First, you’re a judge in Pittsburgh – why did you decide to become a judge and how did you get started on that path?
I was always thinking of my future – I had a family since I started in the NFL. three-to-four years into the league I started going to law school at night. It was different then – not like now where your football salaries pay for everything. Then you needed something else to do.
I wanted something that was challenging and exciting and law fit in that. I knew some lawyers and liked the competition in the court room. I applied to Duquesne and Louisville and got into both. Since I had moved to Pittsburgh I took the night program and prepared for my future.
The Lord led the way really. I was watching a PBS program on TV when I was in Louisville and there was an ad for an option for LSAT courses. It was a sign – I did well on the exam and the rest is history.
How hard was that transition for you from the NFL to a career in law?
The transition was not that difficult. I studied for four years while playing. I was a veteran on the team then so I didn’t have as much additional studying like other players so had the time. I was in the mode of studying as a player so it helped me off the field studying too. I was aware of the benefits of additional preparation and physically, I was always in shape so that was never an issue. One helped the other. I didn’t have time to stray and do other things – so I was able to be successful in both arenas. I also had time to practice law my last two years in the league and had a job so it wasn’t totally brand new to me. The transition was easier for me.
You were drafted by the Steelers in the 1979. Were you surprised to be drafted?
I was surprised to be drafted, Louisville was not a powerhouse then. There was only one guy there people thought would be drafted. ESPN had just started so there was not much news on players. Mostly the guys out of the elite schools were the ones drafted, but some teams like the Steelers scouted the smaller schools. I wasn’t even invited to the combine. My roommate, Nathan Poole, was the only guy that was expected to be drafted from Louisville. He would get calls from teams asking him to work out with them and I went with him. That’s how scouts saw me. THe Louisville head coach was also selected to coach the Blue-Grey game, and he was allowed to take players with him and he took me and Nathan to the game. We were 14 point underdog but won the game and I had a good game. A defensive back got hurt in that game, and he was supposed to play in the Can-Am game a week later, so I played for him instead. I had an interception in that game, and had a good game in general, and the team started to wonder how I could run with those wide receivers. I had a slow 40 time. So the Steelers came to Louisville and asked me to run again for them. They had a 4.7 time on me but I was a 4.4 guy. I had hurt my knee when I ran it the first time and that was why there was a big variance in the time. So I was late in the process when I got noticed, and that’s how I got drafted.
How did you find out you got drafted?
I was listening to the draft on the radio with Nathan and the Steelers had the last pick in the sixth round. The time on the radio program had just run out before that sixth pick. We didn’t hear who was picked and neither one figured it was us. We were walking out the door when the phone rang and the person on the phone said the Steelers just drafted you. I thought it was a prank because everyone knew the radio program had just turned off before the pick, so I hung up on them. The phone rang again, and the defensive coach George Perles was on the phone and told me, don’t hang up on me this time! That’s how I got drafted.
I was excited. I was going to the NFL. But then I started thinking about the team I was drafted by. Teams then kept seven defensive backs. I knew they had Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, Mike Wagner, who were all pros. They had Ron Johnson who was the rookie of the year. And Larry Anderson, who led the league in kick off returns. They also had Tony Dungy and Ray Oldham who played all positions. And they actually had another guy – J.T. Thomas – who was a starter but was out the year before due to a blood disorder. So they actually had eight guys already, and then me. I couldn’t figure out why they drafted me. I didn’t see how they needed me. So my excited lasted for five minutes. Ten minutes later, Nathan Poole and I started working out. We needed to be ready.
Who helped mentor you as a rookie, both on and off the field, and how did they do so?
It was a unique team. It’s easy to see why they were so successful. There were so many things I didn’t know – things like learning techniques for man-to-man coverage. You’re now going up against the best athletes in the world. It was eye-opening.
Mel Blount was the number one guy who mentored me. Ron Johnson was the same way. They wanted you to be the best so you could beat the best. Starter or not, they wanted you to be the best player you could be. I was tutored that way, and as a starter myself I did the same thing for the new guys coming on the team. That attitude existed from Mel Blount to Terry Bradshaw.
You were one of the leaders on the team for years in interceptions. What made you so successful?
I had good role models. I would watch Mel Blount who was one of the greatest defensive backs to have ever played the game. I watched his approach and tried to mirror things. I never wanted to go into a game not prepared. I was always prepared, I always knew the down and distance – what teams liked to do, if it was third and eight versus third and two. I knew how they liked to attack a defense. If a coach coached in Houston and then next year coached in Cincinnati, I would go back to watch his Houston film to see what they did, especially if they played Pittsburgh the year before. I was always well prepared, and let the physical part take care of itself.
I passed that down to other players. I remember Rod Woodson and I shared a locker and at halftime would watch film just to be ready to go for the second half. As you get older, you have to know those things. You look at the games that you play well and you look at the games that you’ve gotten beaten in. You put in the work or you’re not in the league very long. Talent alone doesn’t get it done.
If you don’t make a difference in the game, your’e gone, they will find someone else. Batting the ball down isn’t’ enough, you have to make teams pay for throwing at you. You take it personally. You have to prove that they were wrong for trying to throw it at you, and show them they should have known better than to try to throw the ball here.
What enabled you to get playing time as a rookie?
I was fortunate that I had good athletic ability. It was the mental preparation that was needed. How to watch film and recognize roots, knowing down and distance, and stretching my limits. I did things that if I thought about it I never would have thought I had the ability to do. Going up against Lynn Swann, John Stalworth, Jimmy Smith, and T-Bell tested me every day. Mel Blount saying that I could do it, that I just needed to let my physical ability take over, really helped. You do your best and that’s all you can do, and if you make the team you make the team. The level we played on in college – that never makes it in the NFL, you need to step it up. You’re not really challenged much in college, but every guy in the NFL is a player.
How hard was it for you to mentor guys as a veteran that you knew were out to take your job?
It wasn’t hard at all. The egos are huge with players and there are two things that we have to remember: you want the guy playing next to you to be good, and you want to be good as well. It’s frustrating if the guys next to you can’t get the job done. You want to win. I can’t imagine going year after year and not winning, and some players have gone through that. The only way to do it is to make everyone better. It’s not a secret. You still the guys your’e going to be the starter. It’s not hostile, it’s just the nature of the game. You learn to swim or die trying, and I treated the guys the same way I was treated.
In 1986 I missed the year before because I had my knee reconstructed. The team thought I couldn’t play anymore and drafted Rod Woodson, Delton Hall, and a safety later. They didn’t think I would be able to come back. Rod Woodson held out early, but I worked with Delton Hall. Even then I had that confidence and a chip on my shoulder. The team acted like they didn’t think could play again, but I was going to be the starter. Players have a different way of thinking about things, but you can’t get any closer to people in such a short period of time as you can in the NFL. You need all 45 guys to be on the same page to win, and there are no other guys you’d want to go to war with.
Tell me a little about humor in the locker room. How did it affect you? And can you share some fun stories from your time in Pittsburgh?
You have to have humor, and we had funny things happening almost every day. That’s the hardest part when you retire, not being in the locker room. You miss those funny activities. One funny memory I have is of Terry Bradshaw. He used to wear a toupee and one day we tied him up and rolled him into Chuck Noll’s office with his toupee tied on backwards.
I also remember Keith Willis who set the record for sacks a year before. The next year I remember him running into Chuck’s office yelling that someone messed up his new shoes. Now Chuck was a no-nonsense guy, but he came back into the meeting saying Keith Willis was very upset that someone had put Red Hot in his shoes. He had gone through the trash with Keith to find his shoes and he must have thought they were made out of alligator or something, but they were just Hush Puppies. So Chuck Noll told the team that Keith Willis was very upset but that he could understand why you put Red Hot in his shoes and messed them up.
That doesn’t sound like Chuck Noll. Why do you think he did that?
You don’t run to the head coach. That was a message. Chuck Noll felt like the guys should handle it on their own. We didn’t even want the coaches in the locker room, that was our time. Chuck understood that and respected that and he wanted Keith to know that you don’t run to the head coach for a problem. I also remember went the team tied Rocky Bleier to the goal post and left him there. We forgot he was there. An hour later the grounds crew had to come and untie him from the goal post.
Another story I remember …. we had just hired a new coach from Minnesota named Jed Hughes. We were in practice and it was freezing out and he had this really nice coat on. You could still see the Minnesota Vikings’ emblem on it, plus it was purple. No one would listen to him. Everyone ignored him like he wasn’t there. Finally, Jack Lambert approached him and asked him how we were supposed to listen to him when he was wearing that coat. He tried to get the linebackers to do the drills but finally he had to leave the practice because no one would listen to him.
You’re very involved in various charities. What drives that and how much of that is due to your faith?
My wife and I are Christians, as is the rest of my family. We believe we’re here for a reason: to help our fellow man. I’m not just here to live life, we’re all responsible for everyone. We believe that children and education are vital. We’re only as strong as our weakest link. You can’t leave kids behind, so we work to help kids educate themselves and be productive. That’s what both of us are always involved with – education and children – and our faith drives that.
On May 30th, the Do The Right Thing program takes place. We are co-chairs of that. We expect 4000 kids to be involved this year. They do writings and songs, and they have to be 500 words long. They are asked three questions: What are the causes of violence? How does it affect your school? And what can be done about it? Then we have a big banquet and choose two winners that go to Washington, DC to meet other winners. There they meet congressmen and learn how they can make a difference. It’s a great program and we’re excited to be a part of it.
Any last thoughts for readers?
All over the country I can’t thank Steeler fans enough. They are the greatest fans in the world, and they are all over the world. Playing for them and living in the city with them as well has been amazing.