John Malecki, Steelers Offensive Lineman, 2011-2013

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First, can you let readers what you know what you are doing with yourself these days and about your new custom build business venture?

Recently, myself and former teammate Baron Batch have opened up a studio in Homestead Pa called Studio AM. We are an advertising agency that does everything in house. We do branding and marketing as well as web page design and interior design and merchandising. We also make salsa and are in the works to do catering and high-end private dinners.

How did you get started in this venture and how did your time in the NFL/playing football help you in this career?

I got started building as a kid, being handy most of my life. When I was in the NFL I was at an away trip, and someone broke my coffee table that was a piece of junk I bought at a retail store. Instead of buying another I decided I would build one. Baron Batch was a teammate who was living in a house in the South Side and had a coffee table he put together with an old door. So using his inspiration I went to work. I built my first piece of furniture and after Baron bought his new house we built all the tables and shelving in his house. I kept trying to grow my skill set and tool collection, once I got released for the final time it took a few months and some soul searching, but I realized I have a unique opportunity to do something enjoyable and different. And now here we are

Playing in the NFL gave me the opportunity to really work on my hobbies being that you have a lot of free time in the off-season. You also have to learn how to manage your time to the second while playing football, and it has come in handy while growing a business. Being cut 13 times humbles you. In business not everyone is a buyer or a believer. I’ve been able to not let my emotions get the best of me and stay level headed from all of the trials and tribulations from I went through in the league.

You’ve stayed local – from Murrysville, PA,  to Pitt, to the Steelers (with some tours with other NFL teams as well). What have been the pros (and cons) of staying so close to home throughout your collegiate and professional career?

I always loved Pittsburgh and that was what kept me here to play college football. My NFL career took me to some beautiful cities and I was able to make some great friends and lifelong relationship, but Pittsburgh always had my heart. My family roots are here and so are the roots of America. Its written in history that the country was built on the steel forged in our great city, specifically homestead. I knew I wanted to come back here eventually, I didn’t know my travels would bring me back here like they did. It has been beneficial because I know the city and I know the people. I know what makes this town click and I know what makes cry. It helps to be able to relate to the people around me and be considered one of them.

The most special part about being a Pittsburgher is that Pittsburghers are genuinely good people. The people of this city are very prideful and passionate. I am proud to call myself one of them, and to be able to grow a business and give back to the people who molded and shaped me into who I am today. I don’t see any cons of being from this city and staying here. If I did, It would be selfish of me to not look at my opportunities as positive and not negative.

You played for four years in the NFL despite entering the league as an undrafted free agent. What about you made it possible to achieve this and especially in that first season where you played for three different teams, how difficult was it for you?

No one likes being told they aren’t good enough. No one enjoys getting cut. Being an undrafted free agent you learn very quickly that that is how the league works. For me it took a lot of self-reflection and good agent to make it to where I did. There are hundreds of players every year trying to get into the NFL who are great players. I knew what I was up against. My body type and size weren’t what the NFL was looking for, and neither was my lack of game time experience playing center. I couldn’t control any of that; all I could control was my effort and my attitude. How an individual approaches a situation is a choice.

The fact that I was short and not too fast and not a center were out of my hands. But my mentality was all mine. So I chose to not let what I couldn’t control affect me. And I still keep the same mentality to this day. If you walk through life and let everyone else dictate how you feel I promise you will be miserable most of the time.

So many see the NFL as a “big money, glamorous” league for players. But you’ve played for five teams over your four seasons – can you describe the toll it takes mentally and how you deal with the uncertainty and moving around so much?

I would say 90% of the NFL is not what it is cracked up to be. In my opinion if I would’ve known when I was 7 that I would go through what I did, I may not have chosen my dreams like I did. But then again, uncertainty is what dreaming is about. I never personally played football for money or glamour. I played it because I loved it. I loved hitting people, I loved my teammates from high school and college, and I made some great friends in the NFL as well. I knew it was my opportunity for a better life in some way. All I wanted was to get a degree and maybe get to hit some people on my way.

After my rookie season I knew I wouldn’t love football the same way again, and I don’t. I haven’t for a long time. The NFL takes away from what the game is about, which is why winning is so hard. When you say statements like “big money and glamour” it shows how the public views the game. I’m not going to say I wasn’t a victim to seeing things that way as well, as a fan I thought it was cool. As an adult, I now see how much I dislike what the league stands for.

I was taught at a very young age that if you work hard and do the right thing it will pay off. The NFL is not a league in which these beliefs will get you very far every time. I do believe it is the right way to live your life though. So when you ask how the mental toll of getting cut and picking up your life to chase this so called “dream” felt, I will just say that if you keep working hard and doing the right thing it will pay off, even if its not in the league.

After stints in Tennessee, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay, you were signed by the Steelers in 2011. Who on that Steelers roster helped mentor you and showed you the ropes, and how did they do so? Any examples? 

Well the whole offensive line and the coach at the time, Shawn Kugler, were extremely accommodating and helpful. Lineman stick together I don’t care where you go or what team you’re on. It’s the only true unit that plays together in the sport. Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster were both mentors and role models for myself. They were both free agents making a name for themselves in the league. Doug Just started in a super bowl and Ramon had played on the active roster and started a ton of games since the day he got in the league. They did everything they could to help me learn the playbook and feel a part of the team. I’m still friends with all the guys I played with on the line till this day.

We still group text and crack jokes about one another. That year was a very tight knit group of great guys I am very proud to say I played with. Across the board I never played with a better group of dudes in my brief stint in the NFL

How did the Steelers differ from those other teams you played for? 

Yes, dramatically. The staff and the players had an understanding of how to win. When I got there they had just gone to a super bowl. The veterans in the locker room had a mentality to them that didn’t exist in the other teams. It seemed like these men played for a common goal and for each other, not for a paycheck, which is what you see in too many locker rooms in my opinion.

Humor plays such a big part in the locker room and even on the field. What funny experiences do you remember during your time with the Steelers, and what made them so?

That is one part I do miss, the locker room is a place that you cant replicate. Most of the stories I remember I cant tell you about. I will tell you that when I had my locker next to Doug we liked to get pumped up before practice and would take some fleck from the boys around us for taping a cell phone to the locker and jamming out to “the rooster” and Aaron Lewis.

Much of your time in the NFL was as a practice squad player. Can you describe what life is like as a practice squad player and some of the roles you were asked to play for the team during practices? 

Practice squad is a very different part of the league. Some teams I played on considered you a part of the roster, you travelled and did everything the active players did except play and receive quite a considerable pay bump. Some teams did exactly what the job title says, you practiced and went to meetings and went home. It was different when in college I was a starter and a captain and considered someone important. You get to take breaks at practice and you rarely play on special teams or a scout team. I personally had never been on a scout team before in college or high school. I always was starting or rotating. On P squad you do literally whatever they ask with no questions asked. And you’re expected to work on things you didn’t think you would ever do.

I learned to long snap, I blocked on punt and I ran down on kick off and practiced catching kick returns. I rushed on field goal block and played fullback on offense. I played every position across the board on the line including tight end. You go to every meeting and every walk through and you do it for 1/7 the pay of someone on a minimum contract. Some teams keep you after practices to run or take extra reps and some just send you home with dinner. It’s a unique role and I learned a lot about myself in it.

Who were some of the toughest guys you lined up against – both in practices and on game days – and what made them so?

It’s hard to say who the toughest person I played against. Ironically the toughest person I probably ever played with was Baron Batch. The dude mine as well have broken every bone and tore every ligament in his body and nothing ever kept him down. I could name countless players who played when they shouldn’t have and who’s bodies were deteriorating every day they played. Most of them are still playing so I wont give their names or talk about their injuries, but there is a lot of guys who completely sacrifice themselves for the game. You can tell who they are when you watch on TV. They exemplify what the sport really.

Looking at the NFL today, do you like the way the game has changed over the past few years? Why/why not? What would you change?

I really don’t. I think the league now doesn’t hold the standard it once did. Children look up to these men and try to model their lives to be like them. When you let criminal conduct and you reward people who in any other walk of life would be punish the whole institution suffers. The sport as a whole has gotten way too flashy and soft in my opinion. The sport is meant to be hard and physical.

Any last thoughts for readers? 

Think freely, dream big and love hard. Whatever you choose to do, do it as hard as you can and don’t let anyone stop you.

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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