Every now and then there is a player who gets to play for his childhood team. It is rare to see in the NFL, but for defensive end Ray Seals who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1994-1996, that is exactly what happened. Hear about Seals' unique trip to the NFL, and how he became a fan of the black and gold from such a young age in our one-on-one interview with him thanks to The Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin.
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You came to the NFL with no college football experience. How did that happen?
The story really is incredible. When I was a kid in 1976 we had that electronic vibrating football game - you remember them? We had the smallest version, but my brother and I would always look at the JC Penny catalog for the big Super Bowl version. We begged my mom for it over and over and at Christmas we saw the big box and knew what it was.
There were two teams in the set - Pittsburgh and Dallas. I immediately picked Pittsburgh and that was my team ever since! It all began there.
So Pittsburgh was your team as a kid?
I really got into it yeah. All knew me for that - I even told teachers in 3rd and 4th grade that I'd be a Steeler (laughs).
Craziest thing was - like destiny - in high school, I had a teacher that used to play for the University of Alabama. He said I should go down there some time and visit the team and see if I could play. All I knew was Syracuse, where I grew up. So I went with my Godmother - she got us tickets - and we made an unofficial visit to the school.
When I got to the coach's office I met Ray Perkins. Another guy was with me - Todd Richardson who was actually on my same flight and who was on an official visit. Perkins turned to Todd and said "You can play for Alabama!" Then he said "That kid," pointing at me "He can play in the NFL!" I spoke to Todd the other day - he reminded me of that story (laughing).
So what happened afterwards?
Well, my high school coach got really pissed off because I went there without telling him.
It all changed from there. I had a falling out with him and issues so moved to Florida afterwards. I had a good friend - he was a drug dealer but a good guy he used to run a gym and took me there to work out. One day he stopped - it was a big drug raid. I saw it like a movie - in slow motion.
The next day I told my mother I had to get out of there. So we went back to Syracuse. A friend of mine asked me to come out and meet some of his friends that played for a semi-pro team there. Never thought of playing, but the next thing you know I was. I ended up playing linebacker, scored a bunch of touchdowns on defense and was the team MVP.
So there I was, doing great. My confidence was really high.
So was that when you started thinking NFL?
Well, the strike happened then. Some of my friends wanted to be scabs and try out and play, but I was afraid of being blackballed after the strike ended.
So you didn't try out?
No - I was too worried about it. The strike ended though eventually, The teacher who referred me to Alabama told me after the strike that I should call a bunch of teams to get a tryout and helped me try. They all hung up on me (laughs).
So he said I should call Ray Perkins - who was now the coach at Tampa Bay - to see if he remembered me. Ray told me to come down and he'd take a look at me. Now, I didn't know any terminology or much technique, I just knew how to play. Ray had me run a bunch of drills but left half-way through. I thought he'd seen enough and thought I wasted his time. Well at the end of the drills he came back and said I should finish up my semi-pro ball and get ready for Tampa Bay next season - the contract was in the mail!
So it all started from there. How did you become so successful - especially as a pass rusher - as a 3-4 lineman?
Perkins had some of the finest coaches - they were tough love guys who really stressed technique and hard work. In the pass rush and run - hand-eye technique and all of that stuff. I just wish I started off in Pittsburgh though. I was 280 pounds in Tampa Bay but 300 pounds by the time I got to Pittsburgh.
What was it like coming to the Steelers - how did you move from Tampa Bay to Pittsburgh?
In 1993 I became a free agent and wasn't going to re-sign with Tampa Bay. I got a concussion in practice and the doctor put me on the sidelines. One of the coaches - Floyd Peters - saw me there and told Coach Wyche I took myself off the field. Wyche put me in front of the whole team and embarrassed me - chewed me out and made me practice in front of them all.
I was embarrassed and left the team.
I never thought of Pittsburgh as a team that would be interested in me - we never played them. But Drew Rosenhaus called me and said Pittsburgh wanted to bring me in! I was amazed.
Who took you under their wing when you first joined the team?
Funny thing was, Greg Lloyd and I became good friends. I was in the training room and the trainer introduced me to Greg as "Big Play Ray". Lloyd just turned to me and said he never saw me make no big plays (laughing). Two weeks later though, Greg was calling me Big Play Ray!
Greg was a great guy - played so hard he knocked me out a couple of times in practice!
How did you stay on an even keel as a team with so much talent?
Great thing was, there was something really special about that team. We played and partied together. We'd have drinks together Friday nights and knew we could count on each other every Sunday. I was close with Woodson too - that happens when you are on road trips and all hang out together.
Who/what was the glue that held the team together?
We had so many great veteran players - Greene, Woodson, Lloyd.... I was old too...heck, I may have been older than all of them.
It was just a great group of guys - Cowher was the best coach. Ever.
Should he be in the Hall of Fame?
No doubt about it. He knew how to get under your skin just the right way but he'd always praise you too.
One time he laid into me in front of the team after I was goofing off in practice. Later, we were getting ready to play Phoenix and in the Saturday morning meeting, Bill would shoot questions about strategy at players like a pop quiz. He asked me one and said "Way to go Ray" - right on.
I remember running gasses (over and back three times). The first and second times I was good, the third time the bear jumped on my back (laughing). My back locked up - but I didn't stop. Later, Bill said he'd go to war with me even thought I struggled - because he wants someone who finishes.
Who were the toughest guys you lined up in front of in practice?
John Jackson and I had "Veteran speed" (laughing). We had an understanding in practice!
There was so much talent on that line. Dawson was incredible - on the baseball track, I remember him doing sprints. A guy that size should not have been able to move like that!
What do you remember most?
Bill told me it was an unfortunate situation for me that Super Bowl year. I should have been in the pro bowl with 9 1/2 sacks - but 3-4 ends weren't appreciated then.
I wonder now. Is there a place in history for guys like me. There are only a few of us that ever played in the NFL without ever attending college. Me, Otis Sistrunk (who played with the Raiders out of prison)...a couple others. How does the NFL remember guys like us?