Our Ron Lippock spoke with the Super Bowl MVP about his life, proving himself as a legitimate top receiver with the Steelers, mentoring, the Hall of Fame and more.
First, can you let readers know what you are doing with your time these days? What causes and business ventures you’ve been focusing on, and why?
As far as causes go, I am still actively involved in my Helping Hands Foundation as well as the Caring Foundation in Pittsburgh. I also do as much charitable and community work for both Atlanta and Pittsburgh as I possibly can. So life has been pretty busy for me even though I am not playing the game anymore.
You are very involved in charitable causes throughout the local area and country. What drives that need to be so involved for you and how much of your parent’s influence has affected that drive?
I grew up in a single parent home. It was just my mom and me. My mom, being Korean, raised me the Korean way … the only way she knew how. She has a great work ethic. She always told me to never forget where I came from. So it’s that mentality that stuck with me. Even though I’ve reached the mountain top in football and have accomplished everything I wanted to, I never let that go to my head. I never forgot how hard my mom worked to provide for me. I never forgot where I came from and how little we had. So that’s what drives me and my desire to give back to the underprivileged. I’ve been there.
And God has blessed me with so much since then, so I feel like I’ve been called by God to do the same for others. There’s no better feeling than seeing the smile on the face of a child because you brought some happiness into his/her life.
When you were drafted, Charles Johnson, Courtney Hawkins, and Will Blackwell were also on the roster. How competitive was that group and how much did they help you as a rookie still learning how to play receiver in the NFL?
They all were helpful to me with their advice early on in my career. In their own way, they each taught me how to be professional, how to watch film and break it down, and how to deal with having to earn a spot as a starter by doing my best on special teams. I had never been in that situation before. I was always a starter in high school and college. So going from being a starter to playing special teams as a rookie was very different and unsettling for me.
My rookie year was tough for me to come to grips with. Those guys were very helpful in helping me understand my role and teaching me how to pay my dues and earn my spot on the team. Even though we were all very competitive, it was that competition that brought the best out of all of us and brought us all closer together as players. So I am grateful to each of those guys for what they taught me as a young rookie.
Who else helped mentor you as a rookie – both on and off the field – and what was your biggest adjustment to life in the NFL?
I would have to say it was Jerome Bettis. He was like a big brother to me. He taught me how to deal with the fame that came along with winning and as I started to emerge as a starter and team leader. He taught me how to handle all the money that came with that fame too. I am very grateful to Jerome for all his insight. We had a great ride together which is why I took him to Disney World when I was SB MVP. My biggest adjustment to life in the league was having to earn the trust of my coaches and a starting spot on my team. I mentioned some of that in my last response above.
When did you decide that you would be comfortable entering the NFL as a receiver versus quarterback? Was that a hard decision for you? Why/why not?
It was my junior year in college. I had already played running back when Terrell Davis went down with a hamstring injury and then quarterback when our quarterback got injured. Having played both positions, I decided that my best shot in the league would be at wide receiver. I knew a lot about that position having played quarterback and knew that I would be most effective for any NFL team as a wide receiver. It turned out to be the right move.
Your physical style of play has been a core piece of your reputation. What drove that physical style for you when most receivers are much less so, and how did it help you as a receiver?
I knew that there were receivers a lot faster, bigger, and stronger than me. No one really saw me as a receiving threat and early on the Steelers didn’t seem to be confident enough in me to be a No. 1 as they drafted Plaxico Burress and Troy Edwards in the first rounds of consecutive year drafts. So I knew I had to do something to separate myself from the others.
I decided that the best way for me to help my team and protect myself was to hit rather than be hit. So I decided I was gonna hit you before you hit me. In our style of offense back then we were predominantly a run-oriented team. We didn’t pass much. So as a receiver, you either had to block or be cut. I decided that I was gonna take my fate in my own hands by being the best blocking receiver that I could be. Most receivers back then didn’t do that. So I just started knocking people’s heads off and hitting anyone and everyone in my way. I wanted my presence known to the other team and let them know that I was gonna be someone they had to look out for. I’m very grateful that it worked out for me.
How important is making the Hall of Fame to you, and do you think your physical style has hindered or helped how people look at your Hall of Fame resume when it comes time for a vote?
I didn’t play this game to try to make it into the Hall of Fame. It has been a great honor to just be mentioned in the same sentence with the greats Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. One of the greatest compliments I have ever received was from Coach Bill Parcells when he told me that I was one hell of a football player. The way I see it, having the stats doesn’t make you the best player. I have gotten everything I ever wanted out of football: four Pro Bowls, three Super Bowls, two Super Bowl championships, a Super Bowl MVP, the Steelers’ all-time leading receiver. …
I’ve had a great career. If I make the Hall of Fame, that will just be another unbelievable honor for me that I will cherish. But that’s never been my goal. It would be the icing on the cake.
Troy Edwards spoke highly of your role as a mentor to younger players — as did others — as you developed into a leader. How hard was that for you to mentor younger receivers, especially guys like Edwards who were in part threats to take playing time away from you?
It was a little difficult early on in my career because then, I was selfish. But as I matured with experience in the league, it became very easy for me to lead the younger receivers. I recognized that we were all one team. No one player could win the Super Bowl by himself. We had the same goal: to win the Super Bowl. And as a leader, I recognized that great leaders give more than they get. So I tried to do my best to mentor the younger receivers as a coach on the field for the good of our team. And teaching the younger receivers raised the level of competition between us all which made us all better receivers, including me. It means a lot to me that Troy would think of me as a mentor. Makes it all worth it.
Who were the biggest characters on those Steelers teams you played for? What funny instances – both on and off the field – do you remember of your time in the NFL?
I would say that would be Troy Polamalu and Jerome Bettis. Troy was constantly pranking everybody. He was the jokester. Jerome was the politician. He was always debating everybody on everything even when he was wrong!
Most retired players seem to miss the camaraderie as much if not more than the game itself. How difficult was it for you to adjust to life post-NFL, and how did you do so? What advice would you give to today’s players to help prepare them to do the same?
It was tough. I really miss the camaraderie a lot. Me being an only child, I had no siblings. So leaving the league, I felt like I had lost my family. I’m still close to all the guys but it’s a little different now in that I don’t get to see them everyday. When I was playing, I saw my teammates more than my own family. So I had 50+ brothers that I could talk to everyday. Adjusting to life after football wasn’t as hard as it could have been. I had already gotten with my agent, Andy Ree, and we had already come up with a plan two-to-three years before I actually retired. Dancing with the Stars was a big part of that. And then things have only escalated from there.
I’m grateful for the smooth transition. To help today’s players prepare for life post football, I would tell them the key is early planning. When you can see the day when you would consider hanging up your cleats, that’s when you have to start planning for your future after football.
The NFL has changed dramatically as of late. What are your thoughts on the direction of the game and where you’d like to see it headed?
It has changed with all the concussion concerns and rule changes. I think education is critical. The league is doing the best it can to make the game safer, but we all have to keep in mind that it’s still football. It’s a contact sport and not for everyone. As players, we all know what we signed up for. And since contracts are not really guaranteed like in baseball or basketball, guys will do whatever it takes to keep the paychecks coming.
But overall, I think the league is doing a good job and I really don’t know if I would change anything. Other than what I read or hear in the media, I don’t have all the facts about the specific issues plaguing the league today to make an informed comment or take a strong position. The league has given a lot back to our communities through league-wide programs as well as through individual player events. So rather than try to fix all the wrongs, I would rather focus on the positives that the league has produced and continues to produce. And I will continue to do all that I can to bring out the best the league has to offer.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I just wanted to leave the readers with this: I have said this many times and I just want to say it again. I have been blessed to play for the greatest organization in football in the Pittsburgh Steelers. Football was my livelihood and that’s all I ever wanted to do in life. The Steelers gave me the opportunity to reach my potential and I will be forever grateful to the Rooneys and the organization for that.
As many of you know, I will always bleed black and gold. Thank you Steeler Nation for all the memories and for not forgetting about this kid from Forest Park, Georgia. I appreciate and love you all.