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Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith leads NFL in sacks with 'foundation in Christ'

The early frontrunner in the race for the most sacks in the 2022-23 NFL season is Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith.

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Highsmith has 4.5 sacks through the first three games, with three of those coming in the opening game of the season, a 23-20 overtime win against the Cincinnati Bengals. He’s half of a sack ahead of five other players.

The 25-year-old’s highly effective spin move is quickly making him one of the most difficult defenders in the NFL to stop.

“It’s just a natural maturation process of a solid young player,” head coach Mike Tomlin said in a press conference this week. “He showed signs as a rookie and carved out a role for himself and participated. He ascended in year two when Bud [Dupree] left in free agency, and now he’s in year three. He’s been a lap around the track as a starter.”

Tomlin continued later, “I don’t think any of us are surprised by what we’re seeing from him in-stadium. … We keep our head down, we keep working and we understand there’s a such thing as football justice on the other end of it.”

Highsmith has stepped up along the Steelers’ defensive line in the absence of 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, who left the first game of the season with a pectoral injury and was placed on injured reserve. Watt’s 22.5 sacks a year ago tied the all-time single-season record.

Pittsburgh’s third-round pick out of UNC-Charlotte in 2020, Highsmith has learned that his value is not ultimately dependent upon his place on the depth chart or even his performance on the field. In August 2019 while at Charlotte, Highsmith told the student newspaper, Niner Times, that it’s found in his faith in Christ.

“Jesus died for me, I’ve got to live for Him. That’s why it’s so important because all the things in this world are fleeting. I love this game of football, it’s amazing, but it’s not my god. I’ve tried to put my identity in the sport at times and it’s let me down. This game, it’s great, but it’s not going to be God.

“Having a foundation in Christ is so important to me because Jesus Christ is the same forever. Today, yesterday, forever. That’s why it’s so important; He gave it all for us, so we’ve gotta give it all for Him.”

Highsmith wasn’t heavily recruited coming out of high school in Wilmington, North Carolina, but he decided to attend UNC-Charlotte and attempt to walk onto the team. His work ethic quickly drew the admiration of the coaching staff, and he earned a scholarship in 2017.

Throughout his time with the 49ers, Highsmith was a member of Charlotte’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), an organization that seeks to impact the lives of athletes in schools around the country for Christ.

He grew up attending church with his parents, but stopped going while in high school. It wasn’t until he got to Charlotte that God began to work in his heart to bring him to Himself through the ministry of FCA.

“I remember in December 2015, our annual FCA Winter Blast camp that happens at the end of the year every year, we had that,” Highsmith told the Niner Times. “And I remember that Saturday night, that was the night that I gave my life to Christ and you know, I felt that presence in my life and that was the night I sort of laid it down.

“It’s definitely been a struggle, the walk isn’t easy, but it’s worth it because you know at the end of the day, all that we do for God matters.”

Highsmith’s involvement with FCA also led to him meeting UNC-Charlotte cross country and track athlete Alyssa Ungrady. The two began a relationship centered on their shared faith in Christ, and they were married this past June 25.

Alex mentions the Bible verse Romans 1:16 in his Instagram bio, while Alyssa references Acts 20:24. Romans 1:16 says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”

In his Twitter bio, Alex also mentions the Bible verse Luke 1:37: “For no word from God will ever fail.”

Highsmith will continue to remain unashamed of the Gospel, even as the spotlight on him grows as the centerpiece of the Steelers’ pass rush. Currently sitting at 1-2, Highsmith and the rest of his Steelers teammates host the New York Jets on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET as they attempt to keep pace in the AFC North.

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