Justice Prides Himself on Durability, Reliability
INDIANAPOLIS – He is the most decorated of the Colts' 2008 NFL Draft selections.
Steve Justice, a center from Wake Forest University who the Colts made one of four sixth-round selections on the weekend of April 26-27, started three seasons for the Demon Deacons, and in that time, he was twice named first-team Atlantic Coast Conference.
As a senior, Justice:
• Was named first-team All-American by six publications, including the Associated Press.
• Finished second for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's top offensive lineman.
• Won the ACC's prestigious Jacobs Blocking Trophy, given to the conference's top offensive lineman.
And so on . . .
But as much as any honor, Justice said it is a statistic that mattered to him, and that drove him throughout a prestigious collegiate career.
The statistic: zero.
As in, zero plays missed in college because of injury.
"It's the heart of a competitor," Justice said recently in an interview for this story, the sixth of a nine-part series of stories on the Colts' 2008 NFL Draft class that will run on Colts.com in the coming days.
"You want to be out there every snap you can and help the team win as much as possible."
Justice (6-feet-4, 295 pounds), the 35th selection of the sixth round and the 201st selection overall, "is typical of the offensive lineman we've drafted here over the years," Colts President Bill Polian said shortly after his selection.
That means he's quick, fast and versatile, and Polian said shortly before the Colts' May 2-4 rookie camp Justice likely will work at several line positions.
Justice said recently his current situation isn't new to him. As a freshman at Wake, he played sparingly, an experience that led him to the approach he took in his final three seasons.
The approach? To leave the game as little as possible.
Which in his case meant practically never.
He played every snap in 2005, then in his final two seasons, he missed only snaps in games in which the Demon Deacons were comfortably leading.
"I never missed a snap due to injury," Justice said. "My sophomore year, the year I first started playing, I played every offensive snap and on punt and field goal, as well. In the course of 2006 and 2007, we were up on Ole Miss and Florida State, so we put in the young guys.
"As a freshman, I was behind a senior starter. Everybody thought he was supposed to be All-ACC and blah, blah, blah. I had to sit behind him for a year. The next year, I won the starting job over another senior who they put in front of me – to kind of motivate me, I guess. Once I won the spot, I was like, 'I'm not giving this thing up for anything.'
"I took a lot of pride in not wanting to come out of the game and never taking any plays off or any rest."
While at Wake, Justice was part of the program's turnaround, with the Demon Deacons winning the ACC title in 2006 with an 11-2 record and finishing 8-4 with a second consecutive bowl appearance this past season.
"When I got there, we were like 4-7," Justice said. "Then we went 11-2. How could you not take pride in that? Looking back, it's something you'll remember for the rest of your life."
It was that team success, Justice said, that enabled him to become Wake's first All-American in 31 seasons.
"I have to go back to my teammates," Justice said. "I was in the weight room working hard, and doing the things I needed to do, preparing myself each week for each game, but if we went out and didn't play together, there's no chance. If the team doesn't have success – unless you're just a freak of nature at a different position, you're not going to be an All-American.
"The team being successful and my teammates on the offensive line doing the job they needed to do and playing as well as they needed to play really helped me out and exposed me to the next level and helped me with my accolades. The team is what really matters in the big scheme of things. That's what it's about, winning games with your teammates. At the offensive line position, you learn quickly you're not going to get the newspaper clippings.
"You're not going to get the awards, and so, you rely on your teammates. If you do good things, they're going to do good things and you guys can come together and have fun together and you take pride in that."
Justice said a similar approach allowed him to quickly put aside the disappointment he experienced late last month.
Before the draft, many observers and analysts considered Justice one of the top prospects at his position, and projected him to be selected in the first three-to-four rounds. Instead, he lasted well into the second day.
"Everybody was predicting late third round, and of course, I wanted to go as high as I possibly could," he said. "That's a person's nature. I sat around and sat around and I honestly started getting sick to my stomach, like, 'What is going on? Something must be wrong.' Three or four centers went before me. Finally, I got the call."
And that's when he said everything changed.
"When I picked up the phone and they said, 'This is so and so from the Indianapolis Colts,' I just lit up because the whole time I just prayed and knew God had a plan for me," Justice said. "When I got the call from the Colts, I just thought, 'This is perfect planning God has put into my life, learning behind Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday.'
"They're rebuilding the line. They need new players to come in and learn under Mr. Saturday and snap to the best quarterback in the NFL. What more could you ask for?''
He said the Colts were ideal in another way: the reputation of offensive line coach Howard Mudd for developing little-known linemen into big-time players. The team in the last 10 years often has developed second-day selections (tackle Ryan Diem, guard Jake Scott and guard Rick DeMulling), waiver-wire acquisitions (guard Ryan Lilja) and free agents (Saturday) into solid starters and contributors along the offensive line.
"The round just means signing bonus," Justice said. "Put the signing bonus away, and you're in the same position as every other person who got drafted. It was tough, but once I got the call I was like, 'This is the best thing that could ever happen to me.'
"I was just happy I'm on the team with a chance to show my abilities. I wouldn't want to be any other place."
As for just where he will play with the Colts, that's uncertain. Mudd typically requires players – particularly young players – to work at several positions along the line, something Justice said is fine.
"I'm coming in with an open mind," Justice said. "If they want me to play guard, I'll play guard. If they want me to play center, I'll play center. I'll play whatever position they want me to play.
"I think I'm very prepared. I've been spending a lot of time the last couple of months getting in shape, trying to gain weight, trying to get bigger, stronger. I've been snapping on my own, preparing and doing some long snapping. I know the more you can do, the better.
"I know this is a one-time opunity. I'm just coming in ready to soak up as much as possible, and give it everything I have."