First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing since your time in the NFL and how you got involved in this post-NFL direction?
I’m trying to help young players to be professionals – to maximize their true potential. I started a training school to help develop players’ skill sets for their specific positions. Giving them the X’s and O’s at the high school level. If I had that coming up I’d have been twice as good as I was. I’m trying t change the culture in Minnesota at the high school level for football training, here in my home away from home.
What coaches influenced you most now as a coach, and how did they do so?
Ray Horton, Darren Perry, and Dick LeBeau all did. LeBeau was a Hall of Fame player and coach – he keyed in on the details. The mindset of Cowher was huge. In 2004 when I got there he asked me what I thought my opponents were going to do – what routes they were going to run and what to expect. No one ever asked me that before. He showed me that I needed to know how to see what opponents were doing. Alignment, assignment and adjustment was what he preached. That was the essence of being a pro – to learn about your opponent as well as your own work. It made be better and faster as a player.
You signed with the Steelers in 2004 after playing for the Vikings and Jets. What made you decide to sign with the Steelers and what did they tell you your role would be?
They were straight with me. Pittsburgh was a defensive-minded team and I liked that. I liked the team – Cowher, the players, and loved the owners. It was a family-oriented organization that was all about togetherness and I wanted that, It made my decision easy.
What did they tell you your role was there and how hard was it for you to accept? Did you want more playing time?
I was there to back up Troy (Polamalu). He is a Hall of Fame player. I was told I’d get about 25-30 snaps a game in their different packages and they held true to that. They were straightforward with me and my role with the team.
I wasn’t frustrated. I accepted my role to help the team and I was behind a Hall of Famer player I played when needed and answered the bell when I was called on. I was a team player and was there for the team – it wasn’t about selfishness. That’s what makes Pittsburgh so special – that’s the way it was there.
How difficult was it for you when you became a veteran player, mentoring younger players that you knew, to some degree, were candidates to take playing time and even a roster spot away from you?
For me, I was never a player that worried about that stuff. I wanted team success. All knew what their role was and what was going on. I never held back information from players. On any given Sunday you need everyone to perform. You wanted guys to go out there and succeed. I was open to giving out that information – I was confident in my abilities. That’s what it’s supposed to be about as a leader and the way it was in Pittsburgh.
There was just so much unselfishness in Pittsburgh. I remember Bettis when Staley was brought in. Staley was given the opportunity and started games and led the team in rushing – but Jerome helped Staley our and showed him everything. There are no individuals in the game of football.
Who helped welcome you to the team when you signed on in 2004 – both on and off the field – and how did they do so?
Collectively, it was the whole team. That was what made it so amazing. We all went out together. To barbecues at Joey Porter or Bettis’ house. It showed a lot to me about the team. Coaches coach and players play, but the camaraderie on the team was what made Pittsburgh a class act organization – one of the best in the NFL. From the owners on down – and the players bought into it.
We did a lot together outside of the football realm. We had each others’ backs. Younger guys don’t always understand the magnitude of what teamwork is all about. I was welcomed with open arms. When I was in Minnesota we didn’t have that kind of leadership there. That’s what made me not want to leave Pittsburgh.
How difficult was it learning the safety position in the Steelers 3-4 – what was your biggest adjustment and how did you overcome it?
The 3-4 was very different for me at first. I never played with fire zones before. It was always cover one, two, or three, but with fire zones they are all different. I had to learn it all over again when you have three instead of four guys dropping back into coverage, You sacrifice coverage for the pass rush and I had to learn that by being around others and studying a lot of film.
You eventually did start a number of games when Ryan Clark was injured/couldn’t play – and you had some standout games, including being named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week against Denver in 2009. What do you think were your greatest strengths as a player?
I was confident and I played as hard as I could. I wanted to win over the other players as well as the coaches. I was just prepared – I studied my assignments and the opponents. A lot of the film study helped me to make plays – to come up with plays and jump routes. Troy and Ryan always told me to take chances. And Deshea Townsend helped me out so much too – he was there thirteen years.
Who were some of the biggest characters on those teams and what made them so? Any examples?
Bettis was always clowning around And Porter would get in your face if things weren’t going right. He was a leader. Troy was just so humble. He showed people how to play by example.
Every guy played a role. I wish all players could experience what I did there. You still have got to have fun. There was never a dull moment. I still stay in contact with a lot of those guys – we support each other still. Those memories we shared last a lifetime.
You left Pittsburgh in 2009. How difficult was that move for you and why?
It was hard to leave in 2010. I started 13-24 games there and I was 34 years-old then. I was a free agent and I know what my role was on the team – and the team was getting younger. I thought I had a chance elsewhere and didn’t 3ant to retire. I tried to make a new start for myself. San Diego wanted me to go and be a player-coach….but I still missed Pittsburgh,. That’s just the business side of it I guess.
Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades. To order, just click on the book: