First, can you let us know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your time in the NFL?
Well, I just had my fifth child a couple of weeks ago so that’s basically been what I’ve been doing the past couple of weeks.
I’m living in Texas with my wife and kids. She’s from Houston so we’ve been living here since I retired in 2012 and taking care of the kids!
You’ve always been involved i charity work and your foundation – is that still the case now?
I had to dissolve the foundation after I was done playing. When I moved to Texas I couldn’t maintain it since most of it was in Virginia. I just didn’t have the time and lost some of the contacts to keep it up.
I still do many philanthropic things in the city of Houston. I don’t have a foundation but we try to help out where we see the need and try to be involved in charity work.
Tell me a bit about how you adjusted to post NFL life?
It was seamless and easy. I played fifteen years and the wear and tear on my body made it easier. I never thought about retiring until I was released. That’s when it started to come together. Do I really want to go to a new team in a new city and start over after ten years on the same team and fifteen years in the league? It was a perfect time to call it quits. I won two Super Bowls and played for a great organization. I decided it was time.
Ok -stepping back. Let’s talk about free agency. How was the free agency process for you – what was it like being recruited again – and what finally drove you to play in Pittsburgh?
Oh man. It was a rough process as a free agent. There wasn’t a whole lot of interest in me by other teams. My agent was shopping me around and my first trips were to Cleveland and Buffalo.
I interviewed with Foge Fazio in Cleveland – he was their defensive coordinator at the time. It was a nice place and they had a new facility. I knew about the bad teams they had there…it wasn’t the best place to go to be on a winning team but I just wanted a job. I didn’t really care about that.
I had a good time in the city but I think they felt like I wasn’t a good fit, at least that’s what I heard through the grapevine. They wanted a real middle linebacker and I played on the outside in New York. They told me they’d keep me in mind and get back to me.
My next trip was to Buffalo. They were a team that had been to a Super Bowl a number of times but were never able to pull it off. But it was the same issue…they wanted a middle linebacker and were talking to London Fletcher at the time. He started off as a middle linebacker so he has a known guy and they went with him instead.
My agent and I didn’t know where to go after Buffalo. I didn’t know what to do. My agent said we should give Pittsburgh a call since he knew they may have a position open. Earl Holmes was a free agent at the time and they may have had an opening. I talked wth Pittsburgh and Coach Cowher was very upfront with me. He told me that they wanted to re-sign Holmes. That they really like me but they wanted to see what Holmes did first, and that I should let them know what I decide to do before I sign with anyone…to keep them in mind.
I came home and I didn’t know what to do. I was depressed. I thought my career may have been over. Free agency is not all it’s cracked up to be for some guys when teams have the guys they want and you’re left in the cold. But, Holmes decided to go to Cleveland, and that gave me a window to sign with Pittsburgh.
Tell me about that adjustment to the Steelers defense, city, and team. I spoke with Doug Whaley who said he was excited about signing you but at first was concerned about your adjustment to the defense…
I definitely felt like a rookie all over again. The new system, city, players and coaches… The guys all helped me out – especially the linebackers …guys like Porter, Gildon, Haggans, Fiala…
What helped you to really get the defense after that initial struggle?
Ha – just having Tim Lewis curse you out every day! I was tired of being yelled at for making mistakes every day. He wanted me to buckle down and learn the system. I was tired of him always saying something to me. He was the guy that got pushed to learn the defense, I owe a lot to him for that. I didn’t want to let the guys down.
In training camp I didn’t know what was going on. I finally buckled down and studied the playbook every night. It’s funny. I remember Joey Porter asking me one day what made me want to ick up the scheme finally. I just told him was tired of being yelled at by Tim!
You also developed into the real leader of that defense. How did it happen that a free agent linebacker who struggled to learn the scheme became it’s leader?
It’s a progression over time. Just being comfortable around the guys. A lot of my personality was able to come out. When I was with the Jets, there were a lot of older guys there like Mo Lewis, Bryan Cox, Marvin Jones….there was no need for me to posses those leadership skills. They had that stuff in place.
In Pittsburgh, as I got more experience and started to understand the NFL and what you need to do to be successful, I felt more comfortable expressing my opinions. After Porter left, there was a void to fill and I felt like I was a natural fit to fill it.
Give me a couple of good stories of your time in Pittsburgh.
Well, when I first got there after I signed, it was the offseason. I went to Pittsburgh and didn’t know anyone. I walked into the locker room and everyone was lifting weights. Casey Hampton was the first guy to walk up to me. He introduced himself and said he was number 98, and he was the one who was going to keep guys off my ass!
I appreciated that and found out that that really was the case! He was the guy who kept people off my ass!
Also, in 2005, that division game versus the Colts, we had a tremendous game on defense. I remember that sack and the offense on the goal line and the defensive guys were all celebrating on the sideline. We thought the game was over and the defense was talking trash to the Colts fans, waving by to them. Some of the guys were signing autographs. We thought we were about to score a touchdown.
So, when Bettis fumbled, we didn’t see it. Ike was saying something to a Colts fan and the fan pointed and turned to Ike and told him to turn around, that we were about to lose! Our mouths were wide-opened. We were in shock. We were all so nervous we were going to lose. Ben got the guys down and the defense ran onto the field.
I stayed on the sideline waiting for the defensive call. I looked to LeBeau and he was just staring off into space. I had to go over and tell him to snap out of it! Its funny because he’s usually the guy who was the voice of calm and reason, We laugh about it today. The expression on his face was priceless. At that particular moment in time I still laugh at having to go to him and get him to snap out of it!
Tell me about the Super Bowl runs – how did you prepare?
It’s hard for players today. There are a lot of distractions that week. In 2005 it was the first time for most of the players. Nobody knew what to expect. We just lived in the moment. The leadership of the team felt like we had to put all of the distractions behind us and deal with the family stuff before we went to Detroit. The family stuff is a big issue – planning hotels, flights, getting tickets and travel arrangements set. Cowher told us to get that all out of the way before we left. Once we were there it was all business.
In Detroit, once we were there we all just wanted to win the game. We didn’t worry about anything else. Our focus was to win the Super Bowl – we wanted to win so bad. We kept low-key. Fortunately we had no problems the week of the Super Bowl and we got the job done.
Tell me about your thoughts on players and the NFL today – where the league is headed?
The game evolves over time. Every generation has it’s different issues and distractions. When I played I’m sure the older players thought the same about me. The league, rules, players….everything changes. You have to adjust. It’s difficult for players with social media. Everyone wants followers – to get to one-hundred million followers for social media. That’s important to some players.
Social media is the distraction of the day. Every generation has it’s own thing, But I don’t see players being less focused or playing with less effort. Playing less hard. It’s still team football. A lot of people don’t like what goes on off the field with players. They think the players can’t separate the off-field stuff from their play. I think they can.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I just wanted to say how good of an organization the Steelers are. They took a chance on me and resurrected my career. I was able to get to a new stratosphere in my career thanks to them. I owe a great deal of thanks to the Rooney family, Coach Cowher, my teammates and fans!
Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades. To order, just click on the book: