Mark Behning, Steelers Offensive Lineman, 1985-1987

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First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your time in the NFL?

After Pittsburgh, I still wanted to play and had opportunities at Miami, Atlanta, and wound up in San Diego (1989), but I didn’t make it and was released. I knew my career was over then. I jacked up my elbow in Pittsburgh. I couldn’t really bend it – I was in extreme pain. So I retired and went back to college for two semesters and got my degree.

I began working for a construction company – and my first assignment was in Baltimore. So I lived in Maryland for a couple of years, then I was transferred to Iowa, then the San Francisco Bay Area, then Los Angeles. I switched construction companies after that and worked in Kansas City, then switched again and moved to Denton, Texas. My construction career had evolved from civil construction (highways and bridges) to utility construction (building fiber-optic Networks) up until 2002.

At that time, the telecom industry was going through a hard time… everyone’s stock was over-valued and our CFO decided to “cook the books” (think Enron) and I was laid-off.  At this time, all of my kids were in school and I thought it would be good to get into coaching. I figured that I was a somewhat successful football player, why not coach? I quickly found out that coaching (and teaching)  isn’t about what I know… it’s about getting your athletes (students) to trust you.  So I coached high school football and taught woodshop and algebra for 11 years, up until October of 2013.

I stayed in touch with a guy that I worked with back in the telecom days, we were distant friends but not every day friends (you develop a lot of those in life, don’t you?). He called me and said he had something I might be interested in.  I was just ready for the next step in my life, coaching had kind-of run its course. I survived two head coaching changes at Denton – 90% of the time you lose your job when the head coach goes.  I was lucky to stick around – I was more like a talisman by then. My job became more like a mentor than an assistant coach. I think time had run it’s course. I liked it but it’s a challenge making a living doing it. Teachers, like they say, are underpaid, I think by a factor of two!

So, my friend flew to Dallas a couple of days later and I signed an offer letter the next day. Now I work for a construction company based in Miami, Florida. We cater mainly to the financial industry – we build banks, install or replace/upgrade ATM machines, ADA compliance work. From banks and retail renovations, to new store and sports and entertainment outlets.  The company also provides crucial emergency services in the preparation and aftermath of natural disasters. And finally, we help provide educational, medical and social services for a Jamaican community near St. Ann. I really like the fact that the owners of my company give back, they know what it’s like to hurt and have needs and they “give-back”.

How did your football career help you prepare for your post-football coaching and other careers?

That’s a big question. Where I worked in Kansas City, all the guys there were West Point grads. Being in that company, it was all about integrity and honor. They knew the kind of people they had – they knew what they were getting. It was real flattering being accepted with those guys. That’s a high pecking order – you had to break into those ranks. And that’s a lot of what I learned at Nebraska. Coach Tom Osborne had such great character – it was contagious. He was a true and honorable man. He never lost his cool – he never went nuts. He was always in control – he was always prepared and wasn’t ever surprised.

In Pittsburgh, Noll was the same way. He was never a guy that ranted and raved to get you fired up. He challenged us every day. Chuck was meticulous, wasn’t he? He’d break it down into simple terms, and then win those battles. Win the battles, win the war.  Win the battle of the hitting. If you needed a paycheck and had a family, what more motivation did you need? The things I took away from both men helped mold me into the man I became. I believed you should be a man of your word. If you say you’re going to do something, you do it. No matter how much hard work – there’s always a way to get to the end.

How hard was the adjustment to post-football life for you?

It was real tough. Most guys have played football since they were in grade school (2nd grade for me) then, one day, you are told you’re too old, too fat, too slow. Then it’s over. Talk about rejection. There is a good number of guys that probably, like me, see their career as a failure, because it ended due to the lack of ability to perform.  It took a few years to get over it. Then you just get so busy and you can’t dwell on it. When I was released by San Diego, I had a hammer in my hand, drove a “junker” and was framing houses for $5 an hour.  I quickly concluded that I was going nowhere, fast, I poured my focus into getting my degree (one of the best decisions I ever made). I took twenty-two hours my first semester and twenty-four the next and made the Dean’s list and graduated from Nebraska in May of 1990…

Were you surprised to be drafted by the Steelers in round two?

Well, I think I was a little stupid going into it. I chose my agent because of the people he represented more than anything. I didn’t really know him but my decision turned out to be a bad one.

Leading up to the draft I was told I had a chance to go in the first two rounds… naturally I conclude it’s going to be the first round. Well, I went in the 2nd round and sitting through the first round, thinking you’re going to get that call… makes for a long day. I wound up getting a call from the Steelers, and my professional career had begun.

Who helped mentor you and helped you adjust to life in the NFL?

The guys that helped me most were the offensive linemen. They are the guys I spent all my time with.  Between meetings and practice… several hours a day.

Tunch Ilkin, Craig Wolfley, and Mike Webster were the most tenured players on the offensive line while I was there. They were the starters when I got there, and the starters when I left. They were great men, family men, men of honor.  Weegie Thompson and Mark Malone had me out to their shooting club a couple of times. Rob Blackledge was probably a true mentor while I was there. He scouted me when I was at Nebraska, I’m sure he stood up for me when it came time to decide on drafting an offensive lineman. I’m glad he did. Of course I wish it would have played out differently.

Terry Long was my best friend on the team. He was something else. He was a lot like John Matuszak was – a loose cannon. Type A. Aggressive. He had a rottweiler named Thor. Terry and I took Tae Kwon Do at a place in the North Hills for a couple years….. Terry would spar with his dog. That dog was like an attack dog but Terry was fearless. I remember when Terry was on vacation and I saw a neighborhood kid driving around in his jeep. I followed the kid and pulled him over and asked him what he was doing and he said he was watching the dog. I noticed he had blood on him and he told me the dog bit him. Well, I went and got a hammer (probably should have thought THAT through a little more) and took it to Terry’s place and I was going to annihilate that dog. I went in to the house and saw the dog, (keep in mind, this dog KNEW me, and I wasn’t EVER the one Karate fighting him)… well, the hair on the dog’s back raised up, so I slowly walked back up the steps and got out of there. The dog stayed locked in the basement… Terry was made to be a football player – he was just fifteen years too late for his time. He was more suited to the 1970’s NFL.

How did he and the other players help you?

Acceptance, really. I hung out with the other guys less because they lived in the South Hills – 50 miles away. Tunch and Wolfley would have been more beneficial comrades but they didn’t live where I lived. We did have an offseason program and a martial arts guy came and worked with us and helped Tunch develop his Tunch punch. Tunch was the best pass blocker on the team. He was a tactician – we were all a close-knit group of guys.

Tell us how humor played a part on those teams?

We had some good times, but it was business on the field. We played cards – sometimes they were high stakes. We had a game called boo ray – we liked playing that. I wasn’t much of a gambler – I was never a big strategist, but I learned some playing. I think my last game I ended up owing Keith Gary $700…. Rich Erenberg I think played some. Walter Abercrombie was a big locker room guy and he played a lot.

In Latrobe, the dorm rooms had no air conditioning. It was so primitive. My rookie year I went to get a fan my first day but K-Mart was all sold out. You would think I would have known to get a fan before I got there! The next year I got an air conditioning unit. I had to take the window apart a little to get it in but I did. Bubby Brister and Merril Hoge ended up bringing their mattresses in and stayed in my room sometimes!

The injuries….you suffered a number of them in Pittsburgh. How hard was that for you to deal with?

You like to think you’re in control. What you can control you can exploit and use it in your work. A reporter wrote that, on paper, I was superior to Bill Fralic, but on the field I couldn’t hold his jock strap. I relied on strength – I guess you can say I was a brute. Nebraska wasn’t a passing school so we didn’t practice a lot of pass blocking. I went back to Nebraska my first two offseasons to practice my pass blocking. But, the injuries played a big deal. I broke my arm my first year, and when I got out of the cast I had my right elbow operated on for some loose cartilage.  Then I had the other elbow operated on. I had six surgeries on my elbows and had my right elbow replaced five years ago. That didn’t take and it has failed three times so far. Carrying around your arm like that doesn’t work. I need another replacement – it gets expensive. Six surgeries over the past ten years and you have to pay the $5k deductible each year. Now I’m trying to find ways to still stay active.

What advice would you give young players entering the game today?

I would talk about the things said to me. Being a coach for ten years, I’ve been giving that advice already. It’s easy to coach technique. It’s the intangibles I find myself drifting towards with the kids. The integrity, honor…how you carry yourself. Those are more beneficial lessons than anything else. Character says a lot more about what you can expect from a person. That’s something I value a lot anyway.

I used to always try to work out with a partner that was better than me. I found some guys in Nebraska to do that with. It made me always want to be better. In Pittsburgh, I thought I knew hard work until I got to know Mike Webster. I was humbled around him. The things he did – the things he made his body do – it was awesome to be around him.

I also never heard the phrase “Student of the game” until I played for Coach Noll. He was all about being a tactician. I went to high school thirty minutes from Dallas but I grew up a Steelers fan, believe it or not. I guess I liked the black and gold, and they were winners. I got hooked on them. I’m reading Kevin Cook’s book about the NFL of the 70’s titled The Last Headbangers… In two chapters it explains the entire history of the NFL, from inception, through the war years and into the 70’s. Well, the Steelers were the team of that decade so, it’s actually like a book about the Steelers.  Check it out.  Anyway, I read that Coach Noll’s first year, he didn’t hire a linebacker coach. He wanted to coach the linebackers himself. He brought in Andy Russell to his office – he was the seasoned vet at that position. Russell thought he was being brought in to be praised and told how he was valued, but instead Noll told him he was a sloppy player. I think about teaching moments like that – about technique. And instead of Russell telling Noll to shove it, he just did what Chuck told him to do. About positioning his feet differently. That’s what Noll was all about. Tom Osborne was that way, too.

With Coach Noll, if you were an All Pro and did things well you were okay, But I always felt I was on Chuck’s shit list. He was upset that I wasn’t doing more. I was hurt – I wanted his acceptance. I was hurt – I wasn’t the player I was in college. I didn’t know then how physically hurt I was. As it turned out, the arm must have been cracked because I broke the humerus (not funny) in Washington DC.  I was relieved – I wasn’t making it up. But it’s hard to make the club in the tub, as they say. And I kept getting injured….

Any last thoughts for readers?

When I went to Pittsburgh, I was married already. My wife was with me through all of the changes. I joined the NFL Alumni Association and get to hang out with some of the legendary players some times and enjoy the comradery, but it’s not comradery you get with teammates. That’s the thing I miss the most. Being a part of a team. Now, I build my own teams at work, or join one at work. I enjoy surrounding myself with people who want to work hard and really make a difference.

Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades To order, just click on the book:

Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades – Order Today!

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