First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself these days?
Well, lately I just ran my first annual combine and had about 110 kids for the city I live in. It’s a combine more than a football camp – thought next year I may make it into a camp too – have it be a part of something more.
Who is the camp for?
It’s for fourth through twelfth grade kids – to help them get ready for middle school, high school, or college. These are kids that didn’t get as much attention as some others – it helps give them an idea of what it entails to get to the next level. It’s an opportunity for them to see themselves on film – to allow for them to find success and fight the right school that’s the right fit for them.
I just came out of a divorce and have custody of my son. I’m taking care of him so that’s my biggest thing. It’s been a Summer of transition. So not doing anything else major – I want my son to be active. Right now he loves soccer. He likes baseball, basketball….not as much football. I’m trying not to put a lot of pressure on him. I just want him to be a kid.
What lessons from your coaches and playing days helped impact your post-NFL life – the combine work and time with your son?
All the coaches had an impact. They taught me that you have to have each others’ back. It’s a family. All of those components – I really live by that. When it’s like a family it makes everything alright and teaches you how to adapt to anything. You learn how to transition – different ways of being with other people that helps you deal with real life.
Football is a sport that’s like a world of it’s own. You have to “get it done now” regardless of what happens around you. If you’re hurt, it doesn’t matter. I’m trying to be an example to my son. It’s like drives in football – there’s all these different scenarios and you don’t want to sputter along the way. Life is the same way. You work together….
You were drafted by the Steelers in round two in ’95. Were you excited or disappointed, knowing they already had three established quarterbacks on the roster in O’Donnell, Miller and Tomczak?
When I got there I was already taught by my college coaches not to get caught up counting your reps. You can’t get caught up in that. I knew I was physically ready to start. I respected Neil – I loved him to death. But ability-wise, I just wanted to play and beat out whoever was in front of me to do that. You have to take the job away from the top man – that’s just how it is.
Did you view the “Slash” role you were initially given was a positive or negative in terms of your development? And why?
I wasn’t worried. I was just happy to be in the NFL and get paid to play football. I was doing everything for the scout team – I just wanted to play. I didn’t want to wait, and when the receivers and Woodson started getting hurt I asked to play receiver and to return kicks. They got creative and started giving me chances. In Jacksonville, they ran a quarterback draw for me, and that’s how I got started being Slash. Helping out on special teams and other positions. I just wanted to play. I didn’t care about the traditional ways…
And I got to keep the number 10! I asked for the opportunity to play quarterback – for the chance. I wanted the number because Terrance Jones – a former Tulane quarterback – he wore #10. He was from my hometown and I wanted to be good like he was.
How competitive was that starter competition between you and the other quarterbacks- and how did the coaching staff handle it?
Tomczak was around a while – he just went along with things. Miller came to Pittsburgh then too. The guys knew their roles but I didn’t have that understanding. I didn’t care about contracts or how long they were there. I just wanted to compete. I always wanted to be the best at any I position played – receiver, kick returner….I didn’t care who’s feelings got hurt.
Who helped mentor you most as a rookie – helped introduce you to the Steelers culture and city, and how so?
Charles Johnson, Deion Figures, Ariel Solomon, Joel Steed, Chad Brown… they were all buddies from Colorado. They had my back. When I got there I felt comfortable.
O’Donnell was a good guy. He was my neighbor. Jim Miller was too. They were friends….they were just really good guys. I was raised by my father since I was eleven up until three years ago when he passed away. Being on my own was never a problem. But having friends around was very important.
What was your biggest adjustment to the game?
Football was football. The coaches and receivers really helped me. Being a wide receiver really helped me understand the quarterback’s needs and the plays.
But the speed of the game was the biggest adjustment. Being a receiver helped me understand why things happened on the field and to anticipate things better, The verbiage of the playbook too – it helped everything get a little easier as a quarterback. Things like taking the right angles in a pattern – it was like geometry and I didn’t do well at geometry!
You came upon success quickly as a Steeler – a Super Bowl your rookie season, fame as “Slash”, and starting year two. Were you able to really appreciate how rare that was then and how were you able to stay “level-headed” as a player throughout all of that?
It was all just football. I didn’t care about attention…I didn’t want it. I knew I’d get the opposite side of the good attention too at some point. I did appreciate it – but the heavy praise was just too much to grasp. At the level it was at, it was hard initially. I shied away from it, honestly. I understood it all later – at the time, I just wanted to beat the guy in front of me.
In terms of leadership, you quickly moved from your Slash role to starter. How difficult was it for you to become the “new leader” on the offense and become accepted as such by players, and how did you do so?
Being a starter…that’s when it all changed. It was a new role – I had to be strong and understand everything and have the answers for the guys – to lead by example. It was every man for himself before, and now it was more of a team concept. And success early meant that I didn’t have all of the answers. I figured that if I was good all else would take care of itself. With my abilities, I felt like I should just go out and make plays. The idea of a mobile quarterback was still very new – especially in Pittsburgh. It was all new – the field was my world. I loved it. I grew up in a neighborhood where we all played football – and I played with my older brother’s friends – he was five years older. We competed all the time. I thought that if I could do well against those guys at my age I could do even better against guys my age.
How did the “newness” of the mobile quarterback in Pittsburgh affect you?
When they talk about mobile quarterbacks of the NFL now, the media never mentions me. It’s Vick, McNabb…but not me. They think of me as a versatile player – receiver, return guy – Slash – but not as a quarterback. But I dropped back in traditional sets the majority of the time. When I ran, I ran out of traditional sets.
Why do you think that is?
I think because I played receiver first they judged me as a receiver/trick guy. But my quarterback numbers were as good as Kapernicks….RGIII’s…
I just don’t know how to talk about it. Me doing what I did in Pittsburgh – It was just too new I guess. One mistake and I’d get ridiculed, no matter how many good plays I made. It was tough at times, but I dealt with it. I can’t complain…I was a good receiver, an All-Pro quarterback. I had fun – played the game the way it was supposed to be played. The media sometimes skewed things, and people just listened to it. You gameplan around talent all the way until you get to the NFL, then you have to fit a system. Why is that? There’s no one way to play – but some don’t like that. They want all quarterbacks to be like Peyton Manning. But guys that find the most success are guys that play to their own ability. Not who try to be other people. They thought I was a gimmick – but now we see I wasn’t. Guys like Blake, Young, Garcia, Brunell…all of those guys were guys who also ran the ball and had success.
So what made you different?
I think because I played receiver, people saw me playing quarterback as just an “experiment”. But you don’t go to an AFC Championship game twice as an experiment. Vick never went to one.
I guess it also depends on where you are. Vick was embraced. African Americans loved his style of play – they all played the same way in their neighborhoods in Atlanta. He wasn’t accepted in Green Bay or Indianapolis. But he got his chance in Atlanta. And in Philadelphia, he followed McNabb, so he was accepted there too.
In Pittsburgh, they thought that because I was that athletic, I should have been a receiver. They didn’t accept that kind of talent at quarterback. It just wasn’t what they were used to. In part it was because they were more traditional than in the South. They didn’t like a different style…
In 2002, the Steelers started Tommy Maddox over you and the Kordell Stewart era came to a close. How did you take that and what was said to you by the coaches?
I was like a dagger when Maddox came in. I went from team MVP to being benched. I didn’t understand it. It was crazy to me.
I’m not going to discuss too much of what was said – my conversation with Coach Cowher. It was the end for all of us. It just was enough. When Graham came inthe got hurt, I went in and played well, then I was benched again. I just didn’t understand it – few quarterbacks get to the championship game then get benched…
As for Cowher….he just wanted to move on, he said. He thought it would work better with those other guys, But it didn’t. I had a cool relationship with him in general. He had his moments. I guess you could say it ran hot and cold (laughing).
Humor plays a big part in keeping teams loose. Who were some of the guys on the Steelers teams you played for that helped keep things light, and how did they do so? Any examples?
Freed McAfee! The dude got up every morning in training camp- we were all tired and he’d sing “Good morning to you!” Then he’d ask us if we ever saw a cheetah stretch, because he was “Fast Freddie”!
In all, it was a good bunch of respectful, cool guys. Fast Freddie was the comedian of the team. It was all a real brotherhood – for real. Playing pool, cards….the times together were phenomenal. Pittsburgh was a different place for a lot of guys. But we all made it work.
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