Our Ron Lippock spoke with former Steelers fullback J.T. Wall, the Steelers’ seventh-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.
First, can you let readers know what you’ve been up to since your time in the NFL and how you got started coaching?
Well, like a lot of guys, I was in a crazy place after football. I still wanted to play in the NFL but there were no NFL teams that thought I could play. But I had to stay ready just in case. I had six or seven tryouts over the next two years, and in the meantime I did speed and agility and strength training for high school athletes here at home. It kept me in the game, so to speak. I kept working out and staying in shape. I was ready to go in case I got a call.
I did that for two-to-three years and then got a job as the athletic director for a recreational center. I still did the personal training as well on the side. Then, in 2009 a coaching job came up where I graduated from high school, at John Milledge Academy. My mom was in education her entire life, and she told me I should get into coaching. Well, a lot of people told me that over the years and I didn’t listen to them. But I finally listened and gave it a look.
I met with my college coach and we talked for a long time about being a coach. The last thing he said to me stuck with me. He said that most people coach their whole life to get an opportunity to coach at home. This was a unique opportunity to start at home. So I gave it a shot. And I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s fun, seeing the kids through their eyes develop and transform over four-to-eight years in the program, depending if they started in middle school.
What coaches and coaching lessons – from Bill Cowher and Dick Hoak to others – have really impacted you and influenced you most now as a coach?
I had a unique opportunity. I played for some tremendous guys. Cowher in Pittsburgh. [Tony] Dungy in Indianapolis. My high school and college coaches. The funny thing is I played for all of those great minds and I never had an idea that I wanted to coach.
All of the Georgia guys, coach Cowher and Hoak. Every day you can see yourself drawing from them as a coach. I kick myself now – if I only knew then that I wanted to coach I’d have really eaten all of that experience up. I didn’t know it then. But scheme-wise, learning offenses and defenses came easily to me. The part you learn is how to motivate players. Cowher was a great motivator and Hoak was business first. I see myself using both in my coaching now.
You were drafted by the Steelers in 2003 – were you surprised to be drafted by Pittsburgh? What were your thoughts then and how did you find out you were drafted?
Well, a disclaimer. As a fullback I got hit in the head a lot so I don’t remember everything! OK, well, I had a great pro day at Georgia. So I started wondering after that what happens next. The draft was a month later. Back then, and I think they still do it today, they would fly guys up to visit. Well, they flew me up to Pittsburgh and had me get to know Cowher and Hoak, My thought is they were looking to sell me on the team so I’d want to sign with them as a free agent if I wasn’t drafted.
There are a million stories people can tell about draft day, I got a call from one team in the same division as Pittsburgh after day two of the draft – so picks five through seven were left. They said they were going to take me with their first pick of round five. Well, when their pick came up they took a different fullback. When it got to the seventh round, a lot of other teams called me, getting ready for free agency. But Pittsburgh called me and Cowher told me they took me in the seventh round, that they had a lot of good luck with Georgia guys and couldn’t go wrong with another. It was a great day.
Tell me who helped mentor you – on and off the field?
Off the field was a lot more important than on the field. On the field you’re just doing what you know to do. Verron Haynes was instrumental in helping me. We were close anyway – I played fullback and he was tailback in Georgia his senior year. He taught me a lot of things during camp, including that I should get my food early before the veterans get there and force me to get on the table and sing!
Kendrell Bell had a great presence in the locker room. If he told people you were a good guy people respected that. I had my locker besides Hines. So all of us Georgia guys were together. And Brett Keisel took me fishing and hunting too. A lot of us played basketball together over the summer. And Dan Kreider took me under his wing. He taught me a lot about the game, which was crazy. We’re fighting for the same spot but we’re workout buddies in the weight room.
You were a linebacker and fullback in high school. What prompted your move to strictly fullback once you got to Georgia, and were you happy with it?
I was being recruited as a linebacker and I thought I’d play linebacker in college. I wanted to at Georgia but they had an unbelievable class of linebackers with [Will] Witherspoon, Bell, Boss Bailey – it was a big time class. I was this slow guy from middle Georgia. But I could hit you. Coach [Dennis] Roland was the coach of a junior college in Georgia at the time – the same school Bell started at. I thought I’d go the JUCO route too and then get a scholarship to Georgia. Coach Roland called me and told me he wanted to sign me, but with one change. He and his staff all took a job at a school in Mississippi and wanted me to play for him there – as a fullback. It was a long way from Georgia, so they had me come up and visit the school. They told me I’d get twenty carries a game, but I wanted to play linebacker. On my way back home I told my mother there was no way I was playing there. But two days later I decided to play there after all and then transferred to Georgia after two years. I guess I was two-to-three inches too short and a tenth of a second too slow for linebacker.
Any funny/interesting stories of your experience in Pittsburgh?
It really was a family atmosphere in Pittsburgh. It was like Athens but at the pro level. The fans were unbelievable – you could walk into a random store and they knew who you were.
We’d play basketball against local teams of firemen or police. At camp in Latrobe, the sleeping accommodations were not great due to those small beds. You’d just wait for that one day when Cowher would cancel practice and take us to the movie theater instead!
As a fullback, what are your thoughts on the way the NFL has changed today and the seemingly disappearing role of fullbacks in the NFL?
Even when I played, you had to make the final 53 and it was hard since not every team even used a fullback. It was almost like being a punter or kicker. Each team has just one and they go through them every couple of years.
I see it reverting back to the same thing it used to be. Each team has a different philosophy on offense – different versions of what they run. Not many want to use a fullback on every down. Even at the high school level we run a pro style offense. We run a little [Mike] Mularkey and a little [Bruce} Arians here. Still, we like smashmouth football and you need a fullback. That’s big boy football.
Especially now as a coach, what advice would you give players looking to enter the game today?
Just to have fun. That’s number one. Don’t press too early as a kid. Don’t stress out and don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Play multiple sports.
As a freshman, your classes start to count for college. They stay with you. So if you want to go to college and get a scholarship you have to work hard. And you can’t take no for an answer. Do whatever you have to do to make your dream come true. I went the long way to get a chance to play at Georgia, but it got me there and a chance to play for the best franchise in football. So don’t accept the odds.