First, can you let me know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your time in the NFL?
Well, I was diagnosed with MS three years ago and have no vision. It’s no pity party – I have a lot to be happy and thankful for. But my balance has been affected due to it and I walk with a cane. I’m doing more than I was before though – I can walk around more and use the reading software on my computer to stay in touch with everyone.
After football, I worked for a construction company and then went into teaching and coaching – we won a couple of state championships. I then went on to work at Merck for eleven years. That’s when my sight started to go. I’m taking it all in stride though. I have a good attitude and try to stay upbeat. There are a lot of people who have it worse than I do. I have a great family and I’m excited about that. My kids finished college – my son graduated from Bucknell and played football there for four years. It was funny – I went back to Pittsburgh with my son and was invited to go on the field and walk around. I walked by Tunch Ilkin and we shared a laugh – his son went to college and played running back and mine played offensive guard. We were both reversed!
My daughter went to Cornell for two years but came home in 2012 to help take care of me when when I got sick. I had to get shots for my MS and I got an infection in my thigh – the flesh-eating disease – and it put me in the hospital for two months. It took me a couple of years to learn how to walk again. That was the hardest thing for me – having to use a wheelchair. I’m getting back to walking again now.
Did you want your son to play football?
Sports were not a big thing in my house. I didn’t care if he played. We didn’t talk about my career. My wife was an athlete too – we met at Purdue. We’re actually going back to Purdue – she was voted into the Purdue Hall of Fame for track and field. She was an All-American – she is the real athlete of the family!
How hard was the adjustment for you from the NFL to “regular life:?
Everyone goes through it – some level of depression. It happens at different levels for everyone.. It was easier for me because I tore my knee up – that’s when Pittsburgh cut me. I had to have two knee surgeries in January and February – I had torn my ACL in my left knee. They just took it out then – so I had no ACL. In camp, they kept me under watch. I didn’t do a whole lot. Joe Walton was there as the new offensive coordinator – had just came in from the Jets. Let’s just say he wasn’t my favorite. I liked Tom Moore but he left that season. I could practice, but not a lot. My knee wasn’t fully right still. I could feel it slipping when I cut.
I was the last cut in camp. The Steelers said it would be ok in a year and I just needed to heal. So, I went to Detroit to play there the following year, but they failed me on my physical. That’s when it showed me the game was a business. Pittsburgh said my knee was ok. I believed them. They just said that Detroit had tougher laws on that sort of thing. So, the next season the Bengals called and they flew me in. I got my uniform and they set me up in the dorm. But I failed my physical there too. I went to Pittsburgh’s orthopedic doctor and he said I needed a full knee reconstruction. So I flew to Indianapolis – their doctor was also Purdue’s doctor – he checked my knee and said there was no way I could play again. He said he would fail me on a physical too.
So, I went back to the Steelers and told them my knee was messed up and I needed surgery. I wanted them to cover it, but they said no. They thought paying for it would be an admission of guilt. I wasn’t even thinking about that. In the end my wife’s insurance ended up paying for it.
Were you surprised to be drafted by the Steelers in 1987?
There were a lot of good running backs that came out that year. Playing in the Big 10 gave me confidence though. I played in the Blue-Gray game for the North and there were good backs and I did well – that was a big confidence boost.
I was totally surprised when the Steelers drafted me. They were all about the trap game. Running, running, running…. But I was a pass-catching back. They brought me in as a third-down back. They had Erenberg then in that role. He was a real nice guy. They had a lot of good backs on the roster, but I did really well. I surprised them with my running ability. At Purdue we threw all of the time. I did really well in camp and in preseason. Then I tore my left ACL in the third preseason game against Dallas. They stapled it back and I went on IR. I was really disappointed. I thought I’d play a lot. It was a downer.
Did anyone help you as a mentor?
Dwayne Woodruff tore his knee around the same time also. He was a really good mentor – we worked out together and played basketball. It was weird – I was grateful for his help. When I was on IR as a rookie, the comradery was gone. I went to get treatment then went back to my apartment after, so you couldn’t interact much with the players. That was hard.
The next year, I was able to come back and play, but it takes a while to come back from the surgery. When they let me go, I was the last guy on the team to get cut. I wasn’t expecting it. We played the Giants the last preseason game and I beat Lawrence Taylor for a big reception and took it near the goal line. My locker was next to the training room. Chuck Noll came to me – and he didn’t day much to players – but he told me I should get ready for next week’s game. I said “wow” – I thought I made the team. It was a big deal – there were only 47 players then – no practice squads. That Monday we were all doing the math to see if we were close to making the team. I knew they liked Dwight Stone and Merril Hoge. Then there was Pollard, Earnest Jackson and Abercrombie. That’s five right there. They called you early Monday morning if you were going to be cut. Well, I waited for the call. 6:30, 7:00, 7:30….no call. At 8:00 I decided to head down for the 9:00 am team meeting they had. I got there at 8:15 but I wouldn’t get dressed for the meeting – not until I knew for sure if I made the team. At 8:45, still nothing. So, I started putting on my shorts, then at 8:50, I was told to go see Tom Donohoe and talk to him. He gave me the usual talk – I was a hard worker, stay in shape…. I didn’t want to hear it. I was just like, whatever. I just wanted to get out of there. All the reporters were gone by then so I could just leave quietly.
So, you were out of work…
Yeah. Well, the first two games, they tried to use Merril as the third-down back, and I don’t think it went as well as they hoped. Then the strike started, and Cleveland called me. They were surprised I was let go – they knew I played on third downs from my play during preseason and wanted to bring people in after the strike happened. The Colts called too. I thought through the process though and called the Steelers to see if they’d sign me back because of the strike. I figured that I knew the offense and would start then- and if I could play during the strike and do well, that other teams would see me. I wanted to play, and in Cleveland and Indy, I’d just be one of the guys.
So I played versus the Falcons and the Rams, and the third game I didn’t play because I had a hip pointer. Pollard came back by then, and my good friend Chuck Sanders got to play a lot. As the starters started to come back, I was like, uh oh. I told Chuck Sanders, that if it was between him and me, I knew I could do things he couldn’t do – like catching the ball. They kept me, and moved me into the third down back role like it was nothing. The next week I caught two touchdowns. And in typical Chuck Noll fashion, a reporter told Chuck that I didn’t even know I’d be there. Chuck just said “Well, that’s not a bad thing.”
My knee got better and better. The next year they brought in Gordie Luckbaum from Holy Cross – he was a Heisman Trophy candidate – a good athlete. I was confident but I knew they’d give him every chance to win the job. Dick Hoak told me that they gave him a chance, but that I beat him out.
Who were some other guys that helped you out then?
It was a young team then. Pollard was awesome – I was closer to him. I also came in with Rod Woodson – he was always a really quiet guy. I remember going u to Rod one day, just joking with him, and telling him I was Rod number one and he was Rod number two. We both played together at Purdue and knew each other. Later, after my knee injury, a reporter was talking to us and joked that he was talking to two Rods from Purdue. Rod just said – I’m Rod number two – he’s Rod number one! I said no way, he’s number one now! I’m way behind him now! He became a leader. I remember he was given the starting job before he even camp into camp. After his first practice, you knew he deserved the starting spot!
They called me Coach Carter in college. I knew all the positions and what they were doing. It helped me as a player. The coaches used to call me Coach Carter too. Todd Blackledge -he was a super guy. He said that if he ever became a head coach I’d be his first hire. I actually thought about coaching in the NFL, but that profession takes so much of your time. My wife wouldn’t put up with it
Tell me how humor played a part on the team and in your career?
Humor was always a part of the comradery. That’s what you miss most about the transition out of football. Those guys are like family. Then, the connection is gone. I hate to say it that way…
Keith Willis, Keith Gary, Abercrombie…they were all funny guys. I remember our running back meetings. Tom Modrak was the personnel guy then. HIs office was right next to the meeting office when we were in Latrobe and that’s where they released guys. He used to type with one finger and you could hear that old typewriter tapping when he typed. Well, when Hoak was running the meetings he would call on you to see if you knew what you were seeing on film, while the lights were out in the room. He’d call you out, and sometimes a guy didn’t know something and there’d be this silence. Then all of the sudden you’d hear Abercrombie or someone else making the banging keys sound, copying the old typewriter, like Modrak was typing up the paperwork because he was letting someone go. We’d all start cracking up. Hoak never knew what we were snickering about!
Sanders was also a funny guy. He was a big guy -over 240 pounds. I remember we’d used to sit around after practice and order pizzas while watching film. Chuck would eat his pizza and Abercrombie would be laughing. They use to call him cash register mouth – when he ate, it was like watching a cash drawer open and close! Cha ching!
It’s the guys in the end – not the stories. Keith Gary and Keith Willis were both hilarious. We would all play basketball together – four-to-five regulars and some guys like me and Chuck that would rotate in and out. Terry Long played – he wasn’t good, but he’d always tell us to sit down and watch him play! Edmund Nelson use to tell us rookies to sit down too! We’d be in tears laughing, watching them play. We tried to play every game – sometimes we’d get $150 per game, and we needed that money. We didn’t get paid a lot then – because of the strike we didn’t get our incentive money either. That cost me $25,000. They called to tell me what I would have earned and I thought I did so well they may just give it to me anyway. Then they called me back to tell me I wasn’t allowed to get it due to the strike. Back then I only made about $65,000….$55,000 was the minimum then.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I really enjoyed my time in Pittsburgh and with my teammates. I think – and would like to hope – that I was a good teammate to them.
Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades. To order, just click on the book: