The chapter is titled, "More Than Smarts and Skill," and it encapsulates Merril Hoge as a professional football player. The chapter opens with an anecdote from Hoge's brief time with the Chicago Bears, after he had left the Pittsburgh Steelers as an unrestricted free agent:
"We were halfway through our drill," writes Hoge, "when Coach Joe Pendry, the backs coach for the Bears, stopped us and called out to a rookie running back.
"Robbie, how old are you?"
"Twenty-two, coach," the rookie replied.
"And how fast do you run the forty?"
"Four-point-two, Coach!" the kid announced. He had every reason to be proud – only a handful of players in NFL history had that kind of blazing speed.
"Coach Pendry then turned to me. 'Merril, how fast do you run the forty?'
"Here we go, I thought to myself. He's putting the writing on the wall: old guy out, new guy in. I'm not playing this game. I didn't answer.
"C'mon, Hoge," Pendry prodded. "OK, how many games have you played in the NFL?"
"One hundred and eight," I said.
"How many practices have you missed?"
"I haven't missed one since my freshman year in college."
"And remind me," Pendry continued, "how old are you?"
"I'll be 30 in January." I wasn't sure where this was going.
"You're almost 30? Really?" He spoke in a high voice for effect. "OK then, what was your fastest 40-time ever?"
"Four-point-five-eight," I said. It was my time during a private workout for the Packers before the 1987 draft.
"Coach Pendry then proceeded to bring his demonstration to the attention of everyone watching. In a loud voice, he announced, 'The fastest Hoge has ever run is a 4.58, and the rookie runs a 4.2.' He then paused and deadpanned at the rookie, 'Robbie, can you explain something to me? If you run a 4.2 and the fastest Hoge has ever run is a 4.58, why is it that he beats you every time we run this drill?'
"The rookie stood silent while Pendry brought his point home. 'I'm asking because when we cut you next week, I want to make sure you know why.'"
* * *
The title is, "Find a Way," and in every sense the book tells the story of Merril Hoge's life. Through the course of a narrative that takes the reader to Idaho's potato fields where Hoge and his brother worked dawn-to-dusk for spending money in high school, to his climb from a 10th-round draft choice to a spot as a starter in the backfield for Chuck Noll's Steelers, through the series of concussions that ended his football career, and finally as he faced the cancer that could have ended his life, Hoge turns a mirror on himself but what ultimately is revealed is that he has lived every facet of his life by a code.
As a boy, he wrote the code on an index card and tacked to the corkboard in his bedroom. The corkboard may be gone, but the words still guide him.
"There eventually becomes an obstacle for which outstanding skill and intellect are not enough unless they are channeled through a passion-filled will," writes Hoge. "(Walter) Payton summed it up with his motto, 'Never die easy.' Mine was, 'Find a way.' The words are different, but they underscore the same reality: great will is worth more than smarts and skill."
Hoge details the play against the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 2, 1994 that ended his football career, how in the immediate aftermath he lost consciousness and stopped breathing in the Bears locker room. It's a chilling account of what happens to someone who sustains a severe concussion, down to his inability to identify his wife, Toni, and his daughter, Kori, when they visited him in the intensive care unit.
Within days, Hoge announced his retirement from the job that he described as a "dream come true." He was 29 and found himself facing a challenge every bit as daunting as getting from Pocatello, Idaho, to the starting lineup of an NFL team.
"The head trauma that ended my career reverberated for months," writes Hoge. "Doctors said it left me in the mental state of a 7-year-old. I spent six months reading to my 3-year-old daughter every night to become literate again. I spent weeks relearning names, faces and phone numbers I'd known all my life. I couldn't even remember how to use a checkbook."
Hoge got himself into broadcasting, partly by sheer happenstance, and there he applied the same work ethic that got him to the NFL. But he found himself in a situation where he was having to learn an entirely new profession while also dealing with the lingering effects of the injuries to his brain. Through hard work and being the same coachable individual he was on the football field, Hoge ascended to a position of significance on ESPN's NFL coverage. Then, feeling good about the second career he had built for himself in a sport he loved, Hoge learned he had cancer.
"I often hear people ask what you would do if you were told you were dying," writes Hoge. "I now know there is no way to imagine those emotions until you are there."
The battle with cancer proves to be Merril Hoge's finest moment, and along his road to recovery he continued his journey of self-discovery as a professional, but more importantly to him, he was doing the same as a parent.
"Find a Way" has too many football anecdotes to be a self-help book, and it deals with far too many real-life issues to be a football book. But in that mixture, Hoge has come up with a nice balance that allows the narrative to entertain without being overly preachy.
"There is no doubt I would still trade a Super Bowl ring for the chance to enjoy two greater victories: beating cancer and becoming a great father," writes Hoge. "A Super Bowl ring is a great work. Securing a worthwhile legacy is a life's work. I am grateful that work continues today."
*"Find a Way" by Merril Hoge is available for $21.99 at any of the five Steelers Sideline Stores, or it can be ordered directly at Steelers.com. Click to order your copy today. *