When it comes to Pittsburgh Steelers left tackles, there are just a few names which come to mind when talking about the book end tackles in the last 20 years. One of those names would be none other than Max Starks. Today we hear from Starks about his charity work, his future in broadcasting and even Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher.
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So, can you let readers know what you've been doing with yourself since the NFL and about you new broadcasting job and charity work?
I'm more of a freelancer right now - I'm exploring options and trying to get on with a network. I've been doing a lot of media - radio and TV - getting fully immersed now in the business now that I'm fully retired from the NFL.
My charity work started when I was a kid. My mother took me to the Salvation Army every Christmas and Thanksgiving to serve food to the homeless and that's where it started.
In high school, I started the Leadership Program that's still used today. It was started in 1999 when I went to the National Service leadership Conference. It existed to help tutor and mentor kids in failing schools and the program is still going on today.
In Pittsburgh, I worked with the Children's Literacy and Education Fund - we donated over 10,000 books to area kids and schools in the Central Florida area. The programs help kids understand football, but also life in the classroom. I want kids to be successful athletes and citizens. That's where my heart is. I want kids to be able to read. People were there for me when I was a kid. They went out of their way for me. Who am I not to repay that kindness?
What about broadcasting interested you, and how hard was the transition to life after NFL - how did you do so?
Anybody transitioning to a new career knows how tough it is. Especially when the focus changes from a physical to non-physical job - it's hard. Broadcasting I like because I can relate to sports. To be able to clearly convey my thoughts to the public in a way that is both entertaining and educational is a challenge. But I like talking and anyone who knows me knows I'm not shy about speaking my mind.
I've always been passionate about broadcasting too. I always looked up to Stuart Scott. He transcended his time - broke the color barrier. He connected with everyone. He brought hip hop to broadcasting. He was the forerunner of that. He transformed the way information was delivered. I could see the way he presented things and want to continue in his path.
You found out in high school that you were the son of well-known DL Ross Browner - how did that affect what you wanted to do career-wise, with the NFL...
It didn't directly affect my career. I always wanted to play and I found out in high school during the recruiting process. Of course it was good to know. My father and mother had a talk and decided to let me know. Ross had a good football history and it was good to be a part of that lineage. But I already had the passion.
He helped me navigate the recruiting process. He was more of a mentor than a dad which I appreciated. He didn't come in as "dad" and try to fill seventeen years of the void. That was important. That would have pushed me away. Now my relationship has grown. He's my father and I love him. But in the early days it was more about advice and mentorship.
I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to go with him to Omaha for the Outland Trophy Award dinner. They didn't get plaques then so they gave the older guys plaques this year. He was the last defensive lineman to get the award before they changed the rules so that they couldn't get them any longer. It was nice to hear all the stories about him as a player and see him regaled - to learn more about him as a player.
Were you surprised to be drafted by Pittsburgh in 2004 despite the deep line then? What were your thoughts then?
I was excited to be drafted. My dream was always to further my career. Could I make a living doing this? It was special...the anticipation was difficult but I was blessed at least that then the first three rounds were on the same day. I was disappointed though as the third round was winding down and I wasn't picked yet. I was actually on the way out - was leaving - done for the day. But as soon as I was about to go I got a call from a 412 area code. I didn't know where that was from. My friend Josh was there and he was from Pittsburgh so h knew and he told me. When I picked it up I was placed on hold. Then Omar Khan - who was in charge of negotiations then - got on the phone and started asking me some questions. "Did I like cold weather", stuff like that. Then Bill Cowher got on the phone and asked me two questions - "Did I like cold weather and did I like to run the ball?" I said "Yes!" He said, "Congratulations. You're a Steeler!"
Then, I did some research on the team. Who they had there, stuff like that. I found out they had drafted another lineman in the third round - Kris Farris - before and cut him. That made me nervous all over again!
You were one of the largest guys to play the game - you even needed to borrow a pair of shoes from Shaquille O'Neal in high school. How did you use your size to your advantage rather than making it difficult for you?
Flexibility was the key. You had to be able to bend. I had long arms which really helps. But guys like Freeny, Dumerville, James Harrison....smaller guys caused havoc in the NFL. You had to learn tendencies. So I watched guys like Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones, Flozell Adams...how they used their size. How they did it. Ogden had a great knee bend. Pace had great athletic ability. Jones used his hands so well. Adams liked to manhandle people.
Playing against the Ravens and Ogden helped a lot because I got to watch a lot of film on him since we played similar opponents. I learned some from him on how to change my sets. Smaller guys with speed don't like to be touched, so I set deeper for those guys to take away the speed, for example. I just needed to get used to it all and experience it.
Who helped mentor you - both on and off the field - in your early days as a Steeler? And how so?
Jerome was my mentor. He and Barrett Brooks - both helped me to be a professional. To help me self-manage my time. As a kid. you're used to structure and routine. Your college life is all carved out for you. In the NFL, they tell you what you need to do but you have to figure a lot of it out yourself. Not to burn yourself out but also to learn what you need to know.
Barrett also helped me to break down film. In college, it's all broken down for you. In the NFL, you have to learn to do it yourself. Jerome helped me to understand how to discourse with the public. He also showed me how to get involved with the community - the right places and people to work with. They both helped me to succeed.
Any examples of how humor helped keep the team loose-- any fun stories you can share?
It is a testosterone dominated environment. The tension and stress...humor was a useful tool. It helps in the care and therapy of cancer patients - the laughter. In the NFL, the environment was so tense...you needed humor or else you'd explode.
I remember when a bunch of us went to a David Chapelle concert at the Improv. We all sat in the front row and he just cracked on us the whole time. But he was great - he invited us back to his dressing room and we all just hung out and laughed. He was hysterical - it was an awesome time. I remember when he came back to Pittsburgh and they had him preform on the South Side outside, near the train tracks. It was so hard to hear, he was so mad!
I remember hanging out with Kevin Hart in Vegas - he's a good friend of Ben's - he came to his wedding...
And of course everyone wants to pick on the offensive linemen. "They're so fat... " That kind of stuff. So we called ourselves Team Tiny one year - even got t-shirts - 2 XL's we all wore out together. Those were the things that helped solidify us. I was blessed to have nine years in Pittsburgh.
I also remember Randle El - how small his feet were. One day I'm taping up my ankles and looking for my cleats. No one else has size 19 cleats. Well I look over and Randle El is running with my cleats on - with his inside of them - to the football field laughing. I was getting mad - he was messing up my orthotic inserts! That was the year we won the Super Bowl. It was an elite fraternity of brothers.
There were so many ups and downs of - so many "almosts" to get to the Super Bowl before finally winning one versus Seattle. How did team handle those rollercoasters and was it a sense of relief when you finally got to the Super Bowl?
Being singularly focused. There were no undefeated teams besides the Dolphins. Adversity and injuries happen every week. How you deal with them builds character and your legacy. Cowher's teams had an expression - if you're not a starter, you're a starter in waiting. Tomlin continued that with his Next Man Up. You want all to be copacetic when a starter gets hurt. Both had that same philosophy. You had to always be prepared to start and the starters had to prepare those behind them in case they were needed. Every week, we had so many injuries. We had guys dropping like flies. But that's why we sustained that success. We've never been below .500 since I've been there - it's a testament to the Rooney's philosophy and the coaches they brought in.
You were there when Cowher left and was replaced by Mike Tomlin. How did the transition from Cowher to Tomlin work for players - how did the team take it and what were the differences between the two?
Tomlin was never a head coach before. We knew he was a Dungy guy. And we knew he was a defensive-minded guy. But he was young and really unknown to us. He had his own style. I remember seeing him pull up in a Dodge Magnum with Louis Vitton seats, all speakered-out! Really.. a Magnum? He had an urban feel to him.
He took his lumps the first year. He had a veteran team. Faneca, Farrior... heck, he played against Farrior in college! Now, he's leading the ship... he proved himself by being consistent - tough and no-nonsense. He understood the monotony of the game. As a player-coach. he understood how we felt.
He was too tough the first year. He had us in pads through week thirteen - proving himself too much maybe. We were wound down - maybe that's why we lost in the playoffs to Jacksonville that season despite being well-positioned in the playoffs. It was just too rough - we had nothing left.
But, he made the change the next season. He took care of us during the week and told us he'd take the chains off us dogs on game day. We won the Super Bowl that season. He also set up an advisory board of veteran players so we could express our grievances to him. It wasn't a dictatorship. He was willing to bend. That led to our success.
Now, the team is making that transition from old to young again. There were no mid-range guys last season. I think this team will be much better next season when some of those younger guys will become the middle class.
What does Ben need most to succeed as a QB, from your perspective? How do you see him functioning best and why?
Just look back to last season. He led the league in passing yards and had the best year of his career. He had a strong backfield early on in his career with Bettis, parker, Staley...what a backfield. But he was young and still learning the offense. And the offense wasn't tailored for him.
Arians came in and tailored the offense to him - but too much. It went too far the other way, He had a good backfield then but there was over-reliance on him then. Now, it's closer to the 50-50 ratio. He has the receivers, the backfield...the sky is the limit. He has a complete offense - they can run and pass and are deadly either way. They have a great screen, great play action...Now, all they need is for the young defense to get up to speed. It used to be the defense that set the tone...