First, tell me a bit about what you’re doing with yourself now since your time in the NFL?
Well, I’m coaching at Pitt-Johnstown – the defensive coordinator there. I’ve been having fun coaching my son all the way up to his senior year. I’m also a coach for the wrestling team here too.
Who really helped inspire the way you approach coaching and how?
I’ve been fortunate to play under some top-notch coaches like Noll and Cowher. I liked Coach Noll, and also had Ron Blackledge as my offensive line coach and Joe Greene as my defensive line coach. So I was around some good coaches and used the things they taught me as a coach now.
What did they help with most that made a difference do you think?
Just all I learned really. I also had a great high school coach and a lot of what he taught me worked up through to the NFL. Things like breaking down tape and getting the information to the players in a way not to overcomplicate things. I learned that from Coach Cowher and Noll. Keep it simple. Let them play and don’t try to take the spotlight from them. I learned that a lot from Chuck Noll.
You had a unique path to the NFL, not having played college football but making it there due to being a stellar wrestler. Tell us how that happened?
I was a six-time Division I and Division II championship wrestler. I wanted to go to Pitt to play football but I knew if I did I couldn’t go back to Pitt-Johnstown to wrestle, so I stayed. My coach said to me in jest, don’t worry, that I’ll get to the NFL anyway. Little did we know.
I had done well in college wrestling, so I was on TV in CBS and said then that I wanted to try and play in the NFL. A few teams contacted me for a tryout – the Browns, Raiders, Steelers, Lions were there… I worked out for all of them and went through the draft process with my agent. I knew I might have a chance then.
I was surprised to be drafted by the Steelers though, even if it was in the last round. I actually had a free agent contract set up for the next day – I went through the process with my agent to see who was the best fit for me. Pittsburgh was definitely in the conversation but I was surprised they drafted me.
Who helped you – took you under their wing as rookie and showed you the ropes both on and off the field?
A lot of the guys. When I got to Three Rivers and saw the Super Bowl trophies and Coach Noll….seeing the players I watched on TV working out. I was in awe of the process.
A lot of the guys were guys I looked up to growing up. Tunch Ilkin on the offensive line. I started out on the defensive line so guys like Aaron Jones, Keith Willis and Tim Johnson were solid individuals that helped me.
How did you end up as an offensive lineman?
I moved to the offensive line my second season. I developed those skills while on the scout team. I played both ways on the scout team and got better as I went up against the starters every day. They saw I would be a better fit on the offensive line after going up against the defensive starters. I had a wrestlers mentality. I needed less breaks. I was able to constantly go and get more reps which helped me a lot.
How did you develop the skills as an NFL offensive lineman? It’s a big leap between high school and the NFL!
Noll was a good coach. I liked him a lot. When Coach Blackledge was out for a short time, Noll stayed with me after practice to give me extra tutoring. It was sad to see him go. I wasn’t with him for a long time but I felt comfortable with him.
When he left and a new group came in, and I was wondering where I fit in. I found out when I was on vacation that Noll retired. I was like, “Uh oh. Where do I fit in?” It was a new system. But I embraced it and did what I was supposed to do.
What made you an All-Pro lineman?
Hustle. Overall hustle. I did the best I could and just like wrestling, my job was a one-on-one competition. You had to beat the guy across from you, the same as wrestling. You had to use your hands and feet and feel their weight shift, just like if you were taking a guy down. You have to feel the guy’s lean and use that – and help him go that way.
Any good stories of you time in Pittsburgh?
I remember when it was real cold in Pittsburgh. It was snowing and a real cold day and we were practicing. We all had a lot of clothes on and they had a truck like the one they had in New England in that playoff game to clear the snow off. Someone got hurt at the line of scrimmage at practice, so the truck came in and cleared the field ten yards ahead of us and we continue to practice while the player was down on the field behind us. I felt bad about that. That was how the game goes. That was a great lesson for me. I learned over my career not to get help with injuries unless I really had to.
I also remember another cold weather day. It was too cold to practice outside and we didn’t have an indoor facility. We went to the David Lawrence convention center and they rolled out one strip of turf that had to practice on. Joe Greene was yelling at us that we weren’t practicing hard enough. We had to tackle each other on the concrete floor of the convention center.
Who were some of the toughest guys you faced as a Steeler?
John Randle and Cortez Kennedy…they brought the hammer. Reggie White… I had to slide out and try and block him when we played against him.
I used to see these guys on TV – William Perry…the Fridge…then you’re out in front of them blocking them. It was crazy to me.
Any funny stories as well?
When I got there I was in the back of the locker room. We called it the ghetto – it was for low round draft picks and undrafted guys, We didn’t let the other guys back there – we’d fake jump them if they did! We had a real kinship there. Guys like Lonnie Palelei and Jerry Olsavsky.
Did you stay back there when you went All-Pro?
When I made the roster I moved up – but I didn’t want to! I still kept visiting my guys in the ghetto!
How hard was it for you leaving the NFL, and why did you retire so early in your career?
It was hard – in part because I felt I left things undone. I didn’t leave well, and I regret it. I was hurt and I just couldn’t stand being hurt. I didn’t even say goodbye. I just left, like I cut myself.
I had broken my wrist and it didn’t seem like it was healing. I couldn’t get my head around being on the sidelines watching. I was young and thought I was invincible.
Now, I am coaching and having a great time and raising my family. I did MMA for a bit – I am a combat man and I liked that. I still like to wrestle. At the age of 50 I still wrestle the kids I coach and they can’t take me down. I don’t even think my son can still!
Any lessons you’d impart to young athletes entering professional sports today?
Pay attention and keep your mouth shut. And save your money!
Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades. To order, just click on the book: