The journey from college to professional football is unique for almost every single NFL player, and that mantra certainly holds true for Steelers rookie Christian Montano.
After playing at Brown for 4 seasons—he unofficially redshirted his freshman year, as the Ivy League prohibits players from officially sitting out—Montano was in search of a new home subsequent to breaking his foot. The injury came in the Bears’ first game of 2018 at Cal Poly, causing him to miss nearly all of the 2018 season.
Montano—who was named a captain in his 5th year in Providence—found that new home in Tulane, both a nascent community via nurturing coaches and a truly distinct environment relative to his hometown of Milford, Connecticut.
“I wanted to be able to go into a place where I had a pretty good chance of probably wining a starting role over competing for it in spring ball,” Montano said. “The coaches [at Tulane], they just seemed like really humble, down-to-earth guys. I think in the recruiting processes, you get used to coaches who are sometimes just trying to bait you to come there even though they don’t feel authentic. That couldn’t be the further from the truth when it comes to the Tulane coaches down there. They’re absolutely fantastic, and it felt like home from the first day I was down there.
“The historical factor of New Orleans and being on the Mississippi River there—it’s kind of the melting pot of the South,” Montano said in regard to the appeal of the French Quarter. “There’s the French culture, the Caribbean culture, there’s the true Southern culture down there. I really enjoyed that, and I think it was refreshing to go down there and be a part of not only a new football team and a new football community, but a new cultural community.”
As a graduate student and Green Wave team member, Montano enjoyed countless memories, some he never thought imaginable while initially playing in the Ivy League—a coterie which does not participate in FBS bowl games.
Montano was a part of a truly memorable victory—a buzzer beater against Houston on September 19th in which now-Falcons receiver Jalen McClesky caught a 53-yard touchdown pass with 3 seconds left to put the Green Wave up for good.
McClesky’s dagger helped Tulane earn a 6-6 overall record and ultimately a victory against Southern Mississippi in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, a game which Montano especially relished.
“Our [bowl] game was actually the second or third last one of the entire season—it was January 4th,” Montano reminisced. “We spent New Year’s Eve in Fort Worth, Texas. We got to hang out with the entire downtown community down there. We got to do a bunch of different things with the Lockheed Armed Forces Bowl celebration beforehand.”
Montano’s path to the NFL was undoubtedly shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 6’ 4” offensive lineman was training in New Jersey as the virus began to permeate the United States; his Pro Day ultimately got canceled, though he was able to improvise with drills posted to YouTube.
As the NFL Draft wore on without Montano hearing his name called, he and his agent—who was actually his former high school coach and someone who helped inspire him to pursue professional football—concluded whichever team was the first to contact Montano would likely be his undrafted free agent choice.
The voice on the other end of Montano’s first call from an NFL team? Mike Tomlin.
Timing wasn’t the only factor to influence Montano’s decision, though. He accredits the Steelers’ eminent history and revered coaching staff with making Pittsburgh the perfect fit.
“Obviously, [the Steelers are] one of the most successful organizations in NFL history,” Montano said. “I think not just in history, but in recent time as well. They’re a continual playoff contender. I think Coach Tomlin is an excellent coach—probably one of the best, if not the best in the league. I think Mr. Rooney is a fantastic owner who really cares about the players out there—after having been in a meeting with him a few times, he’s a great guy, and I can’t wait to meet him in person.”
Montano explained that the Steelers’ offseason programs have helped him acclimate to the team, as he and his colleagues meet every morning except for Fridays; in the afternoons, he enjoys watching film and making notes via flashcards.
“If it were just looking at Xs and Os, that would be tough. But I think being in the 21st century, [it] being 2020, having cloud computing now—being able to look at things from afar, having access to their full data archive with all their film cut-ups—it makes it a lot easier to adapt to this whole COVID situation,” Montano said about how the Steelers’ technology, including a team-issued iPad, has been beneficial.
But the UDFA’s transition to a new city and team hasn’t been entirely digital. In recent weeks, he ventured to Pittsburgh to practice with and meet some of his new teammates via several 2-hour practice sessions.
“I think being an offensive lineman, getting to meet guys like [Maurkice] Pouncey, Al [Alejandro Villanueva], Wis [Stefen Wisniewski]—who’s from Kansas City—those guys who have been in the league for 10+ years or nearly 10+ years,” Montano said. “It’s amazing to see the longevity they’ve had, to see things from their perspective, to be able to learn lessons from them, I really enjoyed that. And just some of the older guys—watching Ben [Roethlisberger], just the way he carries himself through practice meant a lot.”
For Montano, his overarching goal is simply to make the Steelers’ roster in 2020, though he remains confident in his ability to contribute in other facets.
“I know, obviously, being an undrafted guy, it’s going to be a tough situation going into—you really got to fight and compete and just give your all every day in camp to hopefully earn a spot on the team,” Montano stated. “Beyond that, I just want to be the best teammate I can be and the best football player I can be. If everything goes well and if I stay healthy, I think [with] my determination, I’ll be able to be in a good spot to hopefully add to the team and hopefully make a run at a Super Bowl.”
One factor which very well may help him crack the depth chart? Versatility.
Montano played both tackle and center in college. Additionally, he feels adapting to two disparate collegiate systems has augmented his football acumen.
“From a schematic standpoint, I think playing multiple positions in college is really beneficial because you kind of learn not just one position, but what the entire offensive scheme is,” Montano continued. “I think that also is true when transferring from Brown to Tulane, learning a whole other offense. I think if you’re at one place from a long time, it’s kind of like brushing your teeth—you don’t forget how to do it. But having to challenge yourself and learn a new playbook, it’s kind of like this year: I went from learning the Brown playbook to the Tulane one to now—I’m learning the Steelers’ one. Even though it was not an easy process to learn one with the other, it kind of prepared me to have to learn this playbook now.”
Though uncertainty about rookie minicamps and OTAs abounds, Montano remains optimistic he and his new teammates can practice with Pittsburgh’s coaching staff starting in mid-to-late July.
Some could certainly be worn out by a lengthy college career filled with numerous pit stops and the formidable COVID-19 pandemic. Montano, though, is full of vivacity, diligence and motivation to help the Steelers hoist a 7th Lombardi Trophy.
“I think I’d want [Steeler fans] to think of me as the same way the coaching staff and other players think of me,” he said. “Just a guy who’s ready to give it 100% all the time, who’s willing to be the first guy in the morning and the last guy there to leave at the end of the day.”