- Scott Brown, ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter
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PITTSBURGH -- Brett Keisel threw a party Wednesday night at Jergel’s Rhythm Grille, and the Steelers defensive end raised more than $50,000 for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh in the process.
Keisel packed the restaurant/bar that is north of Pittsburgh for the shaving of his beard, and he drew the same boisterous cheers while on the stage that recently showcased the Gin Blossoms as he does at Heinz Field.
That might seem a little odd until you consider that the beard, which first drew national notice when the Steelers played in the Super Bowl three years ago, has morphed into a phenomenon and has a handful of its own Twitter accounts.
The night did provide a bit of an upset when Keisel emerged from his backstage shave looking less like a lumberjack but with some semblance of a beard.
"I feel a little more comfortable when I have at least a little hair on my face," Keisel said at the conclusion of the Fourth Annual Shear Da Beard. "I usually have an identity crisis after I do this. That’s why I left a little bit."
A more profound identity crisis could be looming.
Keisel is set to become an unrestricted free agent on March 11, and his football future in the city where he and his wife, Sarah, are active in a number of charities and intend to raise their three children is uncertain.
Keisel is 12 seasons into an NFL career that started when the Steelers made him the 242nd overall pick of the 2002 draft. Just as there were no guarantees when he arrived at his first training camp as a little-known seventh-round draft pick, there are no assurances that his career will have the ending he covets.
Keisel would love nothing more than to finish where he started, to wear one uniform his entire career. But Keisel, who still feels like he can play, is also realistic.
"This business is all about youth," said the 35-year-old Keisel. "It’s up in the air; it really is. I feel fortunate to have been a part of success. I feel fortunate to have been a part of championship football. I know that I’m a lot luckier than a lot of players that go through the NFL and for that I’ll always be grateful."
The future can wait -- or at least it could Wednesday night as Keisel basked in the applause of Steelers fans for what he hopes isn’t the final time. He shined in the spotlight, whether he was raising money with guest auctioneer and former Steelers linebacker James Harrison or playing "Ring of Fire" on his new guitar, the song a nod to what the children he raises money for through "Shear Da Beard" endure on a daily basis.
The support Keisel received from the Steelers affirmed how widely respected he is within the organization. Coach Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, defensive line coach John Mitchell, tight end Heath Miller and former Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith, whose son is a cancer survivor, were all among the celebrities who snipped Keisel’s beard on stage.
Linebackers coach Keith Butler and quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner were also in attendance, as was general manager Kevin Colbert. Teammates who showed up for the event included defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood and offensive linemen Kelvin Beachum and Fernando Velasco.
There probably would have been at least double the number of Keisel’s teammates in attendance if so many of them weren’t vacationing or working out somewhere warm.
The best part of the night is that Keisel managed to own it without making it about him. He thanked everyone from the celebrity attendees to the president of Children’s Hospital and fans who made it possible.
"It’s mind boggling," Keisel said with a laugh about the capacity crowd he drew, "and I told them, ‘All of you are crazy. ' It really is amazing the support that I feel from fans of mine and fans of the Steelers and fans of Children Hospital. Kids are suffering every day and this is a little bit of help to them, and that makes me very proud."