Exclusive with former Steelers Cornerback Cortez Allen, 2011-2015

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So, first, let us know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your time in the NFL?

Well, I’m now expecting a son in July!

On top of that, I’m studying to get my MBA at the University of Miami. And I’m working for a no-profit – that’s my passion. I’m working with at-risk kids in Miami for a non-profit called Urban Promise Miami. I’m working on the day-to-day work to make it run.

A lot of people don’t realize what it takes to make a non-profit run. It’s still a business. You can’t just have a dream. You have to make it sustainable. We have family football days here in Miami – just to show the  neighborhood we  care.

And I also have a clothing line – called Heartbreak Society. It’s urban street wear…and I golf. It’s a humbling sport. It’s not like football at all – it can get you really frustrated. That helps keep the competition going. A lot of football players have taken up golf.

So….you’ve managed to stay busy! How hard was the post-NFL transition for you?

The idle time is the toughest part of the transition. I came from a military college where your whole day and life is structured. From formation, to the mess hall and drills, lunch; everything is regimented. Then you go to the NFL and it’s at the building from 6:30 to 5:30, and meetings, everything is structured. It’s all mapped out for you.

So when I retired, I had all of that free time. I needed to create a schedule to mimic what I was used to. I taught myself the guitar, started the clothing line, school. I had to mimic that level of intensity. That was the hardest adjustment. The what to do next. I believe in never stopping learning. You have to constantly reinvent yourself..

I was grateful for the opportunity to play football and to have success there and have that experience most never have. But it was about what was next.

My dream and passion is to create my own non-profit. That’s my next goal. The work I do know I know puts me in that position.

So rewinding a bit. Tell me a bit about getting drafted by the Steelers. Was it a surprise, and how hard was that adjustment from a small school to the NFL?

Well, I wasn’t from Florida State or LSU. I wasn’t from a big name school. I was from the Citadel. When big schools played us their coaches used to joke with their players, to take it easy on us because we’ll be fighting for their country one day.

So, I went from that to a team known for it’s defense. The legends there. The Steel Curtain. It was super surprising. With Troy, Ryan Clark, Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, Ike Taylor – they had so many big name guys. I saw it as a great opportunity. A unique arena to learn from those veteran guys.

What did they tell you on draft day?

Tomlin called me. He did visit me beforehand so I had met him. I know he looked at me as a project. I only played one year in high school. I was a raw talent but he knew I was a hard worker.

So when Tomlin called me on draft day, he said “You didn’t think we’d call you did you?”. We all laughed. He called me earlier but we missed the call somehow. So he called my agent. I remember I was at home playing Mortal Combat, when I heard my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle tone on my phone go off and saw the 412 area code.

Who helped you make the transition to the NFL – on and off the field?

I credit some of the vets. But the Citadel also has a huge network and were very welcoming. When I got to Pittsburgh, the first couple of days after I was drafted the alumni association in Pittsburgh called me and helped me to settle down in Pittsburgh.

Ike was the biggest influence on the field. Just with his work ethic. He had ten years then in his career, so I stuck around him and learned from him. I tried to show him respect and that I had his back.

The vets in Pittsburgh, it was a unique experience. They were willing to help you grow. They knew it benefited the team as a whole. You talk to guys from other teams and they said it wasn’t the same elsewhere. That’s not ideal, to not have the trust of the guys around you.

So, tell me how you were able to prove yourself to the coaching staff to earn more playing time and a big contract?

I was coachable and willing. Tomlin always had his next man up philosophy, and me and McFadden got hurt at the same time. When I finally got to play defense they had me shadow Gronkoski. I was always willing, always coachable and professional. I think that’s why they gave me the opportunity. I took advantage of it and did what they asked.

How much did injuries play a part in the setbacks you had in getting and maintaining playing time?

Other than the ACL injury, I never got injured in college. In the NFL, they have all those extra benefits – massages, acupuncture – but I got more injuries. My last two years it started to get more difficult – I lost mobility in my knee. It was harder to move around and do what I needed to do to be successful. That’s why I knew I had to shut it down and retire.

How hard was that for you and what did the team say to you?

I always knew football wasn’t a lifelong career, like being a doctor was. I kept it in perspective. I was always very grateful to Pittsburgh for taking a chance on a guy from the Citadel. It was a hard decision. Football was all I knew. Stepping away left a void, but it was something I was prepared for mentally. I talked to my family and prayed about it.

During the negotiation stage, the team was talking to me about taking a pay cut due to my injuries. They ended up releasing me in April. I retired that May. I spoke with Coach Tomlin and he had a lot of respect for my work ethic. He told me if there was anything I ever needed, that they were there for me.

Give us a couple of fun stories of your time in Pittsburgh?

I remember my rookie year. It was the final game of the season in Cleveland. It was snowy, rainy – a miserable day. I dislocated my shoulder and tore my labrum on a play and was lying on my back. I couldn’t really move and the snow and rain were falling on me. Ike was standing over me telling me to squeeze his hand, and started yelling to everyone “He’s crying! He’s crying!” I was trying to tell him it was just the snow on my face!

You couldn’t be sensitive on that team. The players are all brutally honest!

I also used to train at the same facility as James Harrison did in the offseason in Arizona. He was always the first in the building and I’d watch him in awe. He brought everything he had all the time. Well, this day was his upper body day. He finished and then Terrell Suggs came over and was struggling to finish his set. So James walked over and took it over from him and just started lifting like it was nothing, showing Suggs up! I always had a lot of respect for James.

Given your small school experience, what advice would you give kids entering the NFL today?

I would tell them to keep it fun. Remember what drew you to the game. Enjoy the moment and stay in the moment. Don’t look to far ahead or dwell on the past. It’s a blessing to play the game. Enjoy it and be thankful and show love to the people around you that helped make it happen.

Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades To order, just click on the book:

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