First, can you let readers know about your legal career – how you got started and how you began as well as an NFL legal intern?
Well I got hurt early in my career – my third or fourth game – I can’t remember – probably blocked it out. I tore my knee up – had nerve and ligament damage and couldn’t play again.
I was in rehab – and had surgeries to get it fixed and realized I couldn’t play again. I was planning on going to law school – I talked to Marvin Lewis, Cowher, and Mr. Rooney about my next steps, and Mr. Rooney – I guess he liked me enough. He thought I was a smart guy and offered me a position in the front office. They still owed me money so he offered to pay me a little more to work for them and go to law school at night at Duquesne. They were very involved I think then with Duquesne University.
Well, I wanted to stay in football, and I was probably a little depressed at the time, on reflection. I didn’t want to stay in Pittsburgh – it was all ‘t.still too raw. I was twenty-three, maybe twenty-four at the time. I still wanted to play, but obviously I couldn’t.
So you went to Rutgers?
So I went to Rutgers…I laugh at the decision now. The rationale I used was that years ago I had already started my MBA program there as a fifth-year senior. I had taken enough courses over my first three years to graduate, but my first summer back in New Jersey after my first year in college, I wasted my time – just hung out with friends. To get campus housing and a stipend over the summer you had to take classes, so I did that every summer afterwards to stay on campus. By the end of my third year I had taken a semester-and-a-half of classes. I was ahead of the game.
That was back in the late 80’s – everyone wanted to go work on Wall Street – the Wall Street movie just came out. My faculty advisor told me about the school’s 3-1-1- program – you could get an MBA in five years. I applied and got in – I was a top Scholar athlete – had over a 3.5 GPA. I was fortunate enough to get accepted. I was taking enough classes to finish and in the spring was taking three classes to finish my MBA, but that’s when the NFL became a real opportunity. So I quit classes and concentrated on my training for the NFL – the combine training – and I didn’t finish my degree then.
Looking back on it, when I got hurt with the Steelers, the Rooneys were great to me. You hear all those horror stories of players getting hurt and being packed out of there. But the Rooneys treated me like gold. After the injury I was at Rutgers law school but had to come back often to go to Oakland Orthopedics and to see trainer John Norwig as there was still a lot of work being done on my knee – I needed nerve and tendon transfers so I could live a regular life. I had to have four operations on my knee total.
Well, when I went back I spoke to Mr. Rooney – he approached me really and told me he realized that Rutgers was only about twenty minutes from Manhattan. He asked if I wanted to work in the NFL league office there. I told him “That would be great!” I didn’t interview with HR or the assistant counsel. No, I interviewed directly with Commissioner Peter Tagliabue! I guess when Mr. Rooney calls people listen! Today I laugh about it – then I didn’t appreciate having Mr. Rooney as my recruiting coordinator. Now I realize how lucky I was. I wasn’t lucky enough to be good, but I was good enough to be lucky I guess!
I guess I didn’t blow it. The commissioner introduced me to Jay Moyer – the General Counsel for the league. He offered me a job in the legal department. There were two jobs available there – one working on the labor union and one that had just started – working on NFL Properties. Can you believe they only had two people on that then?
Well, it turns out I never worked for either of those two. I ended up spending the summer codifying the league’s disciplinary actions. Twenty years ago decisions were all over the board. We tried to put them together like case law to help them with their decisions. We came up with a system to score and deal with every case.
I also got to work on the Carolina Panthers transaction as they finished their transaction to be included in the league. I was like a paralegal and was able to see the information on every check, every decision! It was pretty cool stuff.
When you see today’s disciplinary action and the issues fans have with the seemingly random nature of it, what are your thoughts?
Unfortunately for the league, people don’t know the facts. The don’t see the investigative reports that people are using to make decisions. They don’t see the underlying facts. It’s rare that every issue and event is the same. With domestic violence even, there’s a difference between pushing someone then leaving versus knocking someone out. Unless you see the police reports, you can’t know. Over time, you do seem a reasonable similarity over the disciplinary actions. Even in the courts system, there’s a range of justice for the same infraction. But it’s pretty close overall.
I think people also judge these kids as if they’re fully grown – probably because they make so much money. These are kids still. For many of these infractions, if these were our kids we wouldn’t take them that seriously. These kids spent life in a bubble – told what to do – where to go, when to do it by their coaches. They didn’t develop their decision-making skills like most kids their age did.
As a rookie how did you adjust – who helped you to do so?
I was a ninth round pick – but I was fortunate because it was Cowher’s first year. It was a new staff and it was able to evaluate the players with a fresh set of eyes They weren’t watching guys ahead of us for years already.
I was a third-team player in practice. The first and second team players got two-to-three reps twice before we got one. So we’d get a few plays only to show our stuff. I was lucky – veteran linebacker Bryan Hinkle got hurt in camp, so I got to be the second-team outside linebacker. I got to be in the lineup – that was an advantage – I could show my stuff.
It was also difficult to understand the schemes in camp for a lot of guys. In camp, those schemes were difficult to learn because we were all learning their new systems. I was smart -I could pick it up fast I made less mistakes. I knew where to line up and that was an advantage for me.
Who helped you to learn the systems and adjust to life in the NFL?
We had great team leaders. For those that took me under their wing….that was really a defensive thing. Lloyd and Nickerson were interesting guys. David Little was the leader – he was the veteran guy. Jerry Olsavsky and Carnell Lake – these guys were a great help when you had a rough day. It’s interesting that these guys became coaches – you can see they had the personalities that are fit for the job. Jerry O. also knew the area – he knew where it was safe to go and hang out and not get into trouble.
What were some of the funnier memories you have of your time there?
We were all hazed…when people ask me about that, we all were. But it wasn’t bad. Every meal someone had to sing their college fight song. And we’d have to pay for meals, but it was no big deal. We’d g to the Allegheny Mall and go to a little chicken wing place there – I think it cost $99 for all of the linebackers! It was a different atmosphere from what I hard about some other places. That bad stuff would not have been tolerated there.
Cowher used to yell – I remember being yelled at by him, But he yelled at everybody. He yelled at Woodson and Lloyd – and Woodson was one of the greatest players ever. He didn’t hold back because of who you were.
I remember a funny story with Rod Woodson. We played at the old Three Rivers and were there in the summer. We’d go to the foul line in the stadium an run “striders” – running from foul line to foul line. We’d go at about 70% and would do about ten of them a day. We;;, when Rod went, his 70% was like my 90%. I used to joke with him that I could keep up with him – now, he was a world-class track guy. Well one day he asked me how much of a head start I’d need before he could catch up with me and still beat me. So I said, for a 220 yard run, I’d need about a fifteen-twenty yards head start. I think I understated that by about half. He beat me by fifteen yards! And he told me the next time he’d really run fast…
I also remember my first time in New Orleans. It was August and we were there for a preseason game. I got off the bus and walked to the hotel, and I was just sweating. I asked if this was normal….in New Jersey, there’s noting like that!
How did the team handle Cowher in is first season there? Replacing legend like Noll….
Cowher was a young guy – Tunch Ilkin was drafted in the same class he was and he was on the team. There were a few player the same age as the coach. I never played for a guy that young. But no one felt that he didn’t know his stuff. He had good assistant coaches – Marvin Lewis, Dom Capers, Ron Earhardt…he also had a couple of the older guys like Dick Hoak and Dick LeBeau, There were serious guys that were experienced. It was an accomplished staff. There was a seriousness and attention to detail, so nobody said he wasn’t like Noll. The only thing I remember was that the defensive linemen said they missed Joe Greene… I never had a chance to meet him.
So, for a young guy coming into the league, what advice would you give them?
It’s funny, in the NFL, you lift and run to prepare for a short period of games. In baseball and basketball you play lots of games, but in the NFL you play sixteen, maybe twenty if you make it to the Super Bowl. I would tell people, live in the moment. Enjoy the moment. You train all the time and have goals for everything you do. To lift more,…get our 40 times down… I always wanted to run a consistent 4.7. So you work on this or that trying to improve but you forget to appreciate the time and game. The average player plays four to five yeas..maybe. The last ten guys cut from the team are not any worse than most of the guys that play every day, So enjoy every moment and make some friends!