Despite becoming a Pro Football Hall of Famer, former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis still reflects on some of the bittersweet moments of his NFL playing career. One of these moments includes the 2001 campaign, a season that marked his ninth in the NFL and his sixth as a member of the heralded Steelers. Even though Bettis remained in line to take home the league’s MVP award during the early portion of that season, a season-ending injury in Week 11 of the 2001 campaign promptly halted such a dream.
“I was playing at my highest level,” Bettis recently said of that memorable yet forgettable 2001 season, via 247 Sports. “That was the moment when everything was clicking and the game had become really easy.”
Bettis also told 247 Sports that the 2001 season was “the best individual year of his career” even though it was an injury-shortened effort.
Through the first 10 games of the 2001 regular season, “The Bus” led the NFL in rushing yards and could have become the first player in franchise history to accomplish such a feat since “Bullet” Bill Dudley did so all the way back in 1946. Not only that, but Bettis was also on pace to become the first Steelers player to win the league’s MVP award since quarterback Terry Bradshaw did so in 1978.
Although nobody really knows what would have actually happened had Bettis completed that 2001 campaign, “The Bus” still went on to reach Canton, Ohio and the Pro Football Hall of Fame — and rightfully so.
Merril Hoge came to the Steelers as a wide-eyed rookie from Pocatello, Idaho, a 10th round draft pick in 1987. He played seven seasons with the team, quickly learning what it meant to play for the black and gold on his first day on the job.
“I’m from Idaho. I had never been to a professional game,” said Hoge. “The first professional game I ever saw, I played in. When I got drafted, I think everybody back in the day had that globe that spun, you know that ball? I had to go get that global map and think, gosh darn where’s Pittsburgh?
“One of my best memories was the first day I walked through the doors and I saw the Super Bowl trophies. I went back and started training, and the first guy who came over to help me because I was doing it wrong was Chuck Noll. Then I go in the locker room and here comes Joe Greene. All I had ever done was watch the Steelers win Super Bowls on television, so to actually be in the environment like that at the time was still something I’ll never forget.”
Hoge also weighed in on a variety of other topics in this Legends Series interview:
What did it mean to you to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers?
“They were my favorite team as a kid. I loved them as a team, I loved everything about them. To not only have them be my favorite team, but to play for them, that was incredible.”
Why were you a Steelers fan? “I think this is where a lot of Steeler Nation came from. In the 1970s you had really two sources to watch football. The main ones were Monday Night Football and the Super Bowl. Who was always on Monday Night Football and in the Super Bowl? The Steelers. And then, this added to it a little bit. I had this math class and there was this girl named Michelle. She was the most irritating Cowboys fan I had ever, ever, ever been around in my life. So on a Friday she would be wearing Cowboys stuff and she would be talking about the Cowboys and that made me love the Steelers even more cause it came down to Super Bowls and we’d have our arguments, who is going to win, and obviously the Steelers always won. I couldn’t get to the bus fast enough to get to school on Monday to get into that math class to rub it in her face when the Steelers won. So she drove me to be a Steeler fan too because she was so irritating.”
Who had the biggest impact on your career? “The greatest man I’ve ever met, Chuck Noll. To this day, when I speak, when I go places, the lessons I’ve learned from him are there. If you really want to think about it, Heads up Football, they were all principles Chuck Noll taught. I was on the committee to help clean up youth football. And after they gave us that challenge I thought, how am I going to do that? I happened to look at my Steelers playbook I still had and I took Chuck Noll’s principles of how you play the game because you’re a better player if you play it right and you’re a safer player if you play it right and that’s what we needed in youth football. His legacy is going to live on because of that.”
What were some of the lessons Chuck Noll taught you?
“The first one may be the most significant and it still resonates with me today and I still share today. In fact Mike Mularkey used to play here, good teammate, asked me to go speak to the Titans when he was the coach there and I will use this story. I use it everywhere I go when I talk to corporate people, youth football, NFL players.
“It was the Friday before opening day we were playing the San Francisco 49ers, and I had made the team so I’m going to live my dream. It will be the first time I’ve ever seen a professional game and I’m a player. Keep in mind the 49ers had won Super Bowls and they were supposed to win it again. And Chuck Noll had talked to us about it, they were our measuring stick because we were a young team.
“The first play, they called a pass play and I had to block the outside linebacker, run a flat route, quarterback threw to the other side of the field. The wide receiver had it, he was running, and the whistle blew. And they stopped the play and Chuck goes, ‘Hey Merril what are you doing?’ Well, my first thought was ‘Oh God that linebacker had delayed and I hadn’t seen him or blocked him. I’m not going to see my dream come true, he’d cut me right then. But he was in coverage, I’d done the right thing, I’d run it a hundred times, a thousand times actually, I’d done the right thing. But he asked me that because the ball was on the other side of the field and I wasn’t doing anything. And he said that’s the problem. He said I didn’t keep you on this team to be a common football player. I can call anybody we just cut, I’ll bring them back, and they’ll do what you just did. He said I’ll do one better, on Sunday, I’ll pull someone out of the stands to do what you just did. I didn’t keep you on this team to be a common player, I need you to be uncommon. I need you to give me maximum efforts. Your buddy over there is running for his life, go help him, don’t just stand there, do something.
“Well, initially I was in fear I wouldn’t see my dream come true. But then when I got back to my locker I thought about what he challenged me to do. I realized right at that time, I could do that. Even though I thought I had been doing as much as I could possibly do, there was another layer of expectations that he was expecting from the team. We have a chance to be special. Because we line up on Sunday, everyone’s talented. What’s going to separate us? Being uncommon. I made it a part of my game from then on.”
A one-time Pittsburgh Steeler – one of two Penn Staters who spiced up this year’s Super Bowl with one of the best commercials – will visit to New Castle in the spring.
former Penn State All-American, NFL all-pro running back and
pro-football Hall-of-Famer will be the keynote speaker at a scholarship
fundraising banquet of the Lawrence County Chapter of the Penn State
Alumni Association. The event, open to the public, is planned for May 22
at the New Englander banquet facility in Neshannock Township.
Proceeds from the dinner will benefit the chapter’s scholarship fund.
Doors will open at 6 p.m.
68, will speak at 7:30 p.m. following dinner, sharing his story about
his career, his days at Penn State and his views on issues concerning
Penn State. Harris played football for former legendary coach Joe
Paterno from 1969 to 1971.
When Penn State’s board of trustees fired Paterno in
November 2011, Harris launched a protest to the action with a goal of
seeing to the resignations of every trustee who served when Paterno lost
Tickets for the event are $50 per person, or tables of eight may be purchased for $400 each. The tickets include dinner.
There will be a cash bar, a silent auction and various prizes.
are available at Bucky Richards’ Westgate Barbershop in Union Township,
the Crane Room Grille at 3009 Wilmington Road, or the Penn State
Shenango Campus in Sharon. They also may be purchased from Richards by
calling (724) 730-1684; or by calling alumni chapter president Tom Show
at (724) 656-1432.
The retired NFL great and 1974 S.C. State graduate annually sponsors the Donnie Shell Invitational Golf Tournament to support the Donnie Shell Scholarship Foundation, which provides scholarships to S.C. State students who cannot afford to pay for their college tuition.
Each year the tournament brings together a collection of football greats for two days of events. Previous celebrities have included some of the most decorated college and NFL players: 30 Super Bowl rings and 10 college/NFL Hall of Fame players.
As listed at donnieshell.com, this year’s players invited to participate include the following: Barney Chavous, Dwayne Harper, Richard Shelton, John Stallworth, Jack Deloplaine, Mel Blount, Mike Wagner, Perry Tuttle, Cliff Stoudt, Yancey Thigpen, John Banaszak, Dick Conn, Jerome Bettis, Kordell Stewart, Reggie Garrett, Robin Cole, Nate Salley, Terry Kinard, Barney Bussey, Rocky Bleier, Frank Lewis and Greg Lloyd.
“Please join me and the greatest single gathering of NFL Hall of Famers, Super Bowl champions and college legends that Augusta has ever seen,” Shell says in a video invitation.
The tournament will be played April 28-29 at the Champion’s Retreat Golf Course in Augusta, Georgia. Champions is a private 27-hole golf club featuring three individually designed courses by Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and the late Arnold Palmer. The recent inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur tournament began play at Champion’s Retreat during early-round competition.
Festivities begin with the Celebrity Pairing Dinner on the evening of April 28, when tournament participants get an opportunity to mingle with celebrities and participate in a silent auction.
The Donnie Shell Invitational Golf Tournament will take place on Monday morning, followed immediately by an awards luncheon. The luncheon is open to registered guests, sponsor representatives and celebrities only.
Now officially retired, Shell and his wife Paulette are active in a variety of civic and cultural organizations, including The Mel Blount Youth, John Stallworth Scholarship Foundation and the Presidential Promise Scholarship Program at S.C. State.
In 2015, Shell was selected to serve on the board of directors for S.C. State, where he starred in football. He is a member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Hall of Fame, the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame and the College Football Foundation Hall of Fame.
Shell joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974 as an undrafted free agent. As a member of the famed “Steel Curtain” defense, Shell helped lead the way to shutting down NFL offenses in the late 1970s. He won four Super Bowls and was selected to represent the AFC in the Pro Bowl five consecutive times.
Upon his retirement, Shell was the NFL’s career leader in interceptions by a strong safety with 51. He started 11 straight years of his 14-year NFL career for the Steelers.
Retired football player Rod Woodson has 11 Pro Bowls under his belt, a Super Bowl championship and now a home sale. He recently dealt his Pleasanton home for $2.075 million, or $75,000 less than his asking price.
He paid $1.6 million for the Bay Area property in 2004, just a year after retiring from a Hall of Fame NFL career, records show.
The two-story Traditional was built in 1998 and features travertine, hardwood and carpeted floors across approximately 4,600 square feet. A formal entry with wrought-iron accents and a sweeping staircase kicks off the floor plan.
Touches of stone and stained wood fill the living spaces, which include a two-story living room, dining area and center-island kitchen. The family room adds an oversized custom fireplace.
Vaulted ceilings top the spacious master suite, one of six bedrooms and 3.5 bathrooms.
Outside, a pergola expands to a fenced yard, and a resort-style swimming pool and spa sit adjacent.
Janna Chestnut of Alain Pinel Realtors held the listing. Satya Dasari of Keller Williams Realty Cupertino represented the buyer.
During his 17-year career, Woodson played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens, with whom he won a Super Bowl in 2001. His 32 fumble recoveries are the most ever by a defensive player, and he’s been elected into both the Pro Football and College Hall of Fame.
Khalen Saunders had only one scholarship offer coming out of his hometown of St. Louis, and so Saunders became one of the few, the proud – a Fighting Leatherneck at Western Illinois.
Even though Saunders went on to gain a degree of fame with a backflip at the Senior Bowl that went viral, he wants more. Much more.
“I have a chip on my shoulder,” Saunders said at the NFL Combine. “I’m not here just to get to the NFL, but to prove that a Western Illinois kid can get to the NFL and maintain.”
Of course, that’s already been proven here in Pittsburgh by Mike Wagner, who won four rings as a starting safety for the Steelers in the 1970s.
With all due respect to Bryan Cox and Rodney Harrison, Wagner is probably the greatest athlete to ever come out of Western Illinois.
Yes, Wagner was an 11th-round afterthought in the 1971 draft, but he was only a thought because of his workout scores.
“We just took him because of his computer numbers,” Art Rooney Jr. once explained.
Wagner moved into the starting strong safety position as a rookie, tied for the NFL interceptions lead two years later, won the first of four rings a year after that, moved to free safety a few years after that, and finished his career with 36 interceptions.
The total ranks sixth on the franchise’s all-time list, and only one player ahead of him – Jack Butler – played fewer seasons with the team than Wagner’s 10.
Wagner clearly deserved his induction into the WIU Hall of Fame in 1976, as well as the argument that he’s the school’s greatest athlete.
But there’s a hellhound on his trail. And, as Saunders said, that hellhound has a chip on his shoulder.
“I had a chip on my shoulder entering the program,” Saunders said.
Saunders also has his own set of outstanding computer numbers. The 6-0 3/8, 324-pounder ran a 5.01 40 at the combine and showed tremendous explosiveness in the broad jump. Analytics expert Hayden Winks delivered proof that a broad jump of 100 inches is the best predictor of future NFL production for a defensive tackle, and Saunders landed 121 inches from his starting point. Aaron Donald’s combine jump had ended five inches earlier.
Saunders’ explosiveness was there for all to see in his backflip video from the Senior Bowl. Saunders remained in Mobile to dominate practices while his fiancee gave birth to their child, and he then rag-dolled QB Will Grier for a sack on one of the game’s early plays.
It put an exclamation point on a season in which Saunders had 41 solo tackles with 13 tackles-for-loss, 6.5 sacks and 24 QB hurries, primarily as a nose tackle.
Not that Saunders fattened his stats against poor competition. His best game was against North Dakota State, which was on its way to its seventh FCS championship in the last eight years. Saunders had six solo tackles, 11 total tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks and forced a fumble in that game.
“That’s one of the best programs in FCS football. We all know that,” Saunders said. “I felt like I was a presence in the middle. I got my job done. I also showcased the athleticism and talent that I can bring in a game.
“I honestly believe that North Dakota State can be in the FBS. They would probably finish with a winning season if they wanted to every season in the FBS. I’ve got nothing but respect for them. That was a great game to see what I can bring to the table.”
Scouts generally agree that Saunders was out of position over the nose, that his athleticism lends itself better to playing the 3-technique. He even played edge occasionally at Western Illinois, and also did his “Refrigerator” Perry imitation by rushing for a touchdown and scoring another on a three-yard pass reception.
Saunders may not fit the Steelers’ perceived height thresholds for a tackle/end, but he’s a powerful, explosive athlete with a high ceiling predicated on better conditioning and gaining more strength in his lower body.
Those are hardly question marks for a player with a chip on his shoulder.
“He’s one of my favorites,” draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said at the combine. “He is so quick. A small-school player like this, Western Illinois, at the Senior Bowl, he was so dominant during the week of practice and had a sack in the game. Neat story.”
Perhaps one that would best be punctuated by the great Mike Wagner announcing the pick.
Derwin Gray, an offensive tackle out of Maryland and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ final pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, signed a four-year deal with the team on Wednesday. Gray is the third Pittsburgh rookie to sign with the team on Wednesday, joining fellow draft picks Diontae Johnson (a wide receiver out of Toledo) and Benny Snell (a running back out of Kentucky).
Sutton Smith (an outside linebacker out of Northern Illinois) and fellow sixth round pick Isaiah Buggs (defensive lineman out of Alabama) were the first Steelers’ rookies that signed their rookie deals. Smith and Buggs signed their rookie contracts on Tuesday. Pittsburgh’s rookies that remain unsigned are first round pick Devin Bush (inside linebacker out of Michigan), third round pick Justin Layne (a cornerback out of Michigan State), fifth round pick Zach Gentry (a tight end out of Michigan), and sixth round pick Ulysees Gilbert (inside linebacker from Akron).
Gray, an honorable-mention Big 10 selection in 2018, spoke with Jim Wexell of 247Sports shortly after being selected by the Steelers with the 2019th overall pick in the draft. The 6’5, 330-pound Gray joins a Pittsburgh offensive line that boasts three Pro Bowlers in Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva and David DeCastro. It also includes longtime starter Ramon Foster along with solid backup B.J. Finney, an undrafted rookie who is entering his fifth season with the team.
“It was always great with the Steelers,” Gray said of his pre-draft conversations with Pittsburgh. “They always believed in me. They trusted in me. The believed in my ability that I’m going to get the job done. I’m excited about the opportunity to come to Pittsburgh and contribute early at whatever position I’m needed at.”
Gray was also asked about joining arguably the NFL’s best offensive line.
“They’re pretty good of the line,” he said. “I’m just willing to come in and learn as much as I can from all these guys up front and be a student of the game. So I’m excited to come in and learn from all of these guys up front.”
Gray, who said that he played both left and right tackle during his time at Maryland, said that he is willing to switch positions if asked to do so.
“I’m not really sure where they are going to move me at or keep me out at tackle,” he said, “but I’m willing to play either one.”
Pittsburgh’s offensive line is coming off of another banner season. In 2018, the unit helped Ben Roethlisberger lead the NFL with 5,129 passing yards while throwing a club record 34 touchdown passes. The line also aided a formidable rushing attack that featured Pro Bowler James Conner. Pittsburgh’s line continued to play well when Conner went down with an injury in Week 13, creating holes that helped Jaylen Samuels rush for 142 yards on 19 carries in the team’s Week 15 win over New England.
Gray will compete for playing time in 2019 with third round pick Chukwuma Okorafor and Jerald Hawkins, a fourth round pick back in 2016 that has been hampered by injuries during the first three years of his career.
Thanks to the draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers now have an excess of linebackers. It’s going to be the job of the coaching staff to figure out which guys stay and which guys go and even who is going to play which position.
It’s clear based on the players the Steelers brought in this offseason, they are blurring the lines between traditional roles of linebackers in a 3-4 defense. Devin Bush, Mark Barron, Sutton Smith and Ulysees Gilbert III are all new additions with unique skills sets and NFL-caliber athleticism.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin spoke about the new linebackers and his comments on Gilbert was quite interesting. Tomlin lumped Gilbert in with second-year player Ola Adeniyi and fellow rookie Sutton Smith as potential depth at outside linebacker.
In studying Gilbert you note he was moved all around the formation at Akron and with his athleticism, it makes sense you don’t want to lock him into a spot. But if we are talking about Gilbert as an outside linebacker, his success will be off ball and not with his hand on the ground as an edge rusher.
The addition of Gilbert, if he can drop into coverage as an OLB could potentially allow T.J. Watt to rush the passer more. Watt is the no worse than the second-best pass rusher on the team along with Cam Heyward but because he’s such a good athlete finds himself in coverage too much.
Players like Gilbert and Devin Bush have the chance to balance the scales for the Steelers defense against all these high-flying offenses of the NFL. If they can do this, players like Watt and Heyward could absolutely feast on quarterbacks knowing there is coverage flexibility behind them.
Isaiah Buggs became the first of the Steelers’ nine 2019 draft picks to sign his rookie contract with the team on Tuesday.
The 6-foot-3, 306-pound defensive tackle – like all NFL draft picks – is inking a tightly templates deal. The league assigns salaries on a sliding scale based on draft position. His four-year deal is projected to pay him $2,667,294, including a $147,294 signing bonus — the only portion of these contracts truly guaranteed.
Buggs joins a defensive line that already includes Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Tyson Alualu and Daniel McCullers. He joins his former Crimson Tide position coach, Karl Dunbar, who joined Pittsburgh’s staff before last season.
The Steelers had about $4.8 million in cap space as of Tuesday’s NFL Players Association report. Buggs’ signing would only be impacted by his signing bonus. His $495,000 base salary only displaces another $495,000 base salary in the top 51 cap hits that count against the team at this point in the offseason.
Steelers rookies report for their minicamp on Friday.
Sutton Smith was considered a steal when Pittsburgh made the former Northern Illinois pass rusher the 175th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. During his final two seasons at NIU, Smith, who converted from RB to OLB to DE during his time with the Huskies, recorded 29.0 sacks during his final two seasons while helping Northern Illinois capture the Mid-American Conference title last season.
While he did have some glowing things to say about Smith, ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper did express concern for Smith’s lack of size shortly after the Steelers drafted him in the fifth round. Smith, who will line up at OLB for the Steelers, checks in at 6’1 and 237 pounds.
“He was a dominant force at Northern Illinois,” Kiper said of Sutton. “Getting into that backfield, wreaking havoc. He was a sack artist. He had production through the roof. The issue is the NFL is gonna be [his] short arms. Can he get the job done against the best in the world at the offensive tackle spot…He is a solid football player at the collegiate level who made a ton of big plays. Very impactful edge rusher getting into that backfield, wreaking havoc.
“Is he limited to being just that or can he transition to the pro level, overcome the lack of length getting after the quarterback?” Kiper continued. “That’s tough to do, even though he does have that closing speed (he ran a sub 4.7 40-yard-dash at the combine). It’s gonna be interesting to watch and see how he develops in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are always looking for guys coming off the edge.”
Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert, speaking on 93.7 The Fan after the draft, is not worried about Smith’s lack of size. In fact, Colbert compared him James Harrison, the franchise’s all-time sack leader. Despite being labeled as small for his position, Harrison, who was listed during his playing days at 6’0 and 242 pounds, was a five time Pro Bowler, two time All-Pro and the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Harrison, an undrafted rookie out of Kent State in 2002, also retired with two Super Bowl rings.
“[People] talk about, ‘Well, he’s going to be short’ and that but he was very productive like James Harrison was in the MAC, with (14.0) and 15.0 sacks,” Colbert said of Smith. “Can the shorter guys succeed as an outside rusher? Yes they can. Again, we look at James for that reference.”
Smith is used to be doubted. After barley playing during his first two collegiate seasons, he went through a rigorous offseason workout regiment that required him to consume 6,000-7,000 calories per day. Sutton’s hard work resulted in him being on of college football’s most productive pass rushers over the past two years.
Now, as he prepares to begin his career in Pittsburgh, Smith is again looking forward to proving people wrong.
“My path is to fight, and that’s all I know how to do is fight,” Smith recently said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I’m going to do everything I can to prove to people that I can be an NFL player, that I can do whatever they need me to do. I’m not going to be selfish. I’m just going to try and help the team in any way that I can.”