Matt Bahr, Steelers Kicker, 1979-1980

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First, can you let readers know how you got into your “second career” after the NFL?

Well, I don’t know if it was my second career. I enjoyed what I was doing – I was going to school at night in the offseason and worked during the day. All the jobs I had I enjoyed. I was en electrical engineer and developed products for radio stations. I owned and operated radio stations and used the products to make them sound better for stations around the world.

I’m out of that now. When I was fired for the last time from the NFL things didn’t change much. Except now I had my Falls free. I continued working..

I’m now involved in the NFLPA-Harvard Health Study – which is a study like no other.

What is special about the study?

We have always gotten surveyed throughout our careers but doctoral students, but what makes this study unique is its for players by players.

In most part by the NFL Players Association.  But Harvard is behind it and they wouldn’t sully their name. Their doctors are behind it and they have no predestined ideas for results. What makes the study different is that they are creating treatments while doing the study. They are studying a very specific group of people – NFL players – to see if they are different from the general population. While they are playing and later in life.

For example, they are developing a knee brace that  fits on your leg, but knows when the knee is stressed to the point the ACL will tear and the brace locks up and doesn’t allow the ACL to tear.

They are also looking to re-grow knee cartilage. The study is trying to do parallel work – results and treatment both.

Another example is the study has shown that a three-hundred pound player as a big heart – heart of a bigger guy. And a crew rower has a smaller heart. But the walls of a football player’s heart is thicker due to all the pounding they take – so it can’t push the blood around as ell – it’s not as efficient. So they are looking into how to educe the thickness of the heart walls.

What role do you have in the study?

I’m an official advisor to the study. It’s over 3,000 people – anyone who tried out for an NFL team can be part of it…

How did you adjust to life after football – was it difficult?

Getting fired early in my career, I thought the guy I was trying out against – I was better than him. I did learn that you’re not the one making a decision. Just because you’re better does not mean you’re getting the job. It doesn’t make a difference who you’re trying out against, you’re trying out against yourself and trying to impress the decision-makers. What they forget is that everyone looks good in August but it’s different during the season when the wind is blowing and you have huge crowds. That’s why the average NFL career is never more than three years. And for kickers, it used to be less than two years. So I was always ready to do something besides the NFL. Joe Paterno always used to say that the NFL was just a stop on the way.

You were a very good professional soccer player. Why did you choose the NFL over playing soccer?

I played professional soccer. If it didn’t work with the NFL I probably would have gone back to soccer. I tried the NASL and ASL but I did not enjoy pro soccer. It was just a job. A lot of the guys in those leagues were aging players trying to extend their careers, guys from Europe, mostly England and Scotland. It made the dynamic of playing different. I was the third highest player in the NASL and I made $12,000.

It wasn’t like college. I wasn’t enthusiastic about the team dynamic. If I wasn’t enjoying it, and I just got drafted, I figured I’d try the NFL, it paid more. Actually, I got paid more as an engineer than as a rookie kicker, but that opportunity was never going to be there again so I wanted to take a chance. I was a young guy.

You were drafted by the Steelers in the sixth round. Were you surprised to be drafted, and by the Steelers?

Three kickers were drafted ahead of me. There were a lot of kickers drafted that year. I was a Philly guy. I remember the Steelers’ fans that came to the Penn State games. Let’s just say they were different crowds. I was not a big fan of the way they acted, but that’s the fun irony of life – I went to the team whose fans I didn’t like at the time. Their fans were rough, and when you’re a Philly guy there’s no in between. I used to root against the Steelers growing up because they had such success, so it was entertaining to me to go to Pittsburgh.

Who helped mentor you and show you the ropes when you got to the NFL?

There were many leaders on those teams. They won three Super Bowls over five years. It seemed like they won whenever they wanted to win. With teams like that, it’s foolish not to take advantage of the experience and great skills of the players.

My father had great success in soccer so I got to meet a lot of great people growing up. The first guy I ever heard speak to me was Chuck Bednarik. He told me you could do whatever you wanted to do, you just have to try. And he looked at you in that very serious way. So I wasn’t intimidated by the Steelers players. I wasn’t in awe of guys like Bradshaw, Lambert or Ham. It was more about taking advantage of their experience and emulating them. I remember meeting Pele growing up and his off-field presence was just as inspiring. I remember Jack Lambert in training camp. We used to have 4000-5000 people a day watching us practice, and he would sit down between practice to sign autographs for every single kid until no one was left. He’d often miss lunch and miss the rest time between practices, and I don’t know if anyone noticed but I did. It was first class.

What are some of the funnier or more humorous experiences you remember from your time in Pittsburgh?

It was mostly stuff to lighten the mood, like the Turkey Hunt and water in people’s shoulder pads. I mostly didn’t try to do much because I had too much time on my hands. Kickers are usually not subject to the pranksters because we had so much extra time. We saw so much, we saw everyone, but it was inappropriate for us to do the pranks or for people to do them on us. It was more entertaining just watching them anyway. The best pranks are when they didn’t know they were pranked. The next best prank is when another gets blamed for it.

Were you able to appreciate winning a Super Bowl so early in your career?

Not at all. Getting the rings, I thought that was nice.

But you got extra money too for winning.

Yes, but that was also the first time I got audited. It was gift income, and at that time gift tax was 70% under President Carter. But no, I didn’t appreciate it at all as a rookie. The time I was most excited was seeing myself on a bubblegum card. It was a flip card and I thought “Wow, this is neat.”

Later on, with my losses with the Browns and my time with the Giants – over those ten years, I realized how difficult it was to get to the Super Bowl. Now I appreciate it more than that rookie season. At that time, I just thought everyone got one.

You say “getting fired” vs “getting cut,” which is different from how most players describe it. Why is that?

Because it is getting fired. If the worst thing that happens in life is getting fired by a professional football team then it’s a pretty good life. You can’t be overly upset. To play a professional sport is neat, whether it’s for one year or ten. If the worse thing that happens is you get fired then you’ve done pretty well.

I will say I never gave their playbook back. I have all of them. What are they going to do, fire me? There wasn’t much in it anyway. Kick it this way, through those things…

As  a Penn State Alum, do you still keep in contact and follow the program?

I keep in touch with some of the guys and go to the golf tournaments…if you make two-three close friends from the game that’s good. The rest are good acquaintances …

I do root for them when they are playing. You hope they represent you and the program and the past well. I actually went to the same high school as James Franklin and met him.

The game is different than before. You have to produce sooner – there’s little leeway. Maybe because of expectations, the alumni…with that, I wish him well and hope the program does well. It’s produced lots of productive citizens with Joe’s kids and expect it still will.

Looking back on your career, what advice would you give to players entering the game today?

Give your best effort, but realize that it’s a short lifetime. It saddens me, you go into any NFL locker room and if you ask all the players how long they’d like to play, they all say about 8-9 years and then they’d like to get out healthy. Statistically, the lifetime of an NFL player when I was playing was 3.2 years. That means that 1/3 of the guys in the locker room will never play football again. As a player, if you look around and you can’t see 20 players that won’t play, then you know you’re one of those that won’t.

Take advantage of the opportunity but be realistic. Prepare for your entire life, not just this year or this season. You may last ten years in football, but you still have another 50-60 years of life after that.

 

 

 

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Exclusive with Sportscaster Bill Hillgrove

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First, can you give us a quick rundown on how you got to be a sportscaster after a career as a DJ?

It started as a student at Duquesne.  Any student could have a radio program on their station – now WEFA – so I had one on opera, as a disc jockey, and one on Duquesne basketball.  And some high school football too. Later on when the station I was at bought the rights for Pitt basketball and football, my boss came up to me and asked if I had any play-by-play experience. He had me do the basketball games and help with the football games.

You are now currently broadcasting for three teams – Pitt basketball, football, and the Steelers. How do you manage that in terms of just keeping up with names and stats?

I take my cue from racetrack announcers. There are nine to twelve races a day. You forget the last race. Those names and colors change each time. I guess I was blessed with having a bit of tunnel vision.

In November and December, when all three are happening at the same time, that’s tough. You know what they say about hitting yourself in the head with a hammer – when you stop, it feels good. That’s how it feels now…

Starting a bit with Pitt basketball – what are your thoughts on the up and down nature of this Pitt basketball team?

Jamie’s got to do it. They have to bring it on every game, every possession. For whatever reason, they aren’t always doing that, The Louisville and  Clemson games were disturbing – the teams took it to Pitt. They were more physical, played better defensively and hustled more for the loose balls. There’s plenty of season left but they really have to toughen up.

And your thoughts on the job Narduzzi is doing at Pitt in terms of recruiting?

I give Narduzzi a lot of credit. It’s an overused expression, but he gets it. He understands what it takes to be a good recruiter, He’s taken the steps – just like Johnny Majors did. He doesn’t tear other guys down – he builds relationships with players. If kids are wavering or have offers from other schools, he reminds them about that relationship. But he doesn’t bad-mouth those other programs. Johnny Majors did it the same way. As he used to say, “You can’t build something up by tearing others down.”

And as a game-time coach?

He instilled toughness in the team. The softness of the team bothered him. Last year’s bowl game I think had to bother him – he thought they played soft. He made change and it’s now a more hard-nosed program this year. They’re aggressive – as Tomlin is fond of saying, they don’t live in their fears. They are also doing a great job of half-time adjustments, with the exception of the Navy game.  The coaches have player buy-in. And for those that don’t, they encouraged them to transfer. They separated the wheat from the chaff.

Looking at the Steelers season – what’s your overall impression of how the season went?

It all depends on your point of view. I’m a cup half-full guy. I look at all of the injuries and what it accomplished despite them. It was an admirable season. Of course, if you ask Tomlin, he’d tell you the goal is always the Super Bowl. But they were 2-2 versus the teams in the championship games. You have to think if they had Brown and Toussaint doesn’t fumble, they beat Denver. Then who knows what happens versus New England. But if you ask Tomlin what kind of team they were, he’d say look at the record. And they were 10-6. Not good enough for some, but some fans want this team to go back to the 70’s, and that can’t happen in this day and age of football.

You mention Coach Tomlin’s comments about his team. How approachable and forthcoming was he from your perspective – many fans and some media feel he’s less than he should be?

Chuck Noll used to have an expression and I never took offense to it. He used to say that the media were like mushrooms. They should be kept in the dark and fed you know what…. Well, I have no problem with that. Coach Tomlin’s job is to win games. My job is to report on them. He’s not going to give us his playbook in his news conferences. Cowher and Noll, they may have been a bit smoother, but Tomlin is consistent. And he won’t cut a player for a mistake, He won’t allow for more mistakes and he’ll ask for them to be corrected. And he won’t  criticize a player in public – he’ll rarely praise them, except for a few exceptions, with players we can all guess..

The arrow though for the team is pointed up. Quarterbacks play their best football after 30. Brady and Manning were just in the championship game. There’s no reason Ben can’t play for a good more years. He’s an alien quarterback, as Tomlin calls him. He’s not human. With guys like that, you always have a chance for a Super Bowl. And with the weapons they have on offense and the defense playing better….I know the defense has warts, but those will be addressed.

Speaking of the defense and it’s issues, were you surprised at Rooney specifically pointing out the secondary issues needing to be addressed?

I’m not surprised. Art knows more football than me. But the secondary will always be exposed if the front seven isn’t doing it’s job. Near the end of the season the front seven did a good job and the defense got better.

I know a lot want to address cornerback, but they need a safety. Will Allen played at a high level this year but they need someone to come in and take over. They still don’t have a replacement for Troy – though it’s a pipe dream to think someone could play at that level. But they need someone who can at least be dependable.

I think they’ll sign a cornerback in free agency, and draft one. It takes a long time for a cornerback to develop. There are maybe five cornerbacks that could go in the first round, and the Steelers may very well wait on one. But for them to contribute early on will be tough.

And they do have Golson coming back – your thoughts on him?

He has a lot of talent and plays much bigger than he is. From the onset of his injury, Tomlin said he’d be a part of the team in camp and during the season. He’d be a true sophomore when he’s done and expects him to be a second-year player. I think he was spot on.

You mentioned the front seven. Especially at right outside linebacker, do they keep Jones – is he the long-term answer there? 

You can’t give up on Jones just yet – the team hasn’t. Linebackers take a long time in LeBeau’s scheme – and it’s still for the most part his scheme – to learn the system. Shazier is an exception. Look at how long it took Timmons to be a good run stopper and good in coverage, It takes time  – to know when to cover and when to stop the run.

Is it reading the defense or physical though with Jones?

It’s a little of both. You have to be patient – at some point the light just goes on. That’s how it happens = they try a move and it works and they realize that’s what they need to be doing. It has to happen on the field. If they thought he was a  bust, they would have definitely given up on him by now.

And on the offensive line, they have  decision to make possible with Foster and Beachum? Any thoughts there?

I watched Von Miller torture Brady in the championship game. I don’t recall mentioning Miller in the Steelers game. Ware had one, maybe two splash plays. They didn’t torture Pittsburgh like they did New England. Now maybe that says more about New England’s line, but I like the Steelers offensive line. Mostly because they protect Ben. Pouncey comes back, and if Foster leaves for big money in free agency they can move Wallace there.

Not Beachum?

I think Beachum comes back. I can’t see him leaving – the Steelers have the capital on their side with his injury and the play of Villanueva. The Steelers have he leverage. And why would he want to get away from Munchak? He helps make you the best you can be. The money becomes less important.

I did hear Tomlin send a perhaps subtle message to Beachum, praising him for his versatility and ability to learn any position…

Possibly that was a subtle message to him, and if it was, I’m sure his agent got it. But agents don’t always do what’s best for their client. Remember when Chickillo was suddenly activated but didn’t play for three weeks? Tomlin got wind that the Texans wanted to sign him off of the practice squad. The agent talked to the Texans because they money would be better – not because it was the best move. So the Steelers activated him.

Who on the team would surprise people the most in terms o how their personalities differ from their public personas?

In the current group, the guy that showed me something was DeAngelo Williams. He was a quiet guy – didn’t smile much.  But then they did the Dick’s Sporting Goods skit on video, and it was hilarious. He dressed as a salesperson and even told someone to take a kayak for a spin and pushed him around in it. He wore a hat so no one could see his hair but someone finally saw it.

Heath Miller – he is so quiet – he’s not a good interview. He just goes with the flow. But when he gets the ball he takes it personally when someone tries to tackle him.

The Steelers basketball team – they have a good time. If you bring in women or the little ones, they will play and have fun. But if you try and bring in the shocktroopers and play to win, all of the sudden the fast breaks get faster and the play gets more physical.

Antonio Brown may be the most outrageous of them. His outfits and hats – he liked to be that guy, He’s built that way. I remember the Dapper Dan awards, when he gave his speech and had a list of people to thank. But at the end, the person he said he wanted to thank the most was himself. He brought the house down. It’s fun to see them as people, not just athletes.

Do you miss that part of the game – where athletes could be “people”?

Myron Cope would not have fun now. They aren’t allowed to be characters. I liked it when the wackos could be wackos. But I do understand. There’s too much money now and it’s had a profound effect on how they can act.

Speaking of Myron – the Heinz Center is having a tribute to Myron Cope this weekend. It’s on Myron Cope the journalist. I’ll be Mcing – his daughter, Franco Harris and Murray Chass will all be there. Myron was more than just Oi Oi – he was quite a writer and we want to honor that Sunday.

Steelers fans see the outfits and the videos of him waving the towels, but he was dead serious as a writer.  He must have had special glasses, because he had the uncanny ability to see the humor in things. I always said he could see the humor in the Lords Prayer.

I remember when I roomed with him, he would work forever in the first word of his sentences, getting up and walking around the room, looking for the right word. He would tell me that the difference between the right word and the ok one was the difference between lightening and lightning bug. That always stuck with me.

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Barron Miles, Steelers Cornerback, 1995

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First, can you let readers know about your coaching career – how you got started and why you enjoy most about it so far?

I have been coaching now for six years and I love every minute of it. It is time-consuming but worth it. I began coaching right after my last year of playing which was 2009 and I haven’t looked back since.

Ever since high school I knew I wanted to coach.  I viewed all the sports as a chess game. I looked for weakness and strengths and it all came natural to me. I enjoyed dissecting a game of any sport. I played for as long as I could and in he process I did scouting and player evaluations. I wanted the coaching world to see I was serious. I have four Grey Cup Rings. Two as a player and two as a coach. I’m currently coaching for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers as defensive Backs coach and looking for my fifth ring.

What coaches and playing lessons have influenced your coaching style most, and why?

Tom Osborne, George Darlington, many high school coaches, Dave Richie, and Rod Rust, to name a few. The common thing between these men, was that they gave it to me straight. They didn’t sugar coat anything. If it was ugly, it was ugly. If it was great, then it was great. As a player I responded well to that and yes I carry that trait into my coaching style as  well.

You were drafted by the Steelers in ’95 but suffered a serious injury in camp that derailed your Steelers career. What happened and what did the team tell you when they released you?

The injury that may have killed one dream saved another.  While going through my rookie training  camp in May of 1995, my wife was in Nebraska on bed rest waiting for our first child’s September due date. We are two days out from playing our first preseason game and I get a call that my wife is being life-flighted to the hospital because she is in preterm labor and they need to be in a hospital with an NICU to attempt to save the baby. I had a choice: do I leave and give up a chance to make the team, or do I stay and fight for my family. We were twenty-two years old and this job was our health insurance and security for our family.

I didn’t say anything to anybody with the team and I went into my first preseason game knowing my wife is bleeding to death and my child is coming into this world  four months to soon. Doctors giving her less than 5% chance of survival. I walk into the stadium and the rest of the defensive backs are saying “play like you’ve been playing all camp”. I’m thinking ok that’s kind of strange. Coach walks over and says “you’re the corner on one dime”, which is a big deal.  Now think about what I’ve been going through back home with my wife, and I’m on the field with Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and André Reed.  Let alone the All Stars that where on defense.

The defense was on the field for the first time. I was lined up against Andre Reed. Thurman Thomas was the running back. Jim Kelly was under center. The ball was snapped. It was a screen to my side. I needed to force the play.  I feel like I’m in super slow motion. Kevin Green tips the ball, catches it and we score a defensive touchdown. Life is great. On the next kickoff they fumbled and I went to scoop the ball up. During the play I tore my ACL and MCL. In a split second it went from playing with All-Stars to a possible career ending injury and back to the reality of possibly losing my wife and child. As soon as the game was over I told the coach what was happening with my wife and was on a plane to see her and our new baby.

Due to injury the team kept me around so I could rehab and possibly play the following year.

As a rookie, what veterans helped you most as you adjusted to the NFL – both on and off the field? And how did they do so?

Believe it or not it was the two Colorado boys, Charles Johnson and Deion Figures.  I was with Charles the most. He was a worker and  he just kept me focused on what I needed to do. He encouraged me to keep fighting for a spot.

I remember speaking with Kevin Green one day at the Allegheny Center in the hallway. I asked him why he was staying in such an understated complex. He replied, “ I have everything I need in this apartment. It’s clean, furnished and suits my needs.” Then he went on to say “Don’t try to keep up with new fashion or where to live, support yourself and your family.” That was from an All Pro who had no clue of who I was or if I was going see the field but, he took the time.

After your time in the NFL, you found a great deal of success in the CFL, winning the East Division Rookie of the Year award. What enabled you to find that success in the CFL?

It was the passion and love I had for the game and I knew I was still able to play. If the NFL didn’t want me then I’ll play in a league where they do. So I played in the CFL and enjoyed every minute of it.

What about the CFL did you enjoy most – and did you have chances to return to the NFL after all of that success?

I enjoyed the college-like rivals between teams. Playing teams four or  five times a season and having the confidence that you can stop their top wide receiver. My biggest joy was my family watching me play my first and last game in the CFL. Can’t ask for anything better.

Over your thirteen-year professional career, you played in three different leagues and four different teams. What do you attribute your ability to overcome so many changes, and the injury, to? And do you think fans appreciate how much players have to go through to “find their way” in their professional careers as you had?

Overcoming all of those things was simple, because I watched my mom raise four boys by herself while working whatever job she could to keep food on the table. When I turned 15 and could start applying for jobs, my mom came to me and said it would help a whole lot if I got a job.  I looked at her and without hesitation I said if I don’t go pro then I’m going to be working the rest of my life so can I try to go pro. I knew in my heart I was going to be playing for a living. Another job wasn’t an option. She looked at me and said boy you’re crazy. My mom was my big inspiration  – I couldn’t fail.

They {fans} don’t have to appreciate it because it’s our choice to go through the challenges we do. I do think players would appreciate it if fans realized pro athletes are human and have a breaking point. Pro athletes are used to being judged their whole life and for most it’s motivating.

What advice would you give to players today entering the sport?

The sports entertainment business is a tough field and only the strong will last.  You may fake your way in but if your heart is not in it, you  won’t last. Work for what you want. You may not get it as soon as you think but it will come.

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Greg Hawthorne, Steelers Running Back/Receiver, 1979-1983

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First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your time in the NFL?

Well, when I retired I went back to school to get my teaching certificate. I probably will go into coaching. I started a couple of other businesses too – just trying to stay busy. I’m still in Texas – I went back to Baylor and, thirty years later, I’ll get my degree one week before my son does!

How hard was the post-NFL adjustment for you?

I think being in the league for nine years – playing as long as I played ….. it was hard to find a way to stay busy. My wife is still in Pittsburgh and my son will graduate from Duquesne. I drove a semi for eight years. It helped me to be able to see my kids – I could take the truck and leave any time. One went to school in Michigan too so it helped keep me going. It would have been hard to keep traveling to see them otherwise.

I also had some drug issues. I regrouped – got myself back together. I try to stay busy still. I don’t need to work but I want to. I think I’m qualified to coach. I’ll stay here in Texas – I have a cousin who is a head coach. I’d like to do something that got me here in the first place.

What coaches and playing experiences do you think will help you most as a coach?

I started at running back, wide receiver, and tight end in the NFL. I learned to read defenses and the job duties of all three positions. They are all different – and I learned the adjustments at wide receiver, which I think are the hardest in the NFL. I learned how to block in pass protection as a running back, which was really important then and now. And as a tight end, I wasn’t the biggest guy, but I learned to block bigger guys with the right technique.

With all of that knowledge, and the way you are taught technique and fundamentals in Pittsburgh, I think I could be a good coach. The game has changed, but not a lot. You still have to tackle guys and get them down on the ground!

You were a first round draft pick of the Steelers. How much pressure was there for you in getting picked round one?

In Pittsburgh, they had eleven guys make the Pro Bowl that year. They were a great team. And on the first day of camp I pulled a hamstring. All the guys were telling me I couldn’t make the club in the tub…that this rookie who was making all of this money wasn’t working! I felt bad.

But Joe Greene was my inspiration. He came to my house in Texas after I was drafted.  I didn’t even know he was in the area. My mom told me to come downstairs. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to play pro ball when I was drafted. I broke my hip my senior year in college – I only played in three games that year. When I woke up from my hospital bed an Atlanta scout was there telling me they’d take me in the third round…. But I rehabbed and got better, and the Steelers drafted me.

But yeah, it was a lot of pressure. To perform and represent the city. There was high competition on the team and there were so many great leaders there. It is unusual to have that many leaders on one team like that.

There was also pressure from Chuck Noll. He was a hard but firm man. No one was respected more than the Chief too. He was a great, great man. Not because of the money or his platform. But because of the way he lived. He was one of us and made you feel like family. That made you feel like you wanted to give 110%

As a rookie, who helped you to adjust to life in the NFL?

Sydney Thornton – he was there to answer questions for me 24/7. He was  there for a while and helped me learn the plays and terminology.  Chuck was tough about that – you go to know your adjustments, and I did.

Joe Greene was helpful with inspiration and encouragement. They all worked hard – we hit every day then – not like they do today. I guess there’s a big difference when you have $100,000 versus $1 million at risk!

In ’83, you asked to be traded…what happened?

It was a mistake – I didn’t realize how special it was then in Pittsburgh.  They were moving me from running back to wide receiver. I wanted to play running back. I was having a bad camp and they were moving me to receiver. Bradshaw, if it were Swann or Stallworth, Chuck would make sure Bradshaw got them the ball if they were open. But when I was open I never got the ball. I got tired of that and thought it would be better somewhere else. They also drafted Louis Lipps in the first round, and I saw the writing on the wall. Chuck always said if you want to leave the team to just see him in his office. So I did and asked for a trade.

New England was just being back in college. The Sullivans were not a football family like the Rooneys were then.

Was it frustrating being moved around from position to position?

It kept me on the field. I just wanted to play. Swann left, Jimmy Smith went to the USFL… When they moved me to receiver it was just like my time in college. I played wingback my freshman and sophomore years. Then they tried me at running back – just for a couple of weeks, they said. I asked, and they said they just wanted to try for another week….then another… I asked if they were going to move me back to receiver but they just left me at running back. The same thing happened in Pittsburgh. I thought playing receiver was a two-week thing. I thought it was just to help for depth, in case they had injuries. Then a preseason game comes up and I play running back. Then two to three more games ….and the season is getting closer. So, it was like, here it goes again…

The same thing happened in New England. But that’s the way things go. It kept me in the league. You can never complain about playing in the NFL!

What are some of the funnier memories you have of your time in Pittsburgh?

Bradshaw was always a fun-loving guy. Everybody had their moments, really. I remember once in Cleveland – it was snowing so much we couldn’t see out of the windows. The bus driver was backing up but couldn’t see, so we all helped him and told him how far to back up, when “Wham!”  we had him back up into a pole on purpose! We were all cracking up. He was so pissed but we were all laughing, because it was Cleveland, so we didn’t care…

Once we were also all put into this really old, smelly bus. We usually rode in new buses but this one day it was just really bad. Chuck just got off the bus and went to the manager and yelled at him – he told him that if he ever did it again he’d be fired. That’s when I knew that he had authority over everyone but the Chief. It was easy there – you had one boss. In New England, you didn’t know who to listen to. The Director of Player Personnel would tell you how to play, the GM would tell you what to do and the coaches would too. In Pittsburgh, you had one direction and that was from Chuck.

Do you watch the NFL today? What are your thoughts on how the game has changed?

They watered the game down so much. At least the players are getting a better share of the profits. Back when I played the players got 16%. Now it’s close to 49%. That’s fair. The TV contracts are what makes it so different. And I know they are protecting the players more, but some if it is so watered down. And I hate the new catch rules. A catch is a catch – some of these players and teams have gotten robbed lately.

Any last thoughts for readers?

I was blessed to be there. Pittsburgh is a real football town. The Pittsburgh citizens aren’t like they are down here. In Pittsburgh it’s do or die. It makes us feel appreciated. We were treated with respect and honor. Like we were gladiators. They treated us well and made you proud to be a Steeler. It made you work harder to represent the city. It pushed us a little more. No question.

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The Steelers Passive Aggressive offense

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The Steelers were fourth in the NFL in points scored per game in 2015, averaging 26.4 points per game. To look at that number, you’d think the offense needs only continue with that performance moving into the 20166 season, and with defensive tweaks to the secondary and pass rush, this team is Super Bowl bound.

Possibly.

But when you look at how the offense struggled in the playoffs, it suggests there’s work to be done on both sides of the ball. While the offense hit on some big plays, it was inefficient, converting less than 20% on third downs.

Not having Le’Veon Bell  during most of the season, and Antonio Brown in the Denver game, certainly didn’t help. But, there’s more to the issue.  The Steelers have as of late become the big-strike team. But efficient? The numbers indicate, not so much. The offense during the regular season converted only 39% of its third downs – ranking only 17th in the NFL. In the playoffs, that percentage plummeted to 18% as teams dared the Steelers to be patient, to take the underneath routes, and often the team chose to push the big play instead of looking to move the chains.

You can praise the aggressiveness of that offense on third downs, but it was often a passive-aggressive approach.  Either throw deep or throw short passes – screens – that don’t even travel five yards.

The team has a Hall of Fame quarterback it needs to trust more on third downs to make the difficult throws. Not the 50 yard throws and not the tight end or receiver screens on third and long. But the ten-fifteen yard passes underneath that teams are much less concerned about giving up with this team.  Those open receivers are there – but whether it’s play design or the gunslinger mentality of Ben Roethlisberger, the fine balance of going for the big play versus taking what the defense is  giving has been tipping too far in favor of offensive inefficiency.

The big plays are exciting – and the big play talent is abundant on this team. I can only imagine the temptation the offense experiences very pass play to go for the big play. And they are successful just enough to keep that desire alive.

But good defenses won’t be beaten that way. In the playoffs, the offense struggled because of its passive-aggressive nature. Either go deep, or play it safe with the screen.  In 2016, the key to greater success on offense will be to improve upon that third down conversion rate – especially in the playoffs. If not, it’ll be another early exit. And another of a declining number of opportunities left  for this team under Ben Roethlisberger.

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Long Shots…

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Takeaways from tonight’s game:

Give the team credit for contending despite numerous injuries to key personnel. Playing with a backup left tackle, backup center, third string running back, and second string receiver – that they were able to contend as they had spoke well to the team leadership that held the team together, the front office that built the team for depth, and to the players who kept their faith in their ability to win.

Having said that, they could have won.  I won’t say should, But could.

So what happened?

  • First, the offense had no rhythm. The go-long passing game provided big plays but little ability to sustain rhythm and continuity. It’s hard to say whether it was the play call or Ben’s desire to go long too often, but there was too much long ball tonight – not enough focus on sustaining drives and getting first downs.
  • The punting game cost this team over sixty yards in field position. Berry had his worst game as a professional at the worst time, and Wheaton as a returner for Brown was ill-prepared. Muffed punts and a mental lapse in blocking a Bronco player from downing a punt inside the Steelers five were harmful to the team’s field position, and they lost the field position as a result much of the night.
  • The fumble…Touissant – you have to feel awful for the back-up back who gave a great deal of effort, but who’s fumble turned a very tight game around.
  • Too many dropped passes early on. Bryant, Miller, and Wheaton al had key drops early. They make those key catches this team puts up more than 16 points.

On the bright side:

  • The defense played very well. The young guys shined – giving hope for the future. And Harrison played a monster game. The pass rush is a work in progress though. Don’t be surprised to see this team draft  a pass rusher early in the draft. Again. It was interesting seeing the battle between Manning and Shazier. Manning often won the chess game on the field, but what a great education for the young linebacker.
  • Bryant, despite the drop, showed why he’s a star in the making. He’s dangerous as the come.
  • Sammie Coates stepped in and up with two huge catches, This team is scary deep at receiver.
  • If this team can only stay healthy and just add a bit more to it’s pass rush talent…just a bit more….this team will be back. And better.
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Tyler Palko, Pitt/Steelers Quarterback, 2009

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First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself since your time in the NFL?

Well,  I got to spend five years in the NFL fulfilling a childhood dream. I had good parents – it all started there, My dad was my high school coach and he told me I had a chance to go to college for free – that I should take advantage of that. Which I did.. I have s dual degree from Pitt and got a chance to play in the NFL. My dad said that at some point my NFL career will end – I needed a fallback plan. I took advantage of some internships though the NFL. I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I felt I could have the most impact working on leadership development and was introduced to the CEO of the company I work for now, Buddy Hobart at Solutions21. My thoughts on leadership were pretty much aligned with the business. .

Any coaching influences affect you most as a leadership development professional?

Well it’s the old adage – any advice is good advice – if it helps. I’ve had really good and really bad coaches. But you take something from everybody. Whether you like it or don’t like it. And my dad was a big influence as a coach. He was one of the big names in high school coaching in Western PA.  At the high school level,  coaches are like father figures.

It really is a combination of a lot of things. There are a lot of tools you can apply to coaching and leadership. But it’s how you apply those tools. There are helicopter parents that micro-manage and the same holds true on the business world –  that’s no way to lead.  People like to go for the flavor of the month – like two-day seminars or skinny pills.  I feel like I’m in-between. You don’t get a player from point A to point B with a two-day seminar. You have to find the most effective way to get people doing what they need to do, which is customized to every person.

Transitioning to football – you started off your college career at Pitt.  Why Pitt?

It was one of those things where my dad helped influence how we chose the schools. I had offers from nearly every school, but my dad didn’t want the recruiting process to become a circus.  which I am very thankful for and agree with.  I was in High school and didn’t need nor earn the type of circus that surrounds signing day.  We narrowed it down to five schools. When I was at Pitt for a quarterback-receivers camp, I woke up in my dorm and just knew it was the place. I called my mom and dad and we committed that day. It was real spur of the moment.

Like the book Blink?

Exactly. I never thought of it like that, but that’s exactly right.

Looking back on your time at Pitt, what are your thoughts – any regrets on the choice and how did the Flacco situation affect you., if at all?

Not at all!  Actually, Joe and I HAVE a good relationship – we still talk. Joe just didn’t want to sit – but there was no animosity with Joe.  He is a great player!

The only thing that stinks is going through a coaching change. That happened right before the Fiesta Bowl.  Walt was fired right before the BCS game. I didn’t like a lot of the AD”s decisions. Utah was a great team and maybe they beat us anyway, but the distraction hurt.

In sports that stuff happens. We got a great new coach in Wannstedt – and we had a great offensive coordinator in Matt Cavanaugh – maybe the best coach I ever had. But it takes a while for things to get rolling. It doesn’t happen early – it takes time TO build a culture. You can’t do it in one season.

Do you still follow Pitt? What are your thoughts of the job Narduzzi is doing?

I watch and will be a Pitt Panther regardless of the coach.  I don’t know Coach Narduzzi well. I’d like to be involved but for some reason They haven’t reached out to me  They have good young players and are keeping the hometown guys – the WPIAL guys. We didn’t  do that good of a job with that when I was there. He’s doing a tremendous job winning close games. That’s the way Pitt football used to be – winning tough, close games. That means the coach is doing the right thing. You don’t win those close games without player buy-in.

Despite your success there you went undrafted. Why do you think that was and how did you react to that?

It was surprising. I knew there was always a chance. I had a great agent in Ralph Cindrich.  He was an awesome guy. I thought I did well enough to get drafted, It was a tough two days – with family around… But that’s part of the business. I have to giggle when people say their business is different – more competitive. The most competitive industry is the NFL. You can be fired if they don’t like your haircut. You have to learn quickly to survive. It’s not for the weak-minded. Not if you want to be successful – you won’t last long. So, I was pissed off but I got over it.

I ended up signing with New Orleans and played under one of the best offensive minds in Sean Peyton and behind a Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees.

You played for a number of teams and in two leagues over our career. How did you handle that stress and what do you say to those that view the sport as all glory?

It’s like anything – there’s a mass of people that watch and say they could do it better. Maybe they could, but they didn’t go through the trials and adversity to be there. It’s easy to be an armchair quarterback.

That’s why the game is so appealing. It’s a twelve-billion dollar industry. I don’t think people know that I earned a decent but not great living for those five years. You get paid for seventeen weeks and only make a living doing it for a short time.

As for how I handled it. You still have to earn your pay and validate your place. It’s a highly competitive industry – you have to compete every day. One bad practice and you can be fired – and you can’t dwell on it or it can effect the next one. And it’s about how you prepare for being a backup or third-string quarterback when you may  ever get a chance to play. I made it five years – double the average time for players. I’m proud to have made it work for that long.

In 2009 you retuned to Pittsburgh, signing with them as a free agent. How exciting was that for you and how did that come about?

I was only there for a half-season, but it was an awesome experience to put on a Steelers uniform. When you grow up playing close to them in high school you dream of putting on the Black and Gold.  Being noticed on the sidelines by those that watched you play high school was great.

The Rooneys, COACH Tomlin…they were awesome. Mr. Rooney – Dan and Art both – were supportive of me since high school. To be able to be a part of it was cool.

How did they reach out to you?

They called my agent – I was actually watching the game when Charlie {Batch} got hurt versus Kansas City. Ben was already hurt and the thought crossed my mind that they needed a quarterback. I was unemployed…then my agent called me and told me they called and wanted me to come in for a workout.

Was it tough coming in mid-season to bond with the team and learn the system?

I played college next to those guys and practiced near them every day. Gay, James Harrison, Spaeth…I even knew Ben as a rookie. So I knew half of that locker room. It wasn’t very different for me. I felt at home. I just had to learn the offense – but it wasn’t like it was my first season in the NFL.

In 2011 you actually were the starting quarterback against Pittsburgh. How did you approach that game?

I was fighting for my job. Beating the Steelers would have given me credibility and extended my career. I wanted to kick their ass! Between the white lines, all you want to do is win. They knew me and there was a lot of smack talk. It was all in fun.

We had a chance to win – we were driving for the winning touchdown but there was a miscommunication between me and the receiver. I thought he was going out and he went in and Keenan Lewis picked it off. I guess it wasn’t in the cards. We had a chance to beat a great hometown team.

What are your thoughts on the game today – and any last thoughts for readers?

I feel with all of the talk about concussions it’s like there is an attack on football. Football is a tough game – it’s not for everybody. It’s a gladiator-type sport. Not many that play it don’t come out bruised and battered. There are opportunities to advance safety and protect players as we evolve and the way it handles injuries. ACL injuries are no longer a death sentence. Concussions are injuries too – they happen just like anything else. They can be treated. The NFL leadership just needs to find ways to deal with them more effectively.

But football made me who I am – my work ethic, morality, values…how to deal with adversity. All I am is because of that sport. If kids can get out of it what I did – well its a great thing to be involved with. And you don’t need to be a Hall of Fame player to learn from it. That’s the great thing about the game.

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On Implosions and Freeing Ben

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I’ll start off by saying, the Bengals paid the price for employing low-character players. Guys they knew were bad characters – yet they kept them out there, and by doing so, lost a game they should have won.

Feel sorry for Marvin Lewis? No. He employs those guys. Keeps them on the field. And he paid the price as his team imploded in seemingly impossible fashion.

The positive – the world got to see who Vontez Burfict is.

As Boomer Esiason  – a former Bengal – said, this game was an embarrassment for the Bengals. “Disgraceful” he said. From the fans throwing bottles at a hurt Roethlisberger as he’s carted off the field, to the thuggery of Burfict and Jones. And to the radio station that broadcasted rape stories about Roethliberger leading up to the game.

The Bengals have some serious soul-searching to do. And some serious damage-control to do to their fans and NFL.

On to the game…

The game should never have been this close. The Steelers – once again – came out playing not to lose instead of to win. Their Hall of Fame quarterback was given the opportunity to throw TWO passes over ten yards in the first half. This has been a  continual source of concern as they keep inferior teams in the game  and makes it difficult to see how they can keep up with better offenses.

Let’s hear it for the young guys.

I’ve been on Ryan Shazier for looking lost at times, but he played brilliantly – even before the game-saving forced fumble with under two-minutes left. As for his brutal hit that knocked out a Bengals player? It was clean and legal. Unfortunate no doubt, BUt the Bengals never recovered emotionally from that hit.

Bud Dupree was active and in the backfield all game. Heyward was a brute in the middle. The young guys carried this team today.

Those guys were backups?

Toussaint was very good – he ran hard and made big plays in the passing game. He surpassed all expectations. And Todman showed burst and speed we have only read about beforehand. You have to wonder why we haven’t seen more of him – he was electric as well and will be dangerous in space. Perhaps a kick off return future is in order?

Ben’s return was iconic.

While he wasn’t brilliant – he did just enough – with the help of the two big personal foul penalties by the Bengals – to give the team a chance to win. He seemed hamstrung by the playcalling, but he helped steal victory from the jaws of defeat. And his return from injury builds on a legend of playing hurt and gutting out wins. That’s the Ben fans remember,

Chris Boswell is money.

The  team’s fourth kicker this season is it’s best.  Was there any doubt he would make the field goals he attempted? When was that last time you felt that confident in a kicker?

Landry Jones was not.

You have to feel bad for Jones. Sort of. He had a chance to be a hero, Instead, he was the guy that forced the Steelers to throw out a hobbled Roethlisberger. Jones did not help his market value today.

On to Denver.

This team has to bounce back from a physical, emotionally draining game. And it has to pay better. Much better on offense. At some point, this team is going to have to cut Ben loose. It’s the playoffs. You have a Half of Fame quarterback.  A veteran of Super Bowls, You’ve got to trust this guy, Free Ben.

 

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Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, Steelers Safety, 2010-2014

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First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself now?

I’m working out and staying healthy. I’m still a free agent. Right now I’m working with high school kids – I’ve been hosting a kids skills camp for about two weeks now. It’s for local area kids and semi-pro guys looing to live the football dream. The main focus is on the high school kids, working on seven-on-sevens, which is big now. I’m trying to help keep them active in the offseason. Giving  back to the community – and I can taking this experience with me when I’m done with football.

Any coaching experiences and influences affect you the most?

Football is football. I take the knowledge I’ve gained and learned from all of my coaches – from high school to the pros. I try to make it easy for the kids to understand.  Because I played in the pros  they respect me and sponge off my knowledge and experience. They have respect for what comes out of a pro’s mouth.

All the coaches I worked under helped me tremendously. From the mottos to simple stuff like workouts… To tell the truth it’s pretty simple for a guy that’s been doing this for so long.

You were an undrafted free agent. Were you surprised and/or frustrated at not being drafted?

I didn’t know if I’d get drafted. I was always going to be a late round guy. It didn’t matter to me. What mattered was getting the opportunity. I always had to fight through adversity.  Yeah, I was discouraged when I wasn’t drafted, I can’t tell you I wasn’t. But it just gave me more fire – it pushed me harder in the right direction. To know all those guys were taken before me…

Why do you think that was?

They said I was maybe tight in the hips…I also got into a little trouble at UTEP. That might have rubbed some the wrong way. But I was ninth in the college football in tackles my senior season. I played good – but I sprained my MCL and that set me back. I didn’t get a combine invite. If I did that would have helped me. I had to wait to show my ability off at my pro day. I did well, but it’s not like the combine.

How did you decide to sign with Pittsburgh?

They called me in the seventh round – they said they had a another guy they wanted to get in the seventh but wanted to get me right after the draft . I got other calls but they were looking at me now….my agent told me they had let us know this.

And why Pittsburgh over those other teams?

Playing behind Polamalu pushed me definitely. I could learn a lot from him – a great guy to learn behind. The scheme was also a good fit for me. I played in a 3-3-5 in college – I played like a linebacker. So playing in the box in Pittsburgh was a good fit. I knew I could fit well there. I didn’t know about the weather though! I was a California kid – the three-hour difference and snow was an experience!

How did Troy Polamalu and the other safeties help you?

The helped tremendously. Troy, Mundy, Clark, Allen … It was something trying to beat out those guys.  I was always like the fifth safety – was always an uphill battle with those guys there.

Troy showed me a lot. I was star-struck some as a rookie.  I tried to talk with Troy about football but he didn’t like to talk about football outside of the locker room. I once asked him about Taylor Mays and he was like, “Who?” He liked to talk about California. He was a real humble guy. The humblest I’ve known in my four years there.

Ryan Clark got me verbal. I was quiet – and they wanted me to be a talker. Tomlin liked my physicality but he didn’t like me not being vocal. He wanted to know that I knew what was going on and that I could quarterback the defense. He wanted me to talk and communicate more – talk what I see.

How strong was the leadership on the team then and how did everyone stay humble with so much early success?

There were a lot of veterans – it was very old school. We won the Super Bowl my rookie year – everyone had their respect. We all remained level-headed. That rookie year was surreal – winning the Super Bowl.  And we had adversity the next season – but nobody ever felt we couldn’t win a game. Hampton, Farrior, Ward, Polamalu….they kept the team level. And we had some young guys too – Wallace, Brown, Sanders….they were very competitive. But the veterans kept everyone level-headed.

How did humor play a part – any funny experiences you can recall?

Oh yeah – Ward got me. We were out stretching in camp one day and Ward, he’s that guy out there messing around. He’s not even stretching. I’m laying on the grass doing quad stretches and Ward came over.  He said he had this bad feeling in his mouth – like a bad filling or cavity. He was standing over me opening his mouth so I could see. I lean back so I can see better, and he throws a handful of grass in my mouth and runs away laughing – and everyone around is laughing too. Now, I’m almost pissed! I can’t believe he did that. But a few days later he did  it to some other guys – he did it to everyone. It’s just one of a million good memories of my four years there.

Clark and Foote – they loved to talk. The most talkative guy was Foote – and he was right across from me. He used to play against my brother who was a fullback in Cleveland. He used to talk about that war all the time. At the pool table, ping pong table – you could hear those guys arguing and debating every day…

In 2013, the Steelers released you. What happened there and how did you react to it?

My heart almost broke. I had no more practice squad eligibility  I needed to make the team more than anything that year. They brought in a new special teams coach Danny Smith and he was there for me. He believed in me right away and helped me take my game to a new level. I showed him how persistent I could be – how much I wanted it. I had no practice squad eligibility and I needed another accredited season.

That year I finally made the team – I had never cracked the starting 53 on opening day before. I love him still to this day for helping me do that.

But, I got hurt in the London game. I pulled my quad on the last kick off of the game and needed about six to eight weeks to recover. The team was o-4 then – and Coach Tomlin said he couldn’t carry dead weight.  He had to make a move. It was cutthroat. I stayed the bye week we had after the game to show the coaches I was serious about my rehab. I made sure the coaches knew I was serious. But that week I had a bad feeling. I saw Will Allen in the training room – he had just been released and the Steelers signed him. I got a tap on my shoulder and was told Coach Tomlin wanted to see me. My heart was broken then.

What hit me the most was that I wasn’t replaced by an undrafted free agent. I was replaced by a starter. It hurt me in a different way. So, I had to go home to California. It wasn’t like I was making that much money so I went home to get healthy. I was hurt and so no one picked me up until the following season when Washington brought me in.

Any other memories of your time there?

I’ll never forget my first play with the Steelers – I mean my first regular season play. I was on the practice squad for two years before I was finally called up my third season. I was always pissed – not making the final 53. I was always so close-  the 54th guy. The practice squad was my weekly job. They’d make me play wide receiver to help prepare against the next week’s guy. I’d go at Ike Taylor and impressed those guys. I gave them good looks – and got respect from those guys because of it. You earn respect in the NFL by making plays.

Well, in December I was called up for a Thursday Night game against Cleveland. I was brought up to cover kicks – nothing major. I was so happy – finally! I got the chance to bring it on the field. The team had it’s regular meeting the day before the game where they cover the game plan, some motivational stuff… But this time it was different – the coach keyed it more on me. Told everyone how hard I worked and that he couldn’t wait to see what I  would do. We were going against Josh Cribbs who always gave us trouble so I wanted to get him. I told the coach after the meeting how much I appreciated it – how hard I wanted it!

Of course that game we won the coin toss, and of course we elected to kick off. I felt like everyone was watching me. My eyes were red – I was so eager. I was running down the field – I couldn’t hear anything except my own breathing. I defeated a blocker and tackled Cribbs inside the twenty. I was so excited  and ran off the field so fast the players said they couldn’t even tell who made the tackle! That was one of the greatest moments ever for me. Sean Kugler – the new offensive line coach there – he was from UTEP too. He was so excited for me – he said they all had their money on DC!

Any last thoughts  for readers and your time in Pittsburgh?

I loved my time there.  Playing with the Steelers – I played for many other organizations but there was nothing like that. The Terrible Towel and the “Oh Mama!…” The fans are great – the towels and Steelers Nation always travel great. And that pushed us as players. I was so appreciative – I will always have love for the Steelers. Winning the Super Bowl as a rookie….I went through a lot – a lot of adversity in life. Playing football is really just a job – but the love you get in and out of your job is what matters – and playing in Pittsburgh was great.

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