I have been working on this post for a while, but with Chris Hoke's retirement announcement, I think this is the right time to go ahead and post it. As Neal Coolong's Tribute post stated, Hoke has obviously had a great impact on the Steelers' team in ways that we have usually not had insights into. Only now, with his neck surgery and retirement, are we shown a bit more of a glimpse into how important he has been to this team for the last decade. Although lesser known, he is every bit the leader and mentor as the other players that I highlight in this post.
In early December of the 2011 NFL season, backup NT Chris Hoke underwent season, and possibly career, ending surgery on his neck. Around that time, Michael posted a link to Jim Wexell's poignant article discussing Hoke's impact on the team. Reading his words got me thinking about just how many examples of leadership and mentoring that I've heard about in the Steelers locker room in recent years. When I was growing up, I often read about the great heroes of the game and how they would play through myriad injuries for fear of being supplanted by a younger guy. These guys were tough, and they were often great teammates, but rarely did I hear of older players putting a high priority on reaching out to and mentoring the youngsters that were coming along to try to take over for them. The fact is that approach is still very rare in the NFL, but in recent years, I have viewed and read about more and more examples of just this type of player leadership within the Pittsburgh Steelers.
From Jerome Bettis bringing Willie Parker along to Aaron Smith coaching up Ziggy Hood, the character of men within the current Steelers team is rare in pro sports today. It is a reflection on the Steelers' front office: from Dan Rooney to Kevin Colbert. The Steelers allow players to continue to contribute even when their skills have begun to decline, which shows that they value the leadership that men like Bettis, Smith, Hoke, and Hines Ward bring to the table. It also reflects on their drafting philosophy, looking for high character people to fill many roles on the team. I have never heard of a backup NT having the impact on a team that Chris Hoke has had as described in Wexell's article. In this post, I wanted to explore some of the examples of leadership that characterize the Steelers' team of recent history.
Jerome Bettis - Willie Parker - Rashard Mendenhall
Jerome Bettis's impact on Willie Parker is pretty well known to most Steelers fans. On the Super Bowl XL NFL Films video, there is a clip of Fast Willie thanking The Bus for "making me what I am today, which isn't much," which simultaneously reflects both the impact that Bettis had on him and Parker's humility. This 2008 article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discusses how the Bus's example led Parker to pass on to Rashard Mendenhall the mentoring that Bettis provided for him.
Willie Parker not only welcomed Mendenhall to the Steelers yesterday on the first day of minicamp, he treated him the way Jerome Bettis treated Parker four years ago.
"I've been in the league a little bit, so I definitely can teach him," said Parker, entering his fifth NFL season. "That's what I've been doing. I embraced him as soon as he came in, trying to teach him the ropes and stuff."
Bettis was the face of the Steelers' offense for years, yet when the time came, he was willing to share the spotlight with Parker, going out of his way to coach Parker up during his early years. I recall another video clip of Bettis telling Parker why he would want go inside on running plays and how that would open up runs to the outside. Bettis taught him to sell the inside run and be patient. If he didn't, then opposing defenses would never collapse inside and give him the corner to bounce it back outside. In the same way that Bettis coached up Parker, the above article discusses how Parker welcomed Mendenhall into the fold and taught him about being a professional.
Hines Ward also adds to this legacy of strong team leaders passing on his work ethic and character to his youngsters. Again, we've seen his leadership on the field. In the 2008 playoffs, Ward coached up Limas Sweed after his dropped pass, and Limas contributed later on that drive with a violent block. Sweed didn't pan out, but Ward has continued his leadership with our new young receivers: Wallace, Brown, and Sanders. Based on this 2011 Post-Gazette article, Ward's been leading his fellow wide receivers for years: most of his career to be exact.
It bothered Ward that Burress did not always heed his advice, really bothered him when at the first practice after Burress signed his rookie contract a few days late that coach Bill Cowher put Burress (first-round pick in 2000) and Troy Edwards (first-round pick 1999) in the starting lineup. Ward, who led them in receiving in 1999, steamed. He would soon get his starting job back and go on to lead them in receiving every season since except for this one.
Later in the 2000 season, he spotted Burress walking around the team's facility without his playbook. "Where's your playbook?" Ward asked him. Burress told him he only carried it on Thursdays.
"You carry your playbook all the time," Ward told him.
Sanders, standing in front of his locker, was asked the same question the other day. The rookie pointed to a knapsack near his feet that contained his playbook.
As we know, Burress's attitude was a main reason the Steelers didn't lock him up long term. Ward has apparently made sure that attitude hasn't infected these younger wideouts, especially Emmanuel Sanders as noted in the quote above. He has taken a greatly reduced in game role this year, but he has done so with class. As shown in this article from WTAE.com, he says
"It's not about me. It's about the team. These are just stories to be written and stuff like that. We're 7-3 going into the bye week and I'm gonna continue being positive and keep going and work my butt off," said Ward.
Just as Bettis put the team first in his later years, Ward is showing the same character.
Jerricho Cotchery, in his short time with the Steelers, has commented on how unique the locker room is. To paraphrase, he basically said that he had never been in a locker room that was so close before. He was stunned by how easily he was welcomed right in. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the article that had that quote, but it is just more evidence of the culture of community and character to found in this organization.
Aaron Smith - Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward
Aaron Smith is yet another example of a high character human being (check out this video) as well as an excellent player and leader. In Homer J's wonderful tribute to Smith, he quotes defensive line coach John Mitchell talking about the leadership in his meeting room:
"In my room, I don’t have any egos," Mitchell said. "Aaron Smith, when he practices, he practices like a rookie."
"The reason my room is so good, I’ve had these guys for so long that when a rookie comes in, they tell him right off the bat, we don’t do it this way. We don’t come to the meeting late. We don’t wear a cap to the meeting. I don’t have to do that because that’s the way Aaron Smith was brought up with the guys who were in that room when I got there. It’s a hand-me-down thing."
That quote highlights the overall high quality of class and character in the players on the defensive line for the Steelers. The entire article is filled with examples of what a tight-knit group they are and how they fight for each other and support each other. It also spoke of how Smith supported and taught the younger players, just as Bettis, Parker, and Ward have done. Smith worked hard with Ziggy Hood after being injured in 2009, all the while knowing that he was training his eventual replacement. As I said before, this type of team-first selflessness is something that I don't believe I have seen on any NFL team. It really seems to be something that grew out of the last few Cowher teams and has been continued in the first 5 years with Tomlin at head coach.
Chris Hoke - Steve McLendon
And, of course, the article that sparked my interest in writing about this topic is the one about Hoke. If you haven't read the article, I encourage to you go back and take a look at it. Clearly, Hoke has had a tremendous impact on McLendon's young career. McLendon may never fully replace "Big Snack," but expect him to be in the rotation on the Steelers DL for years to come. And, Hoke will be one of the biggest reasons why.
A few years down the road, McLendon will be in Hoke’s position, and he’ll be telling some young nose tackle the same things Hoke had told him. McLendon will pay it forward. It’s the circle of success that’s come to epitomize the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"No question. And that kid will meet Chris Hoke. I’ll make sure of that, because like I told Hoke, man, as long as I’m playing I want his help, no matter what, even if we have to meet up once a week. No matter what it takes."
Band of Brothers
Every since the 2005 Super Bowl XL win, the Steelers have been a very tight knit group. Bill Cowher spoke about what a close team they were that year and how Bettis was an inspiration for them. On NFL Films, Big Ben was filmed before one of the playoff games that year saying it was a good day to win one for the Bus. In recent years, Ben Roethlisberger spoke of the team as a Band of Brothers. Perhaps the best example of that in recent memory is the way that the team all rallied around Ike Taylor after the Steelers heartbreaking loss in Denver. After the game, Ben hugged him and told Ike that he loved him, showing his support for his teammate in his darkest hour.
As we look forward to the 2012 offseason, we know that many of these great leaders and mentors will be moving on soon. Will the Steelers continue to have that level of character and leadership in the coming years? We can't say for sure, but based on the words of McLendon and leadership qualities that we have seen in young guys like Markice Pouncey, the chances are better than average. The leadership of new defensive backs coach Carnell Lake also tends to make me think that this team will continue to show a similar closeness in the future. Whether that will be enough to put them over the top to win another Lombardi trophy is anyone's guess, but the team does appear to have a good core of younger guys poised to step in and make them competitive.