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Exclusive with Former Steelers WR Yancey Thigpen

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Ron spoke with former Steelers wide receiver Yancey Thigpen who played for the team from 1992-1997. His breakout 1995 season, in which he caught 85 passes for 1,307, played an integral part in helping the Steelers reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1979.

First, any divided loyalties when the Steelers play San Diego?

Not at all! I’ve been a Steelers fan since I was a kid. Swann and Stallworth were my guys. I’d imitate them in my backyard and wore 88 in high school. I was happy I got to wear 82 when I got to Pittsburgh.

Any big differences you remember between the two organizations?

Unfortunately I didn’t play in San Diego for very long. I was only on their active roster for four games in that one season. It’s hard to remember the differences. When they let me go I was excites to be able to play in Pittsburgh. They let me play at the weight I was comfortable at. San Diego wanted me to play at a lighter weight than I was used to plying at. Problem was I was a fit guy and how low body fat. Getting down to that weight meant me having to lose muscle. In practice I would start off OK early on, but by the end I could barely move.

Pittsburgh trusted me. They allowed me to come in at the weight I needed to play at. They didn’t have any weight number I needed to hit. As long as I came in in shape and did my job I was OK.

What brought you to Pittsburgh as  free agent – why Pittsburgh?

Coming out of college I impressed a Steelers scout – Charles Bailey. We had familiar backgrounds  – he grew up in the same area I went to school. I played at a small school and was under most people’s radar, though I did get invited to the combine.

I guess I was always on his radar, and actually I thought I’d get drafted by Pittsburgh. Charles worked me out when I was in college and thought enough of me to have the receivers coach then  come out to see me afterwards. I started that second workout with the 40-yard dash and had the best time I ever ran – a 4.38 in bad conditions. The next 40 I felt good but about 30-yards in I pulled my hamstring. I couldn’t continue the workout – I couldn’t show them my receiving skills. I think if that didn’t happen they would have drafted me.

But once San Diego released me they brought me in.

Was it hard leaving San Diego – and why did you think Pittsburgh would be a good landing spot?

The Steelers were all about trust.  I think in Pittsburgh they had guys who knew the system and were trusted. I think for me I was at the right place at the right time. It made me have to earn the trust of Cowher – I had t make enough of an impression on him for him to give me a chance.

Leaving San Diego – with the wide receivers they had there at the time – I mean, they needed receivers. And still, they released me. I think Cowher thought that too -that this couldn’t be the guy they released. He needed to do his due diligence and called San Diego first to find out why they released me.  Then he talked to me and told me the organization had nothing negative to say about me. I tell kids today, making the right decisions impacts your life.

Why do you say that in relation to being let go?

I was very upset when I was released by San Diego. I was backing up an All-Pro wide receiver Anthony Miller. I knew the way to make the team was to be good on special teams. I had to show them I was worth keeping by making it on special teams. In San Diego, they had a points system for special teams players. By the end of preseason, there was a list of all the players on special teams and their points. I was second on the list – and the first was the kicker! I thought I did enough to make the team.

Now, it was a transition for me – going from a small college to the NFL.  We did a few things in college and did them well. It gave me an opportunity to showcase my talent. But the mental part of the game was very different though. I could hang around long enough to pick it up and show them what I could do.

I was very upset when I was released because I was a star in camp. Even the media was writing about me that way. I was upset because I did everything that was asked of me and put myself in a position to make the team. I didn’t think any of the guys that made the team ahead of me were better than me and they brought in a guy that never really amounted to anything.

It was a bad situation for me. I didn’t feel good about it. I thought I was treated unfairly. So when I was told I knew I needed to express how I felt. They saw a guy they didn’t know. I took it like a man but I said how I felt.

What happened then?

They asked me if I would hang around for the weekend. They didn’t think I’d clear waivers – they thought Green Bay would claim me. I told them I wasn’t going to hang around though. They released me so I was going home. I thought about how I was going to respond.

So, I knew it’s a long story, but when Cowher called San Diego, they said I was respectful but angry. So they didn’t have anything negative to say about me. If they did it would have been a lie. After Cowher was done he told me he didn’t know why they left me go but we want you here, and I said “Yes. Thank you!”

I was grateful for the opportunity. I think I should have played sooner, but hey, it worked out well.

Did anyone help you when you first go to Pittsburgh – take you under their wing and show you the city?

My first time walking into the locker room they were all welcoming. Especially as a young guy though, it was odd. Not many familiar faces. But you know what made it worse? There was one familiar guy, and that was Donald Evans. We were both from the same college. He was very outspoken. I love the guy to death but on that first day, he announced to everyone that I was his homeboy and I’m going to cost someone their job!.

I was just like, oh great. Thanks. But I was up to the task. It motivated me – it pushed me to take advantage of the opportunity. It put more pressure on me to prove myself.

Do you remember the moment when you finally got over being the guy trying to make it and became “the guy”?

I don’t remember a specific moment. I remember getting more playing time. But I was talking to Larry Griffin just recently and he told me that when I got to Pittsburgh, the defensive backs hated my ass. I asked him why, and he told me that when I practiced, they couldn’t take it easy or I’d embarrass them. They couldn’t take plays off when they were covering me. They knew I was getting my time in, and if they slacked off against me it came at a price.

That made me feel good. It wasn’t that they hate me, but that they hated playing against me. These were the same guys telling coaches they should play me. Its good to know they felt that way.

Any fun memories of your time there?

There are so many great experiences. The best way I can say this is that there are so many great time that if I do say something I feel like I’ve leave someone or something out.

All of the wide receivers had a good time together. From when I was the last in line to first on the totem pole, the process was great. Ernie Mills and I were close – I was closer to him than anyone else at the time then. We’re still good friends. We were roommates on the road and when he left we became neighbors in Carolina.

Ok — but if you don’t give any stories than all are forgotten right?

OK. Well. There was this time in camp. I was pissing off the younger linebackers in camp then. They were smaller guys and I talked trash to them and told them to just try and hit me with their little asses!

Well, we got into it in camp. Nothing big – just one of those camp battles. Later on they took one of my rookies.. They somewhat captured him and held him hostage in the dorms. Well, I decided I was going to go and get my guy. So, after curfew when most everyone was asleep, I snuck into the back of the dorms

This was the last night of camp.  History was you’d go partially dressed in your gear to the field and Cowher would give everyone a speech about how it was a good camp, and then he’d tell us to take everything in and we wouldn’t practice that day. So it didn’t seem like a big deal.

So, when I snuck in, I grabbed a fire extinguisher  and went up to the room, and the guys were all in the hallway there. Ernie Holmes, Emmons, Donta’ Jones were just some of the guys. They told me there was no way I was going to use the extinguisher.

But…

I never used an extinguisher before. I’m not sure if you ever did, but I sprayed it all over the place. It was like the building was on fire. There was smoke everywhere and then the fire alarms went off! The fire trucks came and we all had to be evacuated. Cowher was pissed!

Cowher started walking around from room to room afterwards trying to find out who did it. No one told him. It was good to know there were no rats in our locker room! When he got to my room though I told him I did it. He was pissed, but told me he appreciated my honesty and would address this tomorrow. I was think, “Oh shit!” The vets were telling me if we had to practice the next day it would be my fault.

So we all are on the field the next day and Cowher starts his speech. He was pissed and told everyone he knew who did it and appreciated their honesty and that he fessed up. But Cowher had this way of making you think everything was ok then  going off in the last 30 seconds, or that he was really angry then being ok in the last 30 seconds. He told everyone this was going to be a learning lesson and talked for a long while. I was thinking he was going to make us practice and people were going to be pissed! But then at the end he let us go after all!

Some guys were pissed he let us go. I think they wanted to practice just so they could be mad at me. They said if it were them they would have been cut for sure!

So, what’s been the plan since retirement? Anything specific you’re working on?

Honestly, I’m physically used up. I’m not complaining, but I really don’t do much now. I got pretty beat up while I played and I’m feeling all of it.

I have made some good investment decisions. My three girls keep me busy! I’m retired obviously, but I also invested in some smaller businesses. I don’t do any work as far as those are concerned though.

Basically, I’m a house husband. My wife doesn’t work either though! I have three beautiful girls that demand time with their daddy. And I want to give them all they want and deserve. Well, all they deserve anyway!

And I’ll be honest. I’ve shied away from doing interviews. I haven’t felt comfortable speaking nowadays. Sometimes I lose my focus. My wife will ask me where I’m going with a conversation sometimes. I’m not sure if it’s a concussion thing. I’m getting some help from the NFL. The biggest problem is realizing what the problem is. But I’m working on it now.

Ron Lippock is the author of Steelers Takeaways and has interviewed over 650 past and present Steelers players, coaches and personnel. You can purchase his book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Steelers-Takeaways-Memories-Through-Decades/dp/1681570076

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