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!