Our Ron Lippock caught up with former Steelers cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz, who played for the Steelers in 2016 and has entered to be a part of the 2019 XFL Draft next week.
First, what are you doing now with your time and what are the next steps for you?
I’m finally 100% healthy again. I’m excited to be in the XFL draft next week. I’m happy to be a part of that. That’s my trip back to the top. That’s definitely my next destination.
What have you heard about the league so far?
It’s a new league. I was a kid when the old XFL was around. That one had more swagger — it was more like wrestling. This league is much more professional. Oliver Luck has done a great job. There are some great guys from the NFL and CFL and lots of guys with experience. That’s a requirement for a lot of the teams and leagues.
You had stops with the Colts and Tampa Bay before Pittsburgh – what made you decide to sign with the Steelers in 2016 – what prompted that?
That’s a great story. I went to Indianapolis and there were a lot of non-contact injuries there to some linemen. They went down in OTAs. I was let go because of that, they needed to bring guys in.
I had two workouts after that in New York and Tampa Bay. I got signed by Tampa Bay two days before training camp. I put my best foot forward, but I didn’t make the team.
I thought I’d get more calls after that but I didn’t get any calls that year. But I kept grinding and staying in shape. I stayed ready and kept attacking. I didn’t get a job. My brothers and family worked overtime so I didn’t have to get a job, so I could keep staying ready.
Then Pittsburgh called the next season in February. I went in with nothing to lose. I had already been cut twice. I went in with a fire in my stomach. I went in as the last guy on the depth chart. There were practices where I’d only get three reps.
How did you keep positive in those circumstances?
Well, instead of counting reps, you make your reps count. I had the most one-on-one wins in camp. Guys got hurt and I made the most of those opportunities.
You got the call-up in October against the New York Jets and got some reps. How big of a moment for you was that and how did you find out -what did they tell you?
The Steelers strength and conditioning coach, Garrett Giemont, he really pushed me while I was on the practice squad. We’d have to come in at 5 or 6 a.m. before the active roster guys did every morning. Well around Week 4 — before the Jets game — he told me that my time may come soon, that I should keep working hard.
Well, I worked my ass off all week and I didn’t hear anything. Then that Thursday he sent me a text at 7 p.m. or so telling me he didn’t need me to come in early the next day.
And you knew what that meant?
I knew it, yeah! Then Mike Tomlin told me the next morning. I owe a lot to Garrett for pushing me. He kind of ran the practice squad and pushed me hard. I don’t think any other team I played for held practice squad guys as accountable and worked them as hard as Pittsburgh did.
The next day Joey Porter, Tomlin, they told me this is what I worked so hard for. That I came a long way. When I played that Sunday I thought I’d only play special teams, but they actually played me on defense first. They had some packages for me. That was crazy that they thought that highly of me.
After that there were a few ups and downs from the active roster to the practice squad and back again. How hard is that, dealing with that fluctuation and uncertainty?
I had a few people in my corner that helped keep me rolling. I spoke to my father and we talked about taking the emotions out of the game. It’s a business and teams don’t owe you anything. I bring passion to the game when I’m on the field. But off the field I just remembered not to get too high or too low.
Houston actually once claimed me when Pittsburgh waived me to put me back on the practice squad once. I was up and down a couple of times. Pittsburgh then claimed me back. We won the AFC North that year. I had some good plays and actually caused a fumble in the playoff game.
You ended up in Baltimore in 2017. How did that transpire and from your perspective, how did the two teams differ?
The Ravens picked me up after Pittsburgh waived me. They were the only other team that practiced as physical as the Steelers did. And the teams did not like each other. When all the new guys came to the team at the start of camp they’d talk about where they were from, and coming from Pittsburgh they did look at me funny!
There was one time we were looking at special teams film from the prior year in Baltimore. This was film of a Steelers game – and I flattened a guy. It was awkward! I was hoping no one would notice, but they all looked at me and laughed. I was just like, “Can we let this one go please!”
I have a place in my heart for Baltimore and Pittsburgh — for every team that gave me a chance.
What happened after Baltimore?
I tore my hamstring on the final play of practice – I heard the pop. I was out for months. Then I hurt my foot after that. So the stigma about me was different across the league. I was out of football for a while. So it’s been a wild ride trying to get back in again. I worked out in Jacksonville for some XFL scouts and they liked me enough to include me in the draft. I just want to get more film on me and hope to make it back to the NFL.
Who helped mentor you in Pittsburgh as a young player – what coaches and players – and how did they do so?
It was ridiculous in Pittsburgh. A huge shout-out to Mike Tomlin. He told me what he needed from me and helped me. He helped develop me.
Special teams coach Danny Smith, I’d run through a brick wall for that man. I thought I had energy but he came in with more energy than me and got more out of me than I thought possible. I was a hard worker and he got even more out of me.
And Will Gay and Mike Mitchell were both amazing and took me under their wing. They’d help me when I as overthinking stuff. There’s so much grind, more than I was used to. I could make plays when I wasn’t overthinking it. They helped calm me down. They were two of the smartest guys I every played with. They would break down the game and help me understand the playbook. They helped me an extreme amount.
What are some of the fun memories you have of your time in Pittsburgh?
People would mess with me because I was so low-key. We’d go out and I wouldn’t tell people I played football, just that I worked in Pittsburgh. My teammates would get on me for that. They’d tell me I should tell everyone I played football, that I worked hard to get here. They wanted me to be verified on social media. They couldn’t fathom that I just didn’t care about that stuff.
I walked to work every day, too. I finally decided to buy myself a nice car and I parked in way in back of the stadium lot. I didn’t want anyone to make a big deal out of it. Well, Antonio [Brown] got me. He saw m park and told me I needed to park that car in the front where people could see it. That I worked too hard for this, from the back of the depth chart to playing games. I should show that I made it. He was excited for me and went into the meetings announcing that I got my new car. He didn’t want me to be so low-key!
Interview with Former Steelers LB Clark Haggans
Ron Lippock spoke with former Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans, who played in Pittsburgh from 2000-2012.
First, can you let me know what you’ve been doing since you retired?
I’m just being a dad. Going back and forth between Pittsburgh, Vegas and splitting time with the kids with their mother in Denver. I’m also doing some real estate and just being a dad and chilling out.
I do some volunteer work at my former high school and help with the boosters at Colorado State too. I’m just happy and blessed to have put enough money away to be able to support my kids so they can do what makes them happy.
How hard was that post-NFL transition for you?
I’m good. It’s hard when you don’t hear your named called sometimes. That’s why they say the transition can be hard. That and it was so regimented. Everything was on a schedule – especially during football season. Everything was consumed by practices, film study, workouts, obligations on and off the field… So adjusting from that is hard.
When I grew up my mom and dad raised me and exposed me to a lot of things. We grew up on the beach. So when I stopped playing I still hung out at the beach with friends and worked out – took my kids to the beach. I’m happy now being able to mentor guys and give back. That’s occupied my time. That time I missed with my kids and mother and sister – I’m catching up with them all now.
It’s cool now. It’s weird going to game and watching it from the crowd. That’s an adjustment. But it’s a lifelong journey. I’m happy to have gotten out with all of my limbs and parts being operational.
Let’s step back to being drafted by Pittsburgh. Were you surprised?
I was surprised to be drafted – period! I was planning on going to grad school. Coach called me in and told me there were scouts coming to watch me, but I didn’t think about it. I was just happy we won our conference!
When I went to the Senior Bowl I had no feel for where I’d go or when. Everyone you talked to there said they were going to be first round picks! I was like, OK. You know they only pick guys one at a time, right?
I was happy I was drafted – and to go and see Joey there with open arms. They should have played that Reunited song. I had no idea about the process. I didn’t know what the process was if you got cut – I asked Joey when they’d let me know. When I didn’t get a call I asked Joey what to do – that they didn’t call me and tell me I made the team. He told me they didn’t do that and laughed, I asked what to do now, and he told me to “Show up for practice Monday, fool!” The rest was history.
How hard was that adjustment from college to pro – especially coming from a smaller school and learning a new position?
Well, my first game I played was against Dallas. I was star-struck seeing Troy Aikman. I used to use him on my Techno-Bowl team. Randall Cunningham was on their team then and when they snapped the ball, I didn’t move. It all happened so fast – I just stood there grabbing my crotch. It was all so different from college. If you missed one film study session in college because you were sick it wasn’t a big deal. That wasn’t the case anymore.
There wasn’t much teaching. They expected you to have a high IQ for football X’s and O’s. They’d tell you to learn this by 10 am, and the rest by practice. You’re just force-fed. You try and play and apply what you allegedly learned – and it’s hard to juggle both at once.
How did you manage to pick it up?
Everyone has to find their niche – their own way to retain information. A lot of people tell you to imitate the veteran guys, but that didn’t work for me. Holmes – he took me under his wing, when I wasn’t being his butler and getting him Taco Bell.
Joey helped show me where to go to get stuff like groceries. Man, there were like 8-10,000 bridges! I’d be driving around with printed maps. What happened to North and South? Joey would give me directions – go over the bridge, through a tunnel, past the bar with the homeless guy that usually stands in front of it and you’ll be close… Those were the directions he’d give me.
So many coaches helped me too – I’d watch film with Keith Butler a lot of nights. Things started to slow down and i got into a routine.
In the offseason, I’d ask the vets what to do. When to start working out and when not to. To do more or less training. Levon, Vrabel, Farrior, Kriewaldt, Porter – we’d all push each other. We all knew what each other was good at and all wanted to be at the top of the heap.
How hard was it adjusting to being a 3-4 linebacker?
I was a defensive end in college. I was a walk-on at 179 pounds at Colorado State. Going from college to the pros, there was no more three-point stance. Before the pros, my coach would tell me – that dude with the ball – go get him and don’t let him score. If we had more points than the other team I was happy. Now, I had to learn about unbalanced lines, jumbo packages, spread offenses and two-minute offenses. It was just crazy. It wasn’t just go get the guy with the ball anymore.
Any fun stories of your time there?
Oh I’ve got a few.
Coach Butler – we called him Butts – his meeting room was always down to work. He had a lot of, let’s just say colorful characters like Deebo, Joey, Foote, Kendrell Bell. He used to tell us we’d be the death of him. He was always stressed out. We would tease him about when he played in Seattle – make fun of him about guys running him over when he played. We didn’t even know if that really happened. He also liked to brag a lot about his golf game.
He wasn’t always about football though – sometimes he’d just give us common sense lessons about life. It wasn’t just about football, and that helped me. I needed days like that. And he’d have those expressions – “I need dogs that will hunt!” Joey had his too – he always said he was “6’3″, 250 pounds, I’m the prototype linebacker. They made me in a factory!” Like he was Robocop!
I would just laugh. Joey and Keith meshed together – I can see why they coached together. They could relate to each other because they both played and were similar in lots of ways.
How would you describe their approach to the game when you were there?
Joey – he knew there was a time and a place for everything. People said he was crazy – insane. That’s just his Peezy side – that’s what he called it. He’s a great husband and great dad. When my daughter sees him and gives him a hug – he’s just a big teddy bear. He melts in her hands. I have to police it because she’ll work him for ice cream.
Butts – he’s an older guy – he’s run more laps than Joey. But they have similar experiences and attitudes. And they way they approached the game rubbed off on everyone.
Any other fun memories?
I used to room wth Larry Foote the night before games. We’d take the us to the hotel and he’d run to get to the key cards – they were all lined up alphabetically. He’d get his and hide mine so he could get to the room first and get the remote so he could DJ the TV all night. He’d watch Michigan games and call his uncle after every play. Not every so often. After every play.
We once tried to set up Butts. We were playing Seattle in Seattle. Me and Larry checked in and had a couple of hours before our next meeting. We called Butts’ room and told him we were Sports Illustrated and wanted to interview him on his time in Seattle – about guys like Steve Largent that he played with. We told him he needed to meet us in the lobby. He got all excited. But somebody dimed us out – he caught on to us. We wanted to make him late for the meeting, but when we got to the meeting he said “Ha ha. Very funny. You’re trying to get me fired!”
After the Super Bowl win in Detroit he went to his hotel room with his wife – I think they got ice cream sundaes. They just wanted to celebrate with a quiet night in the hotel. Well, we were walking around with the robes and cigars Farrior got the linebackers and knocked on his door. He said it was 3 am – it was more like a cool 1:30 am! He was mad about that. I told him I’d tell his wife that it wasn’t right how he treated us. I liked to tease him about that. That he beat us with rulers when we watched film. He told us she’d never believe it – but he always gave us that look when his family was around. you know – that “You better not!” look.
He also used to joke and threaten me with this Karate punch – said he’d chop my throat and put me down. I mean, come on, he didn’t know Karate. Guy was from Alabama. Come on.
How was that linebacker corps together?
On Wednesdays we used to have the club in the linebacker room. We’d all participate like it was a Vegas night club, We’d all dance and Kriewaldt hit the lights. Deebo was the doorman and would tell the other guys that tried to come in that there was a cover charge. Butts would sit there and tell us we were trying to get him fired. That we were being ridiculous! We’d tell him he had to leave the club then! Of course when we won he’d tell us to do it because he was so superstitious.
Sometimes the defensive backs, and Hines Ward – they’d peak in. And we’d see Dick LeBeau – his office was across the hall. He would just smile when he saw us.
I asked Joey when he was there if they still did the club. But he said they didn’t do it anymore. That is was shut down. Went bankrupt! Those are the fun and games you really miss. The best part of playing – that you got paid to act like clowns.
Looking back on your career – what stands out most for you?
Well, a cool memory of course is winning the Super Bowl. The coolest though was that the first dude I saw when the confetti fell was Joey. We would wig out when we won the Holiday Bowl at Colorado State – that was the greatest thing to us then. Here we were winning a Super Bowl together.
I met a lot of good dudes along the way that I’m still close with now. And how Mr. Rooney was. Going back to Pittsburgh to visit the team – it wasn’t like how other teams did it. I’d have guys ask me – “They did what for you? When I went down to my team, they told me I wasn’t welcome there now that I’m not playing for them.”
It’s like going to a high school reunion when you’re a Steeler. No matter who you are.
Steelers Rivals: Interview with Former Cleveland Browns FB Kevin Mack
In the latest Steelers Rivalry interview, our Ron Lippock spoke with former Browns fullback Kevin Mack who played with the team from 1985-1993, making two Pro Bowls.
First, can you let me know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your time in the NFL?
I’m actually working for the Browns now – doing the alumni relations for the team. I got started with them in their player development – I was going to work my way towards becoming a scout – that’s when Phil Savage was there as the GM.
He told me though that it was going to be a slow process to get me over to the football side of the business. It was a blessing though because I got to work a lot with those younger guys, and now I have an opportunity to work with them as alumni. So it’s been great.
How was the post-NFL adjustment for you?
It’s definitely a process. I lived in Houston for 14 years and did some coaching at Texas Southern. I was trying to assess whether or not I wanted to put them time in as a coach that you need to put in. It was different – I had two young daughters I wanted to spend time with. After trying it out, I decided against coaching.
When you signed with Cleveland, were you aware of how intense the rivalry was then?
No, I wasn’t! No one realized how intense it was until they made the team and played in that first game.
It’s funny because a few of those guys I played against I knew. Louis Lipps – I met him when we went through the combine together and we got to be friends. It’ weird how many of those guys I knew and played against, Delton Hall was another guy – I played college ball with him. LeVon Kirkland went to the same school I did as well at Clemson. The games were intense but it was hard going against people you knew so well – especially the ones that played on the other side of the ball. It was difficult when they were on defense and they could be real nice guys, but when you played against them you wanted to knock each other’s heads off!
Any memories stand out to you from those games?
One game I remember – I guess it was funny at the time. We were playing Pittsburgh in Cleveland, and it never mattered what our records were. They were just battles. Well, I remember a play – we ran it on the left side and I stiff-armed someone – I think I did anyway. But I got more facemask than anything with my hand. I walked back to the huddle opening and closing my hand – something just felt funny but I didn’t look down at it until I got to the huddle. I saw then that my finger was snapped at the base of the knuckle – it was sticking out of the other side of my hand where my thumb was.
Well, I started running off the field when I saw that, but the guys on the sidelines didn’t know what was going on and kept trying to wave me back into the huddle. Then they saw my hand – I thought some of them were going to puke. It didn’t really bother me until the doctor tried to reset it. I was kicking and screaming on the ground while he was setting my finger, like a big baby. I didn’t even know he was done – I barely felt it – it took like a second and I was still kicking and screaming!
Any of the guys you face stand out to you most in those games?
Everyone seemed to play at a Pro Bowl level in those games – we fought for every inch.
One guy that stood out to me was Donnie Shell – he’d come up and lay the wood on you. It was unbelievable how tough he was. But I guess they had a long line of tough defensive backs there.
Kevin Greene was one of those guys that was always tough too. I wouldn’t tell those guys then, but I hated blocking him and some of those big linebackers they had. Lloyd too – he was a great player you always had to pay attention to.
Anything specific you did to prepare for those games?
As an individual, there are always certain assignments you have to pay attention to. As a fullback, I had to know my blocking assignments, and there was always a new twist every week our coaches brought in. And as a fullback, I had to work closely with the offensive line to make sure I was there to clean up any missed blocking assignments.
In practice, we always picked up the tempo in those weeks. We knew they wouldn’t be slow, boring games!
What do you think of the rivalry today and of this current Browns team?
I feel the same way I did when I played – I want to win that game every time we play Pittsburgh! But of course I have no control over that now. I do try to convey to those guys today how big the game still is. The Steelers I think have the upper hand right now, but we’re getting the team back to where it used to be. I think it takes a couple of years to get it to where it was.
I think if these guys today could watch film of some of those games we played in, even though I know the rules have changes and you can’t do some of those things anymore – but if they could see the passion we played with in those games they’d be extra motivated. No matter what each team’s record was, you could never assume you’d win that game.
What do you think of the current Browns team?
I do like this current team’s makeup. People don’t realize even though they out this team together and it has lot of talent, that it’s till really in it’s first year. It’s not going to click right away. It’s the first year this team has been together and it takes repetitions before you get that chemistry. It’s a process that takes time – and that’s compounded when you have a new head coach and playcallers.
They are on the right track. I don’t get down with the losses – I know they will work on it and work it out. And the schedule the first half of the season had a lot of playoff teams they faced – so it’s a big learning lesson for them. Especially for a guy like Baker Mayfield. who’s in his second season. The second season is hardest because teams now have film on you and cam gameplan better against you. That makes a big difference as well.
Exclusive with Former Browns WR Derrick Alexander
Our rivalry series continues with former Cleveland Browns wide receiver Derrick Alexander, who played for the Browns during their move to Baltimore following the 1995 season.
First, can you let us know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your time in the NFL?
Right now, I’m coaching at Morgan State. I’m coaching the wide receivers and am the passing game coordinator as well. So I’m just busy doing football stuff now.
Any coaching mentors that helped shape the way you approach coaching?
One coach that I really enjoyed playing for was my position coach Richard Mann – I played for him twice – in Baltimore and Kansas City. I was with him for two years in Baltimore then with Kansas City. When I coach, I try to teach my guys the same things he did. The way he approached the games and practices – he was the best coach I ever had. I model my coaching after him.
What specifically did he teach you – what do you try and emulate?
His focus on technique and the intricacies of route-running. How to get open – those tips he gave me are what I try and teach as well.
You were there when the Browns moved to Baltimore. What was that whole experience like for you?
It was a big surprise. When I was drafted by Cleveland it was a good place for me to go. It was close to Detroit, where I was from. I loved playing there – we won a playoff game there when I was a rookie.
But that stadium – honestly, I couldn’t believe that was an NFL stadium. The practice facility was new – one of the better ones in the league. It was a great facility, but the stadium was a shocker.
The Browns fans were great. They were great to play for. It just didn’t feel real, getting the announcement that we were moving. It was like, it wasn’t really happening. Once the season was over we had to pack our stuff for the move and it was a weird feeling, No one knew anything about Baltimore – where to go, where to live. It was a big shock.
In a sense, you played then for two rival Pittsburgh teams, What was that rivalry like for you and how did it change from Cleveland to Baltimore?
It was definitely a big rivalry on both teams. In Cleveland my rookie season, we lost to them twice during the regular season. Then we played them a third time in the playoffs and got demolished. We lost to them three times in one season. For me, that started off the rivalry. I know it started well before I got there, but that’s what did it for me.
Then you move to Baltimore…
When we got to Baltimore, I remember playing them at home. When they came in we all said to ourselves we wouldn’t lose to them again. That game, I had one of the best games of my career and we won. That kicked off the Baltimore-Steelers rivalry – that was the game that did it
Who were some of the guys you looked forward to playing against in those games?
Rod Woodson of course – he was a Hall of Fame player and a guy you wanted to go up against as a receiver. That was the guy no one wanted to throw at. Willie Williams was good too. They were great matchups – they were the types of guys you wanted to go up against. You had to go after those guys if you wanted to win.
You had some success against those guys – why was that?
Some guys you see so much of – those division guys you see over and over. You learn things about them you could attack. I’d keep a journal on those guys and study and figure out how to attack them and use those things I learned to help me.
Rod was a risk-reward type of guy, He was high risk high reward – he’d take chances to make plays. We’d have to be careful to try and not give things away. On slants, splits – little tings would help him read the routes. We couldn’t let him route-read. He’d see things – some of the concepts we’d show – and route-read those. So we’d try to use those concepts but change things up to trick him and make him guess wrong. A lot of double moves on him too.
Any fun m memories you can share of the rivalry?
It was a good rivalry – a lot of back and forth. We had a lot of respect for each other, We didn’t like each other but we did respect each other.
One game – the one I had 198 yards receiving – they tried to help me get those extra two yards. They wanted me to run a hitch route to get to 200 yards, The guys on the sidelines kept yelling at Rod – telling him he wasn’t that good – encouraging me to keep going at him. Just that banter – it was pretty good.
Any thoughts on the rivalry today?
I think it’s one of the best rivalries in football right now. Whoever wins those games usually wins the division. Its gone back and forth for years. It’s a tough, physical game. You have to be a tough guy to play in this game!