First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing since you’ve retired from the NFL and how you got started in these new ventures?
Usually, I’m with my kids. I have three kids, eight, six, and three. My six-year old has Down’s Syndrome, so I spend most of my time in therapy, driving him around, volunteering at school… A lot of my other time is spent with my eight-year old, coaching his football team.
How did your time in the NFL influence your coaching?
I try not to tell him what to do. I’m not on the field – he has to learn to be instinctive. I help him when he comes off the field if he makes any mistakes – give him tips…but I let him go on his own natural ability as a runner.
As a former player, how did you prepare for life after the NFL and how hard was that adjustment for you?
I didn’t prepare. Lot’s of guys don’t. I just had to move on to something else – I didn’t have a problem – no depression like most players. I knew it was a privilege to play and I accomplished my dreams. When it was over I moved on to other stuff – it wasn’t a big transition for me. I knew it wasn’t there forever.
I did miss the structure. Everything was structured – early practice, lift weights, film sessions…then the structure was gone. You have to put your own life together afterwards. Maybe if I was married and had kids then it would have been harder, but I had no dependents then.
During the season, we had Tuesdays off. Otherwise it was training on Mondays and film correction in the early part of the season. We knew every day what we were doing Monday’s through Saturdays. In April it was OTAs. It was all structure. It was good – then one day it’s done. And like most Americans then I had to get my own day going. But with no kids and wife, it wasn’t as tough.
You were drafted by the Steelers in 1997 in the 5th round – where you disappointed in not going higher after such great career at SDSU where you broke many of Marshall Faulk’s records? Why do you think you weren’t drafted higher?
I was suspended a couple of games in college because I took extra benefits. I’m sure teams were worried about character issues and figured they’d risk a later pick on me. I knew it would probably happen. I was upset at it then but now, I’m older and wiser and am happy just to have made it. I got to do what most people would give their left arm to do. It wasn’t as long as I wanted but I got to do it.
At that time they Bettis and McAfee on the roster. How hard and frustrating was it for you to get your shot in camp and on game days, and how much did those guys help you?
McAfee wasn’t so much an issue – he was a special teams guy mostly. I started as the third down back and came in when the game was out of hand – if we were winning or losing by a lot. McAfee was a special teams star. He helped me more on playing special teams – how to block on returns, …that I needed to play well on special teams if I wanted to stay in the league. I didn’t play on special teams in college…
Jerome was encouraging. He told me I needed to be scrappy – to fight for everything. You don’t know who was watching…
Were you at all frustrated?
I was frustrated But I knew the reality. I was behind a top five rusher. I was frustrated but confident. And in my heart of hearts I knew the guy in front of me was better. You have to live with it and make the best of your opportunity.
I didn’t get to play on first and second downs, but I played on third downs. It is what it is. The offense was a power offense – it wasn’t a good fit for me. I was more of a scat back – a change of pace back. I liked open spaces to run in – I needed that. But I was grateful for the opportunity.
As an “undersized” back (5’9″), how did you learn to use that size to your advantage both in college and the pros, and what was your biggest adjustment to the NFL?
I had to alter my game in that scheme. If I played in a system with a guy like Brady or Manning with one back and a spread offense – that’s what I was built for. It was difficult for me in a two tight end offense like Pittsburgh’s. It was a power offense and they wanted you to run downhill. They didn’t want you to dance and reverse field – they wanted you to get positive yards and keep the chains moving. But I was drafted where I was drafted. I stayed positive and did what I could do.
How much did humor play a part on those Steelers teams, and how so? Can you give a couple of examples of some funny things that occurred, on or off the field?
Jerome – and his partner in crime Tim Lester were joined at the hip. If Coach Hoak got on me for something they’ve laugh at me and tell me I wasn’t in San Diego State anymore! Thigpen was funny too – I used to watch the veterans on game day to see how they dressed. It was always funny.
In training camp they made me try and sing my school fight song. I had to tell them I didn’t know it – I really didn’t! So I had to make something up – it was crazy. We also had to do a comedy skit. I made a fool out of my self but it was cool. I didn’t think it was cool at the time – I just didn’t like being unprepared.
’97 was supposed to be a down year for the team after losing so many players the prior season and the team stating a new QB, but the team made it to the AFC Championship. How did the team make those transitions so well, from your perspective, and what was the mindset of the team after the loss to Denver?
It was really due to the maturation of our defense at first and Jerome carried us. Kordell matured too – he went from Slash – option running back and receiver – to starting quarterback. He put it all together. He threw well and ran well when he needed to. I remember he won the game for us against Baltimore. He ran for 60 yards or more to win the game. He carried the team to the AFC Championship Game.
How tough was that game for you?
We beat Denver in the regular season. You’d think if you beat the team already and you’re playing them at home we’d win. But Kordell didn’t have a great game. The defense didn’t have a great game either. Overall the team didn’t play very well. Kordell didn’t play as well as needed, It was his first year as a starting quarterback so maybe that had something to do with it. He just didn’t put it together. It was terrible – we were one game away from a Super Bowl against Brett Favre in San Diego. It would have been nice playing in San Diego where I went to college. Football’s a strange game…
You had one of the great running back coaches in Dick Hoak. How did he help you and what was his approach to coaching the running backs then?
He was a cool running back coach. He was always on the younger guys. He’d tell us to follow the older guys – to watch them practice and how they studied film. To see what they did and why they did it and how they kept their bodies fresh through the season.
Bettis and Lester were good examples to follow.
You were released after that ’97 season. What did the coaches tell you then and how difficult was that for you?
I knew it was going to happen when they drafted Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala. He was built just like Jerome. They tried to trade me to Kansas City but it just didn’t go through – they didn’t get what they wanted I guess. I was released and picked up on waivers by Jacksonville. The fit just wasn’t there in Pittsburgh, they said. The fit was better with Chris. I just kept healthy – I knew it would happen – was just a matter of time.
Any last thoughts for readers?
If any of these readers have kids -I’d just let you know that as parents try to teach your kids to be dreamers. Don’t tell them what they can and cannot be. Just give your kids love. And football is not as dangerous as people say of played the right way. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.
Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades. To order, just click on the book: