First, can you tell me a bit about what you’re up to now in your broadcasting career and how you got started?
Well, I have a dual career. I have a production company – I’m in my 18th year of doing that – called Wisdom Productions. I also of course have my broadcasting career which started at the local level in 1994.
I later got a job at ESPN and became a correspondent- I didn’t just do broadcasting – I did real journalism. In 2001 I left for CBS and wanted to work year round – not just football and some of the NCAA tournament. I asked if it’d be ok if I worked with other networks and Sean McManus gave me his blessing. I’ve since expanded my work into life sciences with Russo Partners LLC – a sports health alliance which is a division now of Russo.
In college I got my degree in English Lit and Journalism. My professor then was Chris Fowler who then worked at ESPN. ESPN was just beginning then. No one thought it’d become the mothership. I wanted to become a sports reporter like him. A storyteller.
But I also studied Shakespeare and Chaucer. I used to write inspired by that. It was very different – long-winded prose. Well the professor then told me that didn’t work for media journalism! They have to cut almost everything. I was like, “What? You can’t be beautiful when you write for the media?”
But you went to the NFL first.
I did, and afterwards I worked at a local TV station in Cincinnati. It was an NBC affiliate – I worked as an unpaid intern there for two years. I was a good writer. They saw that and that I could edit. I did feature pieces too. I think they didn’t expect a former player to be humble enough to take an unpaid internship and be good enough to pull the work off well. I got moved afterwards to reporter than sports anchor. After five years ESPN hired me to become a correspondent. I worked with Sal Palantonio, Dick Schapp then got moved to sideline reporter the first year ESPN started broadcasting the national NFL games. I won a sports Emmy my third year and got a call from CBS after that to work the booth.
So stepping back, let’s talk about what brought you to Pittsburgh as a free agent? Why Pittsburgh?
I grew up in California but I was the biggest Steelers fan. Swann was from USC – I knew the entire roster – every position on offense and defense. I loved that the city embraced the defense as well as the offensive guys like Bradshaw, Franco, and Swann.
I was drafted by the Bengals though. I didn’t even know where Cincinnati was, being a guy who lived in California and Colorado. I looked at their roster though and thought, they had a chance to be good. They had Esiason at quarterback. I thought I could be part of something great.
Well, we went to the Super Bowl that year. That was the end of Noll’s run then in Pittsburgh. Rod Woodson and me were from the same draft year. Then, Pittsburgh had guys like Lake, Lloyd, Rod. We beat them six out of eight times during the stretch from ’87-’90. They didn’t quite have the winning teams then. I remember Dick LeBeau telling us though that no matter how bad the Steelers record was then that they always played tough and you had to earn the win. Boy was he right. We respected the way they played. They just didn’t have good records then.
But you ended up playing in Pittsburgh anyway?
I left the Bengals in ’90 as a free agent for the Vikings. After the ’91 season I got a call from Dick LeBeau saying he was taking a job in Pittsburgh and wanted me to come play for him. I told him he couldn’t go to Pittsburgh – they were the enemy! But he started naming the guys on the team. I knew those guys. They were good dudes. So it moved beyond the rivalry. They were good people and I would get to play for Dick LeBeau again.
Dick was the best coach in the game. He was like a father to me. He was like Yoda – my mentor.
Throughout my broadcasting career I swore to be an apostle to let everyone know about Dick LeBeau. People credit coaches like Bellichick for the zone blitz but that was Dick LeBeau’s deal. He should have been a Hall of Famer as a player. He definitely deserves to be in the Hall of Fame now.
Did any of the players give you grief as a former Bengal?
Nobody said a word. I remember on the first day though me and Eric Green almost got in to a fight in practice. Even in practice I like to give it to you. I didn’t care who you were.
So, they knew who I was. I had enough of a reputation I think they wanted to see how I handled it first. We were all professionals.
I was never with a closer group of guys. Me, Rod, D.J., Shelton, Gary Jones, Perry – we’d all golf together. We were together all the time. Perry was a rookie and a bright guy. We’d all help him and one another out.
I remember Marvin Lewis was a rookie coach then. We’d have to tell Lloyd he couldn’t talk to Lewis like he did. Llloyd was on his way to a Pro Bowl, but he was so undisciplined then. I told Lloyd when I got there that we could always count on him in Cincinnati screwing up a play or two!
LeBeau also taught Rod a few things too. We’d beat him in play action in Cincinnati then. LeBeau worked with him on that. Rod was always such a great student. We’d get to practice and he’d be there already, all sweaty from having worked out already. He’d downplay it. But he was such a hard worker and so coachable. I knew he’d be a Hall of Fame guy. I never saw a guy so talented and such a hard worker. He did things the right way for the right reason.
What stood out to you most about that Steelers team?
I told Rooney once after broadcasting a Steelers game, that Tomlin was just like the last two coaches. All three shared a unique ability to get guys to play hard and had a love for defense. They worked on the little things.
I remember Yancey Thigpen who became a great receiver. He was my roommate on the road after we signed him off of the San Diego practice squad. He complained about having to play on kickoffs and doing that dirty work. I told him you have to prove yourself by doing that dirty work first. No one sneaks into the lineup in Pittsburgh.
Donnie Shell told me once too, that any time I needed anything I should just go talk to Rooney. I asked him “Really?” We never did that in Cincinnati. After every game, he was there to shake your hand. As a player, you can’t help but give it up for that type of organization. That’s why they have more Lombardi’s than anyone else. It’s nothing magical. It’s a blue-collar environment. They don’t expect anything to come easily. The coaches and players get that.
1992 was also Cowher’s first year as a coach. What did you notice about how the team embraced him after following a coach like Chuck Noll?
I asked the guys how it was then. Under Noll they had full-on scrimmages on Fridays. Don’t get me wrong, Cowher was all about physical play too. But he knew how to take care of us. We went to the playoffs and he knew when to back off and when to push guys. We loved that about him.
He had Capers, LeBeau, and Marvin Lewis then in one room. Cowher stopped in sometimes but he let the other coaches drive the defense. He was more focused on the offense and making sure the running game was on track.
Any good stories of your time there?
A bunch of us always went golfing together – Woodson, Perry, Lake, Shelton, Perry, Gary Jones. Rod was so competitive. He’d talk when people were putting and make up his own rules. He’d tell us it wasn’t the PGA!
I remember one day we were teeing off on one hole, at a golf course near the North Side. We were all long hitters and teed off back near the pro tees. Well, Gary Jones pushes one way out of bounds into someone’s backyard. It landed in someone’s empty pool – they guy was in the yard cleaning up I guess. Well, imagine that sound when the ball rattles around in the empty pool like that – it must have startled the guy. He came out of his backyard and started cursing and screaming at us! He told us we weren’t good enough to tee off from the pro tees and that we should get our asses back where the ladies hit from! We were all laughing and Gary just had this sheepish look on his face. It was the funniest thing. That man was ripping into all of us, but we never gave Gary up!
So tell me what happens the next season. Why didn’t you return to Pittsburgh?
I broke my wrist my second year, in preseason. I had a good camp and was negotiating a new contract with Tom Donahoe when it happened. At the same time my wife was pregnant.
Our first preseason game that season was in Spain and the second game, I broke my wrist versus the Jets. It was a tough situation. I couldn’t play, and then they stopped negotiating with me.
Then we had to have tests on the baby – they told us it didn’t look good. The stomach wasn’t attached to the esophagus – they thought it may Down Syndrome. They said we shouldn’t keep the baby, but we weren’t going to listen to that. My family was in Cincinnati, I was in Pittsburgh. Then I get hurt. It was all very hard.
Then they released me. They said they were going to bring me back when I healed. I knew it was just business, but I thought, “you released me just because I got hurt?” But that’s the way the league was.
I told myself then, it was time to leave the game. I got a call from a few teams later, even Pittsburgh called me. I told them I was done, and they asked me if I told Dick LeBeau if I was done. Like I needed his permission. I didn’t have to tell Dick that! I just knew it was time.
I’m not comparing myself to James Harrison’s situation. But when you’re let go and brought back; after a while, it’s like, “Are you kidding me?” After a while you get yourself mentally in a different place.
Any last thoughts on your time in Pittsburgh?
Pittsburgh was a great place to play. The people, the ownership. The way the team is run. The Rooneys are one of the greatest families in the country and in the NFL. They are part of what makes the NFL great.
Every time I’ve come back to Pittsburgh to cover a game I spoken to them and have always thanked them for the opportunity to play for them. Players play for the Steelers with discretionary energy. It’s a tribute to them that they drew that out of us.
Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades. To order, just click on the book: