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Steelers Interviews

Hines Ward Talks Steelers Career, Hall of Fame, Post-NFL Life

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Hines Ward at the Pittsburgh Steelers 2007 home opener. The Steelers beat the Bills 26-3. This was the 500th win for the Steelers, who wore the 75th year "Throwback" uniforms.

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.

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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