First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing with yourself since football and how you got started in the various ventures you’ve worked in?
I’ve held various sales and marketing positions since leaving the game, both at the local and national level. I also got involved with the NFL Alumni Association which is a 5013c charitable organization. I’ve been president of the Pittsburgh chapter for the past twelve years.
I also wrote a book two years ago – called Pigskin Dreams. It’s about the childhood of twenty-two NFL Hall of Fame players and who influenced the development of their character, co-written with Dr. Stephen Below. I personally conducted all the interviews and highlight twenty-two in the first book. These players were the foundation of the NFL, Ditka, Dorsett, Unitas, Butkus, Csonka, etc…Bob Costas, Art Rooney and Roger Goodell all contributed jacket quotes.
Speaking of the NFL Alumni Association, what are your responsibilities as chapter president and what prompted your involvement?
I moved to Pittsburgh in ’94 when I came to play for the Steelers and stayed here once I retired. I participated in a number of charity events and local chapter meetings. I had no previous charity officer type of experience. I was asked to take over after former Steeler Craig Bingham resigned – he asked me and I decided to take it on.
We hold an annual golf tournament with H.J. Heinz as the title sponsor, the winners go on to play in the Super Bowl of Golf, a national championship tournament. We also hold a clay pigeon shooting event every year to generate funds for the event beneficiaries and to support the NFL Alumni’s mission of Caring for Kids.
What issues in regards to retired players interest you most – and are you happy with the new CBA – especially as it related to pensions and player care? What were you disappointed about most?
As an eight-year veteran of the NFL, I’m as interested as anyone else that left the game. Whether it’s a dire situation or not, the NFL has provided opportunities to help guys that left the game.
Over the last ten years, the NFL has created some new programs for the retired players. The NFL Alumni focused on advocacy especially during the CBA negations, pushing for improved benefits, increases in pensions, healthcare for players…. I’m an optimistic guy. I think the NFL is trying to make the players happy. A number of prominent players have surfaced which brings more attention to the issues being discussed.
I appreciate their efforts because I also left the game with injuries I will deal with for the rest of my life. I have plates and screws in my knee and ankle and have had other injuries as well. We all have something – in every sport, we suffer injuries. But the NFL is different – it’s a more gladiator style of game, I’m not sure how much the NFL can reduce the wear and tear of the game without making major changes.
You were drafted by the Vikings in 1988 but suffered a knee injury in ’92 that kept your from playing in ’93. How difficult was that recovery process for you and were you ever able to recover full from that injury?
Any injury at that level is tough. I got injured in the preseason – on grass no less. My left knee was taken out on a play and it was a very difficult to return, I won’t lie. I snapped two of the three ligaments in my knee in half. There’s always pressure to come back and perform. If you can’t…well, it’s a business. Your days are over if you can’t.
There are always after-affects. Luckily, I was able to play another three years after the injury. It was tough though – physically and mentally. I wore a brace, but you have that worry that it could happen again, though the chances of it really doing so were pretty slim.
You were picked up by the Steelers in free agency in 1994 after spending your career in Minnesota. What do you think made the Steelers look to sign you and why did you choose the Steelers over other teams to sign with?
I had a good year in ’93 following my knee injury and my contract was up. My agent at the time was Bruce Allen, who is currently the general manager of the Washington Redskins. He thought the Pittsburgh Steelers would be an excellent fit for me and the teams needs at that time. He was successful in putting a contract together and I arrived in the spring of ’94. It was a great opportunity and a great season. I have a number of tremendous memories from that season.
As a new Steeler, you helped you adjust to life as a Steeler – both on and off the field – and how did they do so? Any examples?
I played in the 1988 Senior Bowl in college and my offensive line coach for the game was Kent Stephenson. Kent was also the offensive line coach for the Steelers when I arrived in ’94. I also played on the same team as Dermontti Dawson at the Senior Bowl, so I knew him as well. It helped a great deal having the opportunity to reunite with both of them in Pittsburgh. Bill Cowher also showed all the free agent players a very high level of respect.
His attitude was very positive and professional. He had a mutual respect – maybe having had been a player himself may have added to that.
It was really more on me in the end to study and learn the playbook, but the rest of the guys on the offensive line also helped. Every offensive line has to be a close-knit group. It wasn’t any one player – we just all helped one another out. As an offensive guard, you have a guy on both sides of you every play, to be successful you have to the be a cohesive unit.
What were the biggest differences between that ’94 Steelers team and the Vikings teams that you played for?
Both teams had excellent players and coaching staffs. The ownership and staff changed in Minnesota during my time with the team compared to Pittsburgh, you knew who the owners were and that the staff would probably have a long tenure if they continued to win games. There were also a number of differences specific to the playing conditions. In Minnesota all of our home games were indoors compared to Pittsburgh being an outdoor stadium. There were certain advantages and disadvantages based on what part of the country the team we were playing were traveling form. A team from Miami didn’t fare well in Pittsburgh in December where as in Minnesota there would be as much as an advantage for the home field team. The fans were great in both cities. We also had some owner and coaching staff changed when I was in Minnesota.
How does that affect you as a player?
When the ownership changes, it makes less of a difference. When the coaches change, it makes a difference. But change can be good. It can make things fresh – cleans the slate. And fear can be a great motivator – and a new coach can bring a certain level of fear.
In 1993 free agency also came and it changed things too. The off-season became a chess game for the teams. The key was to enter training camp and exit camp with team chemistry that would carry you through the entire season. The NFL is a business, first and foremost, to the fans its entertainment. The players are doing everything in their power to keep their jobs knowing that if they don’t perform there is good chance there is someone right behind them ready to step into their spot.
You retired after the ’95 season. What caused you to retire and how difficult of a decision was that for you?
I went down in the eleventh game of the season with the Steelers in 94’ with an injury. The next season I went to Cincinnati and had a good year but in the end it’s not your choice to continue to play, it’s the teams. There just wasn’t enough interest in me to attract a team for a ninth season.
It was nice being out of the game for a while at first – it gave me time to recover, especially after being out for a year, I felt great. The problem is after missing an entire season it is usually very unrealistic to come back.
What are your thoughts on the difficulties many players have in adapting to life after the NFL. How can the NFL and NFLPA help players to do so and to prepare for that life before their NFL careers end?
I think it’s why guys gravitate back to football. It’s where your experience is – where your resume is. Many gravitate back because it’s their comfort zone. It’s difficult to leave the game and start in business – year one you’re a freshman again and that’s hard.
It may be less difficult now with the money these guys are making. It may be easier for the players to invest in a business. Back in the 70’s guys were working in the offseason. All you can do is choose a career path and hope it the right decision, if not doesn’t work out, you have to move on until you find the right fit. The transition is different today than it was twenty or thirty years ago. If today’s players can control their spending and get involved with the right companies, they should do ok.
You have a son who’s now a highly-regarded recruit ready to play for Michigan. What advice do you give him as he embarks on his football career?
I may have a deeper understanding of what he is going through simply because I played the game at every level. He has an inner drive and right now he has an opportunity to play college football at the highest level at the University of Michigan. It took a tremendous amount of work for him to get there.
I told him, you need to know who you are without the game of football. It doesn’t matter if you stop playing today, tomorrow or ten years from now. I just hope he plays until he wants to leave the game.
He was actually too big to play until he was in the seventh grade. They had weight and height restrictions here in the local football association so he didn’t play. I also didn’t want him to start playing with kids that were one or two years older than him either. Maybe it will add to his longevity – maybe he won’t get burnt out because he waited. I’ll support his desire to play the game as long as he chooses to participate.
Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades. To order, just click on the book: