First – can you let us know what you’re doing with yourself now since your time in the NFL?’
I’m in Rockford, Michigan, north of Grand Rapids. I own a financial services company. I’ve been in financial services since I got out of football in 2000 and I started my own company in 2010.
I have a blended family – six kids, all out of K-12 except my youngest, who’s six years old.
How hard was the post-NFL adjustment for you?
My career was an abrupt halt after my injury versus Kansas City in 1999. The writing was on the wall anyway I think. It was a long rehab. I was fairly comfortable knowing I was getting to the end anyway but that sealed the deal.
It was a tough next Summer. That’s when you’re typically getting ready for camp. That was all I knew. Life as a player is very regimented so I was used to that.
I’m also on the Board of Trustees for Michigan State – I should have mentioned that earlier. I was voted in in 2010. So going to Michigan State games was tough. You have those competitive juices flowing but no outlet for them.
I had my business degree when I was out of football. My agent Joe Linta had a background in finance so I picked his brain a little but I had rental properties I bought as a player. I quickly realized after managing those properties that I didn’t want to be a landlord so I unloaded those. I talked then with Bobby Williams, the former Atlanta coach, and he asked if I’d be interested in the financial services work. One thing led to another and I started with a company through 2008 before starting my own company.
What happened where you found yourself in Pittsburgh after Atlanta?
Well, as a rookie I played under Jerry Jones and he liked using the tight end and I started to have some success at the end of my rookie season there. But then he was fired and they brought June Jones in who liked the run and shoot offense so I wasn’t used much there. Then he was fired an Dan Reeves came in with his own tight ends.
I knew under Jones as the only tight end on the roster, my job security was high but my upswing was low. He told me he knew I was frustrated but that, trust him, it would extend my career.
Well, he was right I guess as I blew out my knee my second season. There wasn’t much film on me after my contract expired. I was on the outside looking in. At the same time we learned my son had a congenital heart disease five weeks in the womb. We moved back to Michigan when Mike Mularkey in Pittsburgh had me come in for a workout. He liked my hard-nosed playing style. Evidently he saw a couple of plays near the end of the season versus Dallas where I played up to the whistle.
Pittsburgh was great to me. My son was born in May. They were kind to let me get some time away. He had to have another heart surgery that year so we built that around the bye week the third week of the season and I needed some time for that too. They were cool about that.
What did they tell you your role was to be in Pittsburgh?
Bruener was the starter and Botkin was the long snapper and receiving type. I knew my role was to be the second tight end in two tight end formations. I was having a good camp my first season but I had a groin injury shortly before the third preseason game. I was battling John Farquahr who I beat out – he ended up having a decent career in New Orleans. But Cowher told me before that game that he needed to see me make a play soon. I told him there was a difference between being hurt and being injured but I’d try, and he said that only I could tell if I was hurt or injured, but he needed to see me make a play.
So, on the first play of the game, my Michigan State buddy Jim Miller overthrew me in the seam and when I reached up I tweaked the groin again. Fortunately I still made the team but then I tore my MCL week ten.
Who helped mentor/welcome you into Pittsburgh?
Mark Breuner and I hit it off right away. He was such a good guy. We looked alike. Cowher’s assistant Mia called me Mark when I walked in and I just walked right by her.
When I was in Atlanta we maybe had fifty people come to practices. In Latrobe we had thousands, and a bunch of them would ask for my autograph thinking I was Mark. My second season there I grew a goatee just so people could tell us apart!
Mike Mularkey was a great guy too. He helped me a lot. It was great to have a position coach in Pittsburgh. We didn’t have a tight ends coach in Atlanta.
Any fun stories of your time there in Pittsburgh?
I have a couple yes. My first year in camp Gregg Lloyd – how should I say it – he was the big bad linebacker who was always a bit quirky and tough to get to know.This was in the beginning of the cell phone days. I came in to the cafeteria and got an early breakfast and saw Gregg sitting by himself. I sat at an adjacent table and saw him talking to himself. I thought, this guy is really crazy. I started to feel really uncomfortable and got up and walked away when I saw he had an earpiece in his ear and was using hands-free. I was like, wow. Ok.
Also, I think it was my second or third season there and we were having the Friday Night Lights practices at a local high school. I borrowed this idea from Jeff Donaldson – a friend of mine who played in Atlanta.
They announced each player one at a time. When they announced us, we’d run on the field carrying our equipment. Well, I heard “Number eighty-five, Mitch Lyons!” and ran onto the field and pretended to trip and fall and scattered my helmet and pads everywhere and ran around trying to pick it all up and falling down again. Everyone laughed. Donohoe came up to me afterwards smirking and said “Please tell me you were joking!” He and Cowher both….
Lastly…any advice for young guys entering the game today?
Enjoy the ride. Save your money. Too many stories of players not being fiscally prudent. It’s sad. Players have an opportunity to set themselves up for life. You see seventh rounders running with first rounders. That’s not a good combo when you can’t keep up financially.
Also, it can be frustrating if you have a personality difference with a coach or want more playing time. But I stepped back and learned to look at it through the eyes of my ten year-old self instead of my twenty-seven year-old self and realized how blessed I was to be living a childhood dream.
Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades. To order, just click on the book: