Legends Series: Chris Hoke
Chris Hoke's Steelers career truly was a fairy tale story. Hoke came to the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent, a guy full of energy who just needed someone to take notice. And that they did.
Hoke landed on the 53-man roster his rookie year, and for 11 seasons he remained in black and gold, living out a dream. He played in three Super Bowls, winning both Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.
"It was a journey," said Hoke. "It's something I take almost in phases. When I came to the Steelers in 2001, and you see all the money that is thrown around in the NFL right now, my signing bonus then was $2,500. After taxes it was like $1,700 and (my wife) Jamie and I couldn't have been happier. We were just happy to be a part of the NFL.
"The first years were trying to break into the squad. I made the team, but I really wasn't playing. Then to go on to be a critical player on the defense and be there for 11 years was remarkable in my mind."
Hoke has taken the same approach he had as a player to life after football. He currently manages Rivendale Farm, owned by Thomas Tull, part of the Steelers' ownership group. He oversees daily operation, as well as assisting in providing dairy products to the team, including chocolate milk which is a favorite of many of the players.
"It's incredible to be a part of Rivendale Farm," said Hoke. "It's something different for me, but being involved in all aspects of it has been great."
Hoke shared more from his playing days in this exclusive interview:
What is it like to come in to a team as a rookie free agent? Is it tough, intimidating, challenging?"It was all of the above. When you come in the coaches don't have any expectations. There might be one or two guys that come in that possibly make the team, or the practice squad. But you are a guy to fill up the depth chart so the starters don't take all of the snaps. They take three or four then come out, and then go back in. You are a guy to fill up that 90-man roster. When you come in you really have to catch someone's eye. You do that by being consistent week-in and week-out, day-in and day-out, practice after practice. It is intimidating because you aren't given the benefit of the doubt. If something goes bad, with a player that is established or a high draft pick, there is the 'we know he will do it right next time attitude.' With an undrafted free agent, there is, 'Can Hokie do this or is it too much for him?' You really have to prove the nay-sayers wrong."
What did you do that proved them wrong?
"Nobody outworked me. Since I was a young boy, hard work was inside of me. If you talk to Coach (John) Mitchell, the guys I played with, they will tell you I studied. I was one of the first guys on the field before practice, one of the last guys to leave. I was methodical in my approach. I had to love it, every ounce of football in order to make it. I wasn't the biggest, strongest, fastest guy. I will admit that. But nobody outworked me, nobody out-prepared me. That's what helped me survive for 11 years."
You referred to Coach Mitchell. What is he like when you come in as a rookie?
"Hard. He is really hard on you. When you come in as a young guy, you think I am the only guy that I am treating like this. You realize it's not like that after you are here for 11 years. When I came back as an intern and coached for two years, that's when you realize that's how he treats everybody. His whole philosophy is I don't care where you came from, now that you are here and are a Pittsburgh Steeler, you are going to do it the Steelers way. Coach Mitchell said we're going to get in our stances this way, execute the defense this way, because it's the Steelers way. And it's proven to be successful. He tries to break you down and build you up and mold you in the Steelers' defensive linemen way."
Is that one of the best things that happened for you, having someone who taught you like that and molded you?
"In the moment no. But now when I look back, and was able to get in the rotation and be one of the players on the defense, absolutely. Coach Mitchell, I look at him like a father figure. Love the guy. And I know it's reciprocated. I look at what he has taught me and who he has helped me become as a man, and I owe a lot to him."What's your best memory from your playing career?"There are a couple. There are two big ones. I think the first one was my very first start in 2004. We were in Dallas and Casey (Hampton) blew out his knee in the game. We then had a bye week and had our first game at home against New England. They hadn't lost, they were Super Bowl champs. That was my first start. It was my fourth season, but I hadn't had a lot of playing time. Coming out of that tunnel at Heinz Field with the crowd going crazy, my parents were in the stands, my wife, and my oldest son. All of the emotions had come together for me because I had put so much work into getting to that point. I had tears coming down my face, screaming, the crowd going crazy, it all came together like a perfect storm. We went on to win and didn't lose until the AFC Championship Game. That was one of the greatest moments for me with the Steelers.
"The other was Super Bowl XL. I played in three Super Bowls, we were fortunate and blessed to win two. Super Bowl XL was that pure elation, pure joy, because you never had felt that before, those emotions. Those were my top moments." What is the football accomplishment you are proudest of?"Staying true to myself for 11 years. There are so many directions you can go in as a professional athlete, so many influences to do this or that. I came in as the individual I still am today. A family man. A man who loves his wife, his children. I am a religious man. Sometimes those things don't mix in the professional world. That I was able to stay true to myself, my family and my God, that is my biggest accomplishment."
Who had the biggest impact on your career?
"Coach Mitchell. I think of all of the things he taught me as an individual. I think of how he helped me become a man, a professional. We established a close relationship. You could always find us side-by-side when we weren't in drills. I would be standing next to him talking. Even now when I come back here and go to practice, I stand right next to Coach Mitchell. He single-handedly had the greatest impact on my career."
The locker room when you played here, the bond you guys had, what was that like?"It was awesome. You hear a lot of stories about other locker rooms, there are groups and cliques. We didn't have that in our locker room. It was one-for-all and all-for-one. We were truly a family. We stuck together. That locker room was special. I credit that chemistry for the reason why we had so much success throughout those years." Talk about playing for Bill Cowher, what was that like?"I loved playing for Coach Cowher. He was fair. He was a good coach. He was intense. He brought a passion to the game that was almost unmatched. You knew when it was time to strap it up. He brought an intensity to practice. I have almost nightmares, being in training camp, we are lined up and I would hear, 'Hokie, let's go.' He would get you to go. He brought intensity to every competitive moment."
What did it mean to you to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers?
"Everything. I don't think I would be who I am today, I don't think I would have accomplished what I have without the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was the friendships I created here, the lessons I learned here. You think about the stability here. You think about the principles of the Steelers. Those are unmatched in the NFL. When you are here for 11 years that becomes who you are."
What did, and still do, Steelers fans mean to you?"They are the ones who made us who we are.*Steelers' fans, I love them. They gave us the energy. It's wherever you go. Steelers Nation is still supportive. They are very appreciative. They are one of a kind." Why did you choose to make Pittsburgh your home? "There is no better place to raise your family. Coach Cowher once referred to it as a big little town. I have grown to love Pittsburgh. I can't see myself being anywhere else. I see myself as a Pittsburgher. I feel a close affinity to Pittsburgh. It was what I was all about. I was truly a Pittsburgher. I identify with the city." Is it good to still be close to the team, have the relationship that you do? *"It's fantastic. You are a Steeler for life. Whether I am in the media like I am doing now, or just living here, once a Steeler you are a Steeler for life. The players who played in the 1970s and 1980s embrace you and bring you in. It's remarkable the way this organization is run and the way it has spread throughout everybody who has played here."