Welcome to our new rivalry edition of Steelers Interviews. Throughout the year, our Ron Lippock will be speaking with players you loved to hate from some of the Steelers’ biggest rivals.
Our Ron Lippock with former NFL defensive end Chris Sullivan, who spent five seasons with the Patriots and one with the Steelers from 1996 to 2001.
First, can you let us know what you’e been doing since retirement?
Well, a big part of what I’m doing now is speaking to schools about drug addiction and abuse. It started when I started going to AA meetings and met a woman who later became my wife. She was speaking and talked about her daughter who she lost when she wandered away during a party and drowned.
She was doing various speaking engagements on the effects of alcohol on families. We started dating soon afterwards and I watched the effect she had on people when she was speaking.
And that’s how you got started?
I waited a couple of years first – I wanted to be able to go into schools and say for sure that I was clean and sober. Other asked me if I would speak but I wasn’t a public speaker. I hated speaking and hate the attention. But a friend had a program called New Beginnings and I spoke for them a couple of times then started doing it with my wife and the Drive to Save Lives Tour.
It morphed over the years and now we speak at over 50 schools a year. Those are our vacation days – we both have full-time jobs. The last time we went away was in 2010.
Seeing the positive effect my wife had, that’s what it was all about. We just want some thought in kids heads if they are offered something. Everyone is at some point. We just want them to have something in their head to respond with.
There are also a lot of high school kids who are already hooked on something. They need to know that here’s help for them out there. Many are afraid to ask or speak out.
So was your addiction related to retirement?
Well, my retirement was nine years of addiction.
What happened was, all during my career, I never had injuries. Maybe a broken bone, but nothing major. But I hurt my back when I was in Pittsburgh. I had never missed a practice at any point in my playing career up to that point. I didn’t know how to deal with it. No one was pushing me but I was pushing myself to return too quickly. I came back two weeks after back surgery and had nerve damage in my foot that slowed me down. It was a rough year. I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do or be what I wanted to be. The following year I had wrist surgery and Pittsburgh released me.
I was in a bad place. I went back home to where I grew up and started hanging out with people that were not good for me to be around and that’s when I started taking pain pills.
But you went back to New England the following season.
When I went back we won a Super Bowl that year. But my life was spiraling, I just didn’t realize it. The night of the Super Bowl I got caught with a DUI. Two days later I called Bill Belichick in Nantucket and told him I was giving up football. Six months after starting to take pills I was out of football.
What did Belichick say to you when you called?
I honestly don’t remember that talk with Bill at all. I have no memory of it.
So that’s how my retirement got started, because of addiction. I’ve been clean now since 2008. But I had no plan for retirement. I was alone in an apartment then — I lost my house — and had no heat or cable. Nothing.
How do you come back from that?
Dec. 15 last year was my tenth year of being sober. I’m great now. A lot of guys in the league have similar issues they just don’t talk about it. Josh Gordon here needed help and got some. I surrounded myself with people who had gone through it before too. Nothing beats being around people who have gone through it already.
So stepping back, why leave New England in free agency and come to the Steelers?
Money. The Patriots were going to have me take something right above the league minimum. Cleveland was interested. I wanted to play for a cold weather team. I was a cold weather person. I wasn’t a fan of Pittsburgh growing up, but we all knew about them. I liked the city when I visited and felt comfortable when I met Bill Cowher. He was a great guy. I wanted to play for him. He was a guy people liked to play for. So that’s what it came down to.
What did the team say to you about your role there?
Well, I was never super fast or super strong. I was a guy who couldn’t afford to lose a step, but I did. It was a rough year.
I remember coach John Mitchell telling me they were happy to have me there in the rotation. That they had this new guy there but he was too light. Well, the new guy was Aaron Smith, and he weighed 280 pounds and was fast! I could see immediately what they had with him. I rotated with him but he was at a different level.
Any fun memories of your time in Pittsburgh?
I vividly remember the last game at Three Rivers. I took lots of pictures of guys I watched play growing up: Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Dermontti Dawson .Those pictures were stolen from my house when I was in rehab, unfortunately.
I loved the city and lived in Wexford, which I loved too. I remember Cowher telling me that if I kept doing what I was doing I could play for 10 to 12 years. I was always a swing man — too slow to play outside and too small to play inside. But I could play all of the positions. I was always someone coaches didn’t have to worry about.I didn’t make mistakes.
We speak at St. Vincent College now, and it’s always bittersweet. I didn’t live up to what they or I wanted or expected, but I guess I wouldn’t be where I am now if none of that happened.
Any game-specific memories?
I had better games against the Steelers I think because they weren’t fast teams. I matched up better against them. They were more physical, bigger teams. They were more my style. Not like Denver who had faster, quicker offensive linemen.
I also vividly remember how bad the turf was at Three Rivers and playing with a migraine. I got them every six months and would thrown up during the games because of them. My vision would be wrecked. I just had to line up over the big guy on the right side and go and play.
You had a number of years under Belichick and played for Cowher as well. What really makes Belichick a great and different coach to you?
Belichick used to require his rookie coaches to watch film and write up reports on what they saw and send them back to him. He’d send them back with dozens of post-it notes and comments.
I’ll say, Pittsburgh practiced harder and more intense than New England did. But the difference was in the day-to-day. Belichick keeps everyone on edge — everyone on their toes constantly. He’d pop into meetings by surprise and start popping off questions to guys one after another to see if they’d get any wrong. If they did he’d keep asking more in front of everyone, and it would embarrass guys. Every minor detail was important to him.
Anything else he did?
Well a good example is this. When I was on the scout team, Pepper Johnson would force us to come in the next day at 6 a.m. to watch film of the prior day’s scout team practice before we watched film for the next day’s practice. Pittsburgh practiced more intensely, but the Patriots meeting rooms were more intense.
Pepper Johnson also used to keep all the linebackers after practice and throw passes to them until they caught so many – then he’d let them go. I remember that because the linebackers never dropped a pass during the season.
Many games come down to one play — one small detail. A tipped pass could cost you the playoffs. And that happens from one minor mistake. And he’d hold everyone to the same standard. He’d call anyone out in meetings and put them on the spot in front of everybody. Tom Brady, he’s had to put up with that for 18 years. It’s grueling.
But it’s those minor details that make a season. One missed assignment can end a season. It gets tedious and it can be hard to put up with it. He’ll keep you on edge all the time. They were two even teams. The edge I think was coaching and player buy-in. And we had Brady, though you have Ben Roethlisberger there too!