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Steelers Interviews

Exclusive with Former Steelers Kicker Norm Johnson

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Ron Lippock spoke with former Steelers kicker Norm Johnson who played for the Steelers from 1995-1998.

You came to play for the Steelers in 1995 after kicking for Seattle and Atlanta. What made you choose to play for the Steelers?

That’s an easy one. My first year in Atlanta was special team coach Bobby April’s first year in the NFL. When the new coaches came in in my third season they cleaned house with the other coaches and we knew the players were next. I was the league’s best kicker over those four years in Atlanta, but the new special teams coach was also the assistant head coach – Frank Gansz.  He had a reputation for getting rid of guys no matter how good they were. He got rid of Lowry, Morten Anderson, Murray, and Jan Stenerud. In fact when he was hired Murray called me and told me to watch out – that that’s what he does. He brings in his own people.

I had a 96%+ kicking percentage when I was there – even though Gansz’s stupid practice habits got me injured.  But even so, I found myself on the streets. Bobby April knew me well and he was in Pittsburgh. So that was the reason I went there. They had a kicker there then but they didn’t like him much, and after two weeks of sitting out they brought me in and cut him.

Any pressure following a kicker like Gary Anderson?

I knew Gary. He and I and Morten all came into the NFL the same year – in ’82. And I wasn’t following him directly.

I also had a high level of confidence. I wasn’t cocky, but I kicked well in Atlanta. I had no problem holding my own. When I retired, three of the top four scorers in NFL history were all from the ’82 class – me, Morten, and Gary. The other guy was George Blanda.

Your first year there make it to Super Bowl. How did you prepare for the pressure of that game and how did coaches help?

It was interesting then. Some things sucked. It was the only Super Bowl I was ever in, so it was great being in it but it sucked it was the only one. Evidently, the year before there was a lot of planning by the team for the Super Bowl before they got there. They had all of the plans done ahead of time – all they had to do was just bet lowly old San Diego. Then they’d be off to the Super Bowl. Well, then they lost that game.

Dan Rooney said after that he’d never let that happen again. So the next year when they got to the Super Bowl. no plans had been made, It was a scramble and not as great of an experience as it could have been because of that.

Any team like that, you’d think they’d have at least minimal planning. But it was less than normal.

How did you deal with the pressure?

I spent 14 years in the NFL. Seattle, we were known locally, but weren’t known as a powerhouse nationally. In Atlanta, we beat San Francisco, won our division, had Rison and Deion, but it wasn’t a professional football town. We’d have been more known playing for a college team.

So when I came to Pittsburgh, it was the top of the top. And when we got to the Super Bowl, I thought about that more. I was in my 14th year and I’d bet most of the people watching the Super Bowl never heard of me. They’d make their impressions of me off of one game. I carried that around with me for the entire first week. I remember taking videos of the first week, but I lost my camera on the plane and lost all of those memories.

Anyway, I thought about the game that first week and the reach it had. That all they’ll know of me is if i miss it or not. I had anxiety that whole first week. I called the Atlanta Chaplain and talked to him about it – I was close to him. I talked to the Steelers’ Chaplain too but I didn’t know him as well. I had a tough time dealing with it.

After that first week though, it gets into real football. It’s football week that second week and then I was OK. By game time it was just another game. The only difference was that it had a much longer halftime. Normal halftimes are about 12 minutes, but the Super Bowl halftime was 45 minutes.

Tell me about the onside kick in the Super Bowl. What spurred that on.

The kick was a surprise to me. It was something I practiced and learned in Seattle and mastered there, but Chuck Knox was too conservative to run it there. When I went to Atlanta Bobby April was fresh out of college. I showed him the onside kick and he liked it but we never used it. Bobby knew I had that kick in me though.

The week leading up to the Super Bowl we watched film and Bobby noticed that their left front guy vacated his spot super early. It left a big hole on that side. Bobby told me we might use that kick in the Super Bowl and I just said “Yeah, right! I’m sure we’ll call this in the Super Bowl.” But, we practiced it anyway,

So, in the Super Bowl, I kick the field goal and come to the sideline, and Bobby tells me “Onside right!” Say what? I was shocked, but I had to play it off and pretend like I was just doing my regular routine. Hold my tee a certain way, move my arms a certain way – I had to do all of the regular things. I approached the ball on the kickoff and I see the guy already take off. Now, I’m thinking to myself that I shouldn’t have seen, I’m not focusing. But it worked.

People ask me what biggest kick of my life was. And while I won some games with a field goal, this had to be it. I never did it before and to do it on such a big stage and with a play that changed the momentum of the game. To execute it so well on a big stage.

What routines/superstitions did you have to stay loose and ready in games? 

It’s funny, because my superstition was to be as unsuperstitious as possible, if that makes sense.

I think so?

Ha. I never had a routine and that was on purpose. I’d wear different shows or socks, just wouldn’t do the same thing each time. Some guys would wear the same things, wear the same chin strap they wore in high school. But I didn’t do anything routine. The one thing is I never practiced extra points. Why even try? I thought it was ludicrous. I only practiced field goals. It’s funny because when I retired I had the longest extra point made streak on the NFL.

How did Coach Cowher handle practices insofar as special teams were concerned? 

Well, if you remember Cowher was a special teams coach so he placed a huge emphasis on special teams. Not that we practiced more than other teams, just the way he talked about them. Just hearing him talk about the importance of special teams – you could tell they mattered a lot to him.

Lastly, what are your thoughts on the new special teams rules on kickoffs?

To be honest, I haven’t followed the changes as much this year. I don’t know them all. In followed them a lot last year but they slipped below my radar this year.

I can tell you I would hate to see kickoffs moved away from the game. It’s tradition – the way you start every game. I’m not aware if there are more injuries on kickoffs or not – I think there may be some numbers to suggest it. I know they want they want to make it safer, but they can take it too far. We knew there were risks, and we took them to play the game. I don’t want to see the game turned into two-handed touch football.

And the rules about hitting with your helmet and leading with your head. Helmet-to-helmet hits happen somewhere on the field on every play. So, now it’s become subjective on what they call and when and what gets penalized. That seems pretty dumb to me.

Steelers Interviews

Interview with Former Steelers LB Clark Haggans

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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.

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Steelers Interviews

Steelers Rivals: Interview with Former Cleveland Browns FB Kevin Mack

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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.

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Steelers Interviews

Exclusive with Former Browns WR Derrick Alexander

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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.

For example?

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!

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