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Behind the Steel Curtain Talks at Length with Steelers Great Merril Hoge, Part 1

Behind the Steel Curtain was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to have a lengthy conversation with former Steelers great and current ESPN NFL analyst, Merril Hoge. One of our regulars, Andrew Friedman (5020) recently ran into Hoge and told him about the site and our community. Hoge, who has a book coming out in early September, agreed to speak to us about his project and the Steelers, past and present.

Before continuing on, a brief word about Hoge's book, titled 'Find A Way: Thee Words That Changed My Life'. Firstly, you can read about the book on Hoge's website. Note as well that if you pre-order the book, you're automatically entered to win a trip for two to ESPN to hang out in the ESPN NFL studios with Hoge. Based on our conversation with him today, I can say that this will be a nice treat for somebody. Hoge was very friendly, personable, and seemingly a great guy to hang out and talk football with. $1 of every purchase will also go to Caring Place or the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. You can pre-order the book here.

Before we get to it, a few words from Andrew.

-Michael Bean-

During my travels I have had the pleasure of meeting Merril Hoge several times. Hoge is a staple on the motivational speaking circuit with several major corporations. He is quite good at it. His folksy nature and down to earth style have made him a mainstay at ESPN as an NFL analyst. He's quite good at that too. As a Running Back for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1987-1993, Hoge personified the image of the Pittsburgh Steelers as a rugged and hard hitting overachiever. He was hard working and dedicated and delivered for the Steeler Nation in the clutch. His back to back 100 yard performances in the 1989 playoffs was a legendary chapter in Steelers lore. Of all the Steelers teams that didn't win the Super Bowl, that underdog 1989 team on an apparent run for the ages was always my favorite.

Merril Hoge of today is still the dedicated hard working guy he was with the Steelers. He is also humble, respectful of the Steeler Nation and has an inspirational story. Hoge is also an author who wanted to reach out to the Steeler Nation and share his story. He took the time to speak to Michael Bean and I recently to discuss his pending book "Find A Way" his inspiring journey through life and some inside scoop on his time with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hope everyone enjoys. - Andrew Friedman (5020)-


On his new book due out in early Septemeber:

"The title of it is 'Find A Way' and the title came from an experience I had when I was 12 years old. I was putting up a goal on a wall that was all made of cork, and the goal was I am going to play in the NFL. The goal was just above my bed. So as I was standing on my bed and I pinned that goal up, it was just kind of a moment of truth where I was just trying to think about everything that had been said to me. If there's one thing about little kids, they're free. They're free of worries, statistics and odds. I never heard anything good though. I used to hear things like 'oh Merril, do you know how hard that is?' Or 'Merril, nobody from PP Idaho can go to the NFL.' Or 'the odds are against you, don't put all your eggs in that basket.'"

"And really as I thought about it, I thought technically they're all true but you know, I thought, I'm going to have to find a way to beat the odds. And I thought well that's it. So I jumped down, I had one 8X10 card left so I wrote 'Find A Way'. That I put at the top and all my goals fell under it. Now what it did on that day, which I didn't realize until later in life, is that those words helped me channel the energy into making that goal happen. And it not only helped me make that goal happen, a few years later I also botched my hand in a farming accident. A few years after that my mom passed away suddenly. My career ended traumatically with head trauma. Five years after that I was diagnosed with cancer. And my 'find a way' philosophy has implemented all of those areas of my life"

"And with that said, with every one of those experiences, there's been somebody or a series of people that have been significant in helping me do that. So I didn't do it by myself - I've had so many people along the way help me find my way. But I have been given the responsibility of choosing what energy I'm going to give and in what direction. And my own daughter, when I was diagnosed with cancer, when I went to tell them - I'm going to tell you, I was thinking about how many months I had to live and that I was going to die shortly. And she's the one who said to me 'Dad, you're going to have to find a way.' Now, she only said it to me because I had been saying it to her in trying to help her as a parent, trying to teach her things and help her get engaged. She's the one who really inspired me to change my energy and my approach."

"So that's what the book is about. I'm hoping when a person closes it, they realize the magic and the potential that they have within them, and that they reevaluate where their energy is going. Hopefully the book can trigger somebody to redirect and go in the right way, to overcome or deal with something they have, or achieve a goal that they've set for themself."

On when he decided he needed to share his story by writing a book and how long it took him to complete the writing:

"Well it took a little over 7 years, and the thought was actually presented to me when I was sitting on my chemotherapy chair on my last treatment. A good friend of mine came for that last treatment and we documented the day video-wise. We hired a video crew and they were filming the day and he was just asking me questions. And I was sharing with him that story about Corey [his daughter] that I just shared with you. And he was like 'when did you come up with that?' Then I told him the story which I told you at the start, and he was like 'Merril, what are you doing? You have to write a book about that!'

"At that point, I was just hanging on, I was just trying to survive - my last treatment was brutal. And it wasn't until a little later that I started to think about it and it was really through his probing and his inspiration. But when I really started to go 'gosh, you know what? So many people have helped me find my way. If this would help somebody find their way, if it would help them, then I'm going to do it"

"So I started the process of finding somebody to help me write it, a publisher, and then finally concluding it. It took a little over 7 years getting that process done."

Of his myriad accomplishments, where does completing the book rank in terms of personal satisfaction:

"You know, that's an interesting question, because I didn't set out for this to be personal. And I don't know if I had any objective behind it other than to write and put it to together and hopefully help others with it. But as it has started to evolve, it's actually been pretty powerful. I've already given a bunch of interviews on T.V. and radio, and I've already had people on my website who have responded about how they have listened to the message and have been like 'what am I doing?!' And they change their attitude, and they have all these stories. In fact, at my golf tournament, a lady is going to come and she's going to share her story which I'm going to put on my website, about how her company was really in dismay, all they thought about was what happened, that's where all their energy was. And after she heard me on the radio she came in and said, 'enough of that, we're taking our energy and we're going to make this happen, we're not going to worry about what's happened.' And she told about how that changed it. They started to get these clients and these accounts. So when you hear that, that's what I did it for - to hear those kinds of stories."


On if there's a story from the book that he wouldn't mind sharing with Steeler Nation:

"Well I think one of the most powerful things that ever happened to me in my life was when I was about 15, and this was a few years later after I had put up 'Find A Way' up on my wall, I was in the process of finding a way. I though, I ought to find out what those guys in the NFL did to get there? What did they do to get there? What do they do now that makes them so great? Ironically, at the time my favorite player was Walton Payton. And he was actually putting out this VHS about his training, his charities, kind of his personal life. And I had to have it, I wanted to find out, because in it there was going to be a golden gem, there was going to be something that tells me about what makes him special, or what he does to make him so great or help him do what he does. I actually found one at the time before one would think. It was part of the interview process he was being asked, what makes him better than everybody else. And I remember he paused a second and he said 'well, that's easy. I want it more than they do. Every day of the week. That means Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. You just see Sunday.'"


(Hoge's childhood idol, 'Sweetness', dives over the pile against Hoge's Steelers in '87)

"I was like oh my gosh. He didn't talk about being bigger, faster, stronger - which is all part of it, you've got to do those things. But he talked about how he practiced, how he prepared, how he trained, and how that translates to how he played. I was like, I can do that! So I applied it. I practiced harder than anybody, I trained harder than anybody, I played harder than anybody. And just to confirm that that's not lip service, 15 years later I'm playing for the Chicago Bears, the same trainers and equipment staff was there that was there when Peyton was. So one of the things I enjoyed doing before practice when I was getting taped, is I would ask Fred Cato, the trainer at the time, for a story about Walter. I had learned more about Peyton, who he was, the player he was, the character he was, the person he was. Well one day I get on the table and a teammate of mine next to me says 'oh baby, I've got a story. My turn, I'll tell you a story."

"He was drafted the same year that I was, but he was drafted by the Bears. He said I couldn't wait to meet Peyton and the first thing I wanted was I wanted to train with him. He said he had seen all those dirt hills he had ran and said he wanted to be a part of that, do that, etc."

"So he asked Sweetness of he could train with him and Walter was like yeah, sure. So they set a day and a time that they were going to go train. He said 'I was there early and I couldn't wait.' And Walter pulls up in his red Ferrari, and he's got his sweatbands, his headband on, his wristbands on and he looked sweet. He goes 'we warmed up and then we walked over to that dirt hill. It's about 80 yards up and about a 60% grade, I mean the bad boy's almost straight up. He said we shot up that hill and when I got to the top, he said, I tell you, I could literally see my heart move in my ribcage I was breathing so hard. And then he said reality kicked in and he said, man, this ain't no joke! But our rest period was when he walked down, and so because he was having a hard time breathing, he couldn't even talk. So about halfway down he finally got the breath to talk, and he reached over and reached over to Peyton and said, 'how many of these are we going to run?' And he said Walter looked over at him and he looked like he had done nothing but walk up that hill and said, 'we're going to do ten.' And he said that's not the number I was hoping for. So he said they walked back to the bottom of the hill, they turn around and start to back up the hill. He goes, 'I get half way up, I stop, I walk down, I go to my car and I go home. But then what he said next confirms everything that he said on that table. He said, 'I'm going to tell you this. Bottom line is that dude just wants it more than I do.'"

"Walter Payton was 5'10", 205 pounds; Maurice Douglas was 5'10", 205 pounds. Maurice Douglas played defensive back - and he was a good one, don't get me wrong - but Walter Payton was the best. Ever.It just goes to show that his mindset wasn't like that. He just chose and said, it ain't going to be like that. And he was honest with that. But it does show you that when you choose that way of attacking things, it does make a significant impact on your life."

(Hoge grew up in Pocatello, Idaho. Population: ~50,000)

On his experience playing for Coach Chuck Noll:

"You know what? I can honestly say that for those five years that I sat there and was engaged with him, if there's ever a time in one's life where you say, okay, this right here is going to be a part of history. You're going to reflect on these moments forever, every day that I sat down and listened to him guide us, especially on Mondays or Tuesdays when we would hold our team meetings, to be able to sit and watch his leadership and learn from it has been invaluable to me. I'm a youth coach now, and every lesson I learned and everything I started to learn as a young man - I was 21 and I wish I had known when I was about 10 or 11 - I'll be able to give to these kids. But he's the greatest teacher and the greatest leader that I have ever been around"

On how he thinks Noll is every bit deserving of being mentioned in the same class as Vince Lombardi:

"I think Vince Lombardi is really talked about as being a great teacher, being a great motivator. You can say Chuck Noll and Vince Lombardi in the same breath, and there would be no disrespect to either man. Either man would be complimented by being mentioned with the other."

On what Noll said to his '89 team after they had lost the first two games by a combined score of 92-10:

You know what? He gave one of the greatest speeches I have ever heard. He went over and said, we've got to revisit it, how we got beat 92-10. He revisited the things that were going on in the media about us. And if I remember right, he kind of wrote some things up on the board, showed us some clips. Then he stood in front of us, paused for a second and said, 'I believe in you.'

"And I tell you what, even today when I say that I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I was like 'man, if he still believes in us, we just got whipped 92-10. They think this guy can't coach a lick. They've got 'Chuck Must Go' signs everywhere. They're hanging him from the rafters. This guy's got more pressure than us and he believes in us. But  then he goes, this is what I have to have you do, and then he mapped out the changes we were going to make in how we were going to play, collectively and individually. When we followed the instructions, we were going to turn it around.  And we did. And it was...listen, I never won a Super Bowl, but I can tell you that year was like a Super Bowl season in my career."

On the Steelers shocking win over the Houston Oilers in the opening round of the 1989 playoffs:

"Oh man, I will tell you this. I remember one of our veterans Keith Willis, he was talking about 'how this was about to change boys. This playoff experience is a different game.' And it was my first experience being in the playoffs. Man, just the energy on that field. And actually it's the one thing that I've been able to do -  which really does speak to competition, and it almost speaks to really what my book is about - when you walk inside the lines in those pressure cooker moments, you're either in that huddle thinking about 'oh my gosh, I don't want to fumble, or I don't want to be the guy making the mistake', or you're in that huddle going 'baby, give me the ball so I can make all the plays, and I'm going to do this and I'm going to do that.' I've always had that attitude and in that game, there were a lot of things at stake in that game because Jerry Glanville was still the head coach. And Jerry Glanville, he supposedly had a team that was going to win it all. They had beaten us twice n the regular season and they weren't respecting us all that much. And actually, we knew if we won that game, there was a 100% chance that Jerry Glanville was going to get fired, which ended up happening. There was just so much riding on that game more than just winning it. We knew there was jobs at stake. If Chuck loses that one, we knew if we lost that one on the road too, people would be like oh, you guys got lucky. We had to win one of them on the road. We had to. And we played as well as we could as a team, and at the most critical moment of the game we played our best."

On the play made by Rod Woodson in overtime that put the Steelers in position to knock off Houston:

"When you think about the great plays in Steelers history, I think that's one of them. I think our punter snubbed a punt, they had great field position and that just saved us. That gave us the opportunity to win that game because if I remember, they had scored on their last two possessions to put them ahead. And then we scored to tie it up, so we hadn't stopped them the last few series. SO for him to do that...we knew this, when we walked out on that field, we knew the Houston Oilers weren't coming back on that field; we were going to finish that bad boy."


On the Divisional Round thriller against the Broncos at Mile High the following week:

"That game was actually the most magical of them all because even during the course of the game, we were doing things that they just couldn't stop. And then there were things that they knew we were going to do that they still couldn't stop. I've always said that the only stat that matters in football is turnovers, and that's all that matters. That's what cost us that game. I want to say we had three in that game, and if we have zero, we probably beat them by 17."

On what it was like in the huddle before that final drive and why Dermontti Dawson wasn't in the game for it (the Steelers, in case you forgot, turned the ball over late in the game to Elway's Broncos following an inopportune botched snap between bycenter Chuck Lanza):

"Oh yeah, he was concussed, he leaves. Chuck Lanza comes out there. There's a couple things - that was the only game I played where literally I had butterflies the entire game. There's a feeling and emotion that you have right before competition, it existed the whole game. They were dialing up my number a lot, and everything was so critical. Everything was always a 3rd down or some critical moment in the game.  And those are the things you live for, to have those opportunities. But those last few minutes, I'm telling you, we were almost in the exact same scenario against Houston the week before, and I remember it being so loud. I was like, it cannot get louder. No way. And I'm telling you could see the ground was shaking in the stadium that day, And it was louder than when we were in Houston. In the huddle, all you could do was read lips, and since you'd done it for so long, if you heard a word or two, you knew what you were doing. But I've never had that experience before - to feel almost like a minor earthquake. I mean, that place was just erupting. And we have so much time and two timeouts, and we've got the best kicker in football...first of all, we ain't got to score a touchdown. We've got all day long to do that.  And then we get a bad snap from a guy who hadn't played very long and we never see the ball again."

(Chuck Noll leading the Steelers onto the field at Denver)

On just how tough that loss was to swallow:

"Sickening. Very sickening actually."

On how Steelers offensive tackle John Jackson rumbled by him down the field at the end of one of Hoge's bigger runs on the afternoon:

"Well you know, John Jackson brings that up a lot. And I'm like, see, this is what I do for a living now - I go in and watch and study tape and bring out things people miss and give them insights that they wouldn't know otherwise. If you notice, I had to side-step Steve Atwater. Then I had a linebacker grab my jersey and nearly pull me down on the ground, all while John Jackson is form running a 100-yard dash when he could have blocked somebody. People are like how did you let a tackle out run you? And I'm like well because I got the rest of the team hanging on me because he won't block anybody. So I go, the next time John wants to race me, I'm happy to do it, but I'm not going to have five guys draped on my back. It will be a different story there."


In Part 2, we talked to Hoge about Noll's retirement, the transition to Coach Cowher, how Cowher was intelligent to play to the strengths of his personnel, how the Steelers personnel in the early '90s gave rise to the zone blitz scheme the Steelers deploy under Coach LeBeau today, Big Ben, Rashard Mendenhall, and Hoge's work with ESPN.