Chris Hoke always played with emotion and it came as no surprise as he talked about his retirement from the Steelers after 11 seasons that he got emotional at times.
"I've talked to you guys so many times, this is the first time I've ever been nervous," said Hoke as he stood at the podium in front of the gathered media. "When I walked in here 11 years ago as an undrafted free agent, I had a lot of dreams. But in my wildest dreams I would have never believed that I would be standing before you guys like I am today, 11 years later."
Hoke decided to retire after suffering a neck injury this past season, a season when he was playing well after battling for a roster spot during training camp. Hoke played only six games and eventually underwent season-ending surgery.
"I never really got hurt my first 10 years, except for some dings here and there," said Hoke. "I had a couple of big injuries this year. It made me put things in perspective. I think the man upstairs was talking to me. It was time for me to move on. I started to think about my wife and my children, and what was important. I am getting older. I've played 11 great years for an awesome organization, and now it's time to move on.
"I think everything happens for a reason, but I am glad I went out playing well. I gave everything I had to this game. I have no regrets. I am blessed to be able to go out on a high note like that."
Hoke thanked all of those who helped him along the way, from the Rooney family, to teammates, to Coach Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and more.
"The feeling of family and togetherness and the feeling that's down in that locker room truly makes this a special place," said Hoke. "There is no other organization in sports that is like this."
When it came to talking about defensive line coach John Mitchell, Hoke had to pause and collect his thoughts as it really started to hit him that this was it.
"Coach John Mitchell, wow, what an unbelievable guy," said Hoke. "He's not only a great person but a great coach. He had a huge impact on me on the football field, not only between the lines but in life. He's been awesome."
Hoke overcame the odds after signing with the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2001, the same year the team drafted Casey Hampton in the first round.
"My dream was just to make the team at that point, be a part of this organization and just to make it into the NFL," said Hoke. "I just wanted to come here and be a part of it. Looking back, being a part of three Super Bowls, having two Super Bowl rings, the relationships I've made, the winning seasons we've had – to be a part of those things has been unbelievable."
While Hampton was the team's starting nose tackle during Hoke's time, Hoke played a major role as a key backup. He also started 18 games, stepping in at various times when Hampton was injured, and the Steelers had a 17-1 record in those games.
His numbers don't jump out at you as he amassed 83 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery during his 11 seasons, but his career wasn't about numbers. It was about a player who gave his all, whether he was starting or just playing a snap or two a game.
"He means so much to me personally," said defensive end Brett Keisel, proudly wearing a Brigham Young t-shirt, the school both he and Hoke attended. "He took his job so seriously and worked so hard every day. Everyone that was around him saw that. It resonated through all of us. There will be a big hole left in the defensive line room without him in there. He had a great career here. He is a great guy, a great competitor and a big reason why we won two Super Bowls."
Keisel, Hampton and Aaron Smith all attended the press conference and you could tell by the look in Hoke's eyes it meant the world to him to have them there.
"The support I've gotten from these guys over the years and the relationships we've built, not just with each other but with our families and children, it's been great," said Hoke, whose wife Jaimee and four of his five kids, Cade, Nathan, Chloee, and Lincoln were in attendance, with Aubree staying home.
Hoke is only a short time into retirement, but already looking at the future. He is considering getting involved in the media now that his playing days are over or possibly coaching on some level.
And while moving on to a new chapter in his life is exciting for him, he knows there are things he will definitely miss.
"Being around these guys in this building on a daily basis," said Hoke. "You talk to any retired player they'll say the one thing they miss is being in the locker room, being around the guys, the camaraderie. I think that is the one thing I am already missing, and it's just the beginning."
Hoke also touched on other topics, including:
On the historical significance of his years with the Steelers:"I've always been taught to never reflect when you are in the middle of something. You can reflect on it after. So I guess we are after it now. These last 11 years – you look at the teams that were put together by Coach Cowher, Coach Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Mr. Rooney and the coaching staff, and we've had some awesome teams. I think my in 11 years, the Steelers have been to six AFC Championship games. When you look at the core guys, the leaders we've had on this team, even going back to the beginning of my career – the Jerome Bettis's, Jason Gildon's and Kordell Stewart's, those guys really helped us win a lot of ball games. You look at now, and you have guys like James Farrior, Hines Ward, Ben Roethlisberger, Casey Hampton and Troy Polamalu, the list goes on and on. I think the Steelers do a great job of bringing in great talent. I've always said what's great about this place – Coach Tomlin always talks about the standard is the standard. The reason why that is, is because people can uphold the standard. Our coaches don't just coach the starters. They treat everybody like they are starters, even down to the young guys. Year-in and year-out, young guys live up to the standard and play up to the standard. They fill the roles when starters go down. I think that's what makes this place so special, and it makes it a winning place."
The impact Coach Mitchell has had on you and how he was hard on you:"When I was young, I felt like Coach Mitchell hated me. He broke me down and built me up into the player the Steelers' wanted me to be, and play the technique the Steelers wanted me to play. We have a great defense year-in and year-out. When I was young, I was thinking this guy didn't like me at all. It wasn't about liking me. He saw the potential in me and what I could bring to the team in the coming years. He does a great job of breaking down the bad habits that are learned in college. He builds you up, and makes you have good habits and do good things that make this Steelers' defense so great."
What was your mindset heading into your first season?
"My mindset was always just give me a chance and an opportunity. Give me a chance to get into a camp, and I will be able to show what I can do. When I speak to groups of people, I always tell people that when I first walked into the locker room, and I saw Jerome Bettis for my first mini-camp, I was saying, "This is crazy." That first training camp, we had our first goal line period. I know we all remember it. Kendrell Bell hit Jerome Bettis in a goal line play. I was saying, "Holy smoke, can I do this?" This was big time. It was a learning experience and a time for me to grow. I was just saying let me have an opportunity and a chance to prove my worth. I was able to do that."
What gave you the edge making the team as an undrafted rookie?
"If you ask any of these guys, I am probably not the most talented guy. But if you ask them, I work as hard as anybody, I study as hard as anybody. The mental part to the game is one of my strength and repetitions, just doing things over and over again. People might think I am crazy but there was a method to my madness. I knew that I had to outwork people. I wasn't as athletic as other people but I knew if I learned the defense and didn't make mental mistakes, worked hard every day and I worked on my technique and was over-perfecting my technique, that it would give me a chance."
How do you feel that you won the fans over since you weren't a starter?
"I feel like I am one of them. I came in here, I brought my lunch pail every day, I didn't take anything for granted and I had to earn everything that I was given. I think they appreciate the fact that I just came to work every day and worked and worked and worked, and I am a blue-collar kind of guy. I gave everything I had every day and I think a lot of people appreciate that because that is what embodies this city."
Who is going to do the Hoke dance?
"Well Hamp (Casey Hampton) already told me he was working on it. So we are going to have to have a few dancing sessions but he is going to do it."
What do you see from some of the young guys?
"It's unbelievable. You look at the young guys, we are talking about Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward, Steve McClendon, and then a couple of guys behind them. The thing I see is the willingness to learn, and the willingness to work. And that's what is imbedded in guys that come into this place. It's not about you, it is about the team. It is about being the best you can be, and helping the team win. And those three guys that I mentioned have that attitude, they have unbelievable skills, and they are going to be great players for this organization for a lot of years to come. As they grow, as they work with Coach Mitchell and Coach LeBeau and the defensive staff, I think the sky is the limit for all of those guys."
Could you have played another year?
"I could have tried. To me that wasn't responsible. It was doing my family a disservice because of the risks. I did play for a little bit because I think I was in denial. But once I realized that it was affecting my family, I knew I had to go to the training staff, and let them know what was going on."
What did they tell you could have happened?
"It could have been pretty bad. And I am glad I went to the doctor when I did, because it could have ended up pretty bad."
Did you ever think you should maybe go and be a starter somewhere?
"People always told me that, but I knew in my heart that there is more to this than just chasing the almighty dollar and being a starter. I am in a great organization, I am playing for great coaches, I have great buddies and I didn't want to give all of that up. My family, my wife and children were imbedded in our community with school and church, those kinds of things. To me there was more than just going and chasing to be a starter and chasing the almighty dollar. It was more about my family and my way of life."