under one roof.

The following day, his family watched him warm up from the sideline at Heinz Field, his dad and grandmother bundled and sitting in wheelchairs.

It was the last time all of them were together.

Six days later on Christmas morning, Harvin learned his dad died after a long battle with a terminal illness. Two weeks after that, his grandmother died.

“I’ve never had that much adversity put on me at once,” Harvin said Thursday.

After a roller-coaster season of inconsistent performances on the field, Harvin’s greatest challenge came in the last four weeks of his rookie campaign as he navigated the deaths of his dad and grandma, and he found strength in his family and the memories of the game where all of them were together.

“I’ll never forget that moment,” the seventh-round pick said. “All of us being in the house as a family for just that last time. It just makes me smile, because that was the biggest thing that I wanted to lean on them, was that I didn’t want them to worry about anything on my side of things. I was more so worried about them.”

And through the grief, Harvin came away with a greater understanding of life outside football.

“The biggest thing mentally that I found about myself off the field was that it’s OK to not be OK sometimes,” Harvin said.

Harvin was preparing to leave for the Week 16 game in Kansas City when he learned about his dad’s death.

Immediately, he changed plans and began making arrangements to return home to South Carolina. Because flights kept getting canceled, Harvin drove 10 hours to be with his mom, younger brother and grandma. On that drive, he kept thinking about some of the wisdom his dad left him.

“The biggest thing that he told me was whenever the time comes that he’s not going to be here anymore was to handle my business, take care of my family,” Harvin said.

In processing his dad’s advice, Harvin realized he had to find balance by living two lives: one as an NFL player and another as a brother and son.

“I was trying so hard to make both of those come together,” Harvin said. “I finally realized when he said that to me that sometimes you don’t have to have it come together, and sometimes you have to reflect back to your family and the ones that’s closest to you to give you that motivation during the year.

“I would talk to my parents and little brother all the time during the year. But I never really sat down and talked outside of football as much as I wanted to. It was always about how is the season going, how did practice go and stuff. I never really got the opportunity, as much as I wanted to, because I was so focused on doing well on the field.”

The advice from Harvin’s dad allowed him to refocus, and while his family was still a huge motivator, he also allowed his relationships with them to be a much-needed escape from the everyday grind and pressure of the NFL.

“I never really focused on things outside of [football] and getting away from it,” Harvin said. “This stuff can make you insane sometimes, especially with how long the season is. I feel like that’s the mental part that was tougher during the season as the season continued to go on, was how can you get away from it a little bit to motivate yourself to get back. That was the biggest thing that he taught me.”

Harvin didn’t play for two weeks after his dad’s death, and punter Corliss Waitman, who spent the 2020 season on the Steelers’ practice squad, took over. Waitman punted well in Harvin’s absence, averaging 52.1 yards per punt in two games -- a significant increase from Harvin’s 42.6 average. Yet, the Steelers went back to Harvin after he returned.

Despite learning of his grandmother’s death the night before the regular-season finale in Baltimore, Harvin punted against the Ravens, but he averaged a season-low 37.25 yards per punt.

“We had a decision that had to be made Sunday morning,” Harvin said. “I was completely motivated, and I wanted to go out there and show the world that everyone goes through adversity, but it’s how you try and fight through it. That’s the biggest thing for me. And that’s the biggest thing I learned this year was any adversity can happen at any time. The biggest thing you have to do is keep God first. Pray about it.”

The next week, coach Mike Tomlin didn’t commit to starting Harvin in the playoff game against the Chiefs, but when the Steelers activated JuJu Smith-Schuster from injured reserve, they released Waitman to make room. It was a vote of confidence in Harvin.

"He and we smile in the face of adversity, and we send him back out there," Tomlin said at the time. "There are going to be some ups and downs during the course of the journey.

"We’re committed to him and his talents. We’ll keep sending him out there. We expect him to work his way through it and we’ll expect him to smile in the face of adversity that his rookie season is presenting to him and grow from it."

Though the Steelers were throttled by the Chiefs, Harvin had his best game of the season, averaging 49.7 yards per punt on seven punts.

“I honestly felt like I got back to myself,” Harvin said. “Mentally, it was tough, and I knew it was tough going into a playoff game. But the biggest thing that I thought about was that my grandma and my dad are OK. I know they’re in a good place and a better place than here. That gave me a little bit of clarity to finally sit and relax a little bit before the game because it was a night game.

“I told myself, you know what, why not? Why not go out there and prove to everyone that I am who I am for a reason. And I am where I am for a reason. And to keep God first. I prayed a lot that day before the game. I just told myself, go out there and have fun. And honestly, that was one of the most fun games of my life.”