Tunch to focus on treatment

Tunch Ilkin learned from Chuck Noll, which means he undoubtedly heard the phrases "singleness of purpose" and "narrow your focus" thousands of times, and it should come as no surprise that he took Noll's teachings and applied them to his life after football.

In October 2020, when Ilkin revealed he had been diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease) one of the things he said was: "I want to fight this thing with the help of God. I'm not going to lie down and take this lightly."

Ilkin has not, is not, and will not "take this lightly," and so to narrow his focus and in a demonstration of singleness of purpose he has decided to retire from broadcasting Steelers games to dedicate himself to his treatment.

"I have had 37 years in the NFL, with 14 as a player and the last 23 in broadcasting as the color analyst on the Pittsburgh Steelers Radio Network, and I've decided to retire," said Ilkin in a statement. "I was diagnosed with ALS in September 2020, and I want to spend this time focusing on my treatment and fighting this disease. I would like to thank Steelers President Art Rooney II, the Steelers organization, and the fans for their continued support and prayers at this time."

Ilkin might be retiring from broadcasting, but he doesn't live the life of a retiree, and he's not taking ALS lightly. His treatment entails visits three times every week to his chiropractor, who treats him with a cold laser, to go along with regular visits to former teammate Jon Kolb's training facility, Adventures in Training with a Purpose. There, Ilkin gets in the pool and runs on the underwater treadmill. Also, each Wednesday includes a morning walk through the streets of Mt. Washington, and he is joined in that exercise by Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert; longtime friend and former NFL defensive lineman Leo Wisniewski; Jon Kolb, Tim Colussy; and "guys from my Bible study group."

"We walk for an hour every Wednesday, and then we go to the statues at Point of View Park (on Mt. Washington), and we pray," said Ilkin.

A two-time Pro Bowl tackle for the Steelers, Ilkin obviously was blessed with an above-average level of athleticism, but he admits running on that underwater treadmill at Adventures in Training with a Purpose wasn't something he took to immediately.

"When I'm on that underwater treadmill, I always remember the time when Chuck (Noll) was running on a treadmill, and me and Wolf (Craig Wolfley) and Terry Long were there working out, too. Chuck was shuffling and doing footwork that offensive linemen do while he was on the treadmill, and then he jumped up at one point and fell, and he looked like a bottle of Coke rolling around," said Ilkin. "We all cracked up, and I think of that just about every time I'm doing my underwater running."

But Ilkin has conquered the awkwardness he initially felt, and is proud that he recently hit a personal best of 2.4 miles on the treadmill where the water level sometimes reaches as high as his shoulders. And during the workout, Ilkin also includes the shuffle-steps and other footwork he used during his career as an offensive tackle, maybe to keep things from getting boring and also maybe as a tribute to Noll.

Ask Ilkin how he's feeling, and his answer is a definitive, "I feel good," and it's apparent he's not blowing smoke. Among the listed symptoms of ALS are muscle weakness and problems with coordination, but neither of those are evident when you're in his presence. His handshake is firm, he walks with a purpose and at a pace that can be challenging to match. As they say in the football business, he passes the eye test.

The way Ilkin views his many years in football, first as a player and then as a broadcaster, he had the good fortune to be coached by a legend in Chuck Noll and then to work in the broadcast booth with two more in Bill Hillgrove and Myron Cope.

"My first year with the Steelers was in 1998 and we played in the Hall of Fame Game," said Ilkin about his broadcast debut in a game that kicks off the NFL preseason each summer. "I drove Myron to Canton because he wanted to smoke. Myron said to me (about how things would work during the broadcast), 'OK, Tunch … Bill will speak, then I will speak, and then I'll signal you when it's your turn to speak.' So we get into the game, and one of the first plays had Bill calling a run where Levon Kirkland made the tackle. Then Myron followed up with something like, 'Kirkland really killed that running back,' and then when he looked at me as my signal to say something, I just froze. Froze."

Cope was known to be a stickler for proper broadcast booth procedure during games, but Ilkin said he never had any issues fitting in or any difficulty being accepted.

"I loved Myron," said Ilkin. "He taught me to not be so complex. He always said to me, 'Tunch, don't be so complicated when you're talking about football.' When the Steelers got to Super Bowl XL after the 2005 season, Myron had retired, and Bill called him before the game to chat. When I got on the phone I asked Myron, 'Do you have any advice?' He said, 'Don't say something stupid.'"

Ilkin laughs at that now, but earlier in the run through the playoffs to that Super Bowl against Seattle at Ford Field in Detroit, the Steelers were in Indianapolis for a Divisional Round game against the top-seeded Colts in the RCA Dome. With 80 seconds left and the Steelers clinging to a 21-18 lead, Joey Porter and James Farrior combined to sack Peyton Manning to turn the ball over to the offense at the Indianapolis 2-yard line. Steelers fans were ecstatic, and Ilkin was right there with them.

"So after Joey sacked Peyton Manning, and we got the ball at the 2-yard line, I said on the radio, 'Pack your bags, we're going to Denver (for the AFC Championship Game),'" said Ilkin. "And then Jerome (Bettis) fumbled, and the Colts recovered and ran the ball out to near midfield, and so then I said, 'Call the travel agents and unpack those bags …'"

Ilkin pointed to the Super Bowls as an obvious highlight of his time in broadcasting, but so were the annual trips to Cleveland when the Steelers would face the Browns.

"Before Myron retired, we would ride together to Cleveland every year for the game against the Browns," said Ilkin. "I would drive, and the first time when I offered to drive Myron to Cleveland, he asked me, 'Can I smoke?' I said, 'Myron, my Dad smoked, so I was around smoking growing up. You can smoke.' He would sit in the passenger seat, smoke, and imitate Buddy Rich playing the drums.'"

But as much as Ilkin treasured his time with Cope, nothing was as special as when Wolfley joined the broadcast team as a sideline reporter. And then that morphed into the long-time teammates and lifelong friends doing a two-hour, five-days-a-week talk show (Inside the Locker Room) that aired locally throughout Steelers season.

During training camp, Inside the Locker Room was broadcast from a tent just outside Benedict Hall on the campus of Saint Vincent College, and during the season its location often was inside a conference room at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, just a couple of first downs away from the team meeting room where Coach Mike Tomlin would roll the video and critique the team's most recent performance, often at a high volume.

"Training camp was always easy (doing the two-hour talk show with Wolf every day)," said Ilkin. "Wolf and I would compare training camp today with what training camp was like when we were playing. I had fun doing 'Inside the Locker Room,' and if we weren't doing it together, I never would've done a five-days-a-week show. I did it with him, and we did it well together. I also loved it when Wolf joined the broadcast team and would come along on road trips. We continued to be roommates on those trips like we were as players. We would sit on a bench outside and have a cigar when we got to the hotel, and then we'd have another one before we'd get on the bus to go to the stadium for the game the next day."

There won't be any more road trips or nights in a hotel with his best friend, but Ilkin is too focused on his treatment to allow himself to be dragged down by the end of one chapter of his life, especially when that chapter included so many special people and provided so many wonderful memories.

"I love Art Rooney II, and I love Dan, and I love the coaching staff, especially Mike Tomlin," said Ilkin. "I'm friends with Mike, and I'd love to play for him, because he's so good at coaching up guys. At training camp, I would watch him working with guys, coaching them, and just by standing there and watching him and listening to him, I learned defensive back techniques. One time when I was watching film in the Bill Nunn Draft Room with Ryan Shazier (after his spinal injury), Mike came into the room and said to us, 'Don't watch the same play over and over again, let (the game) wash over you.' Even at that stage of my career in football, after decades and decades of watching film, that taught me something and ended up helping me.

"I just had fun. I had fun, I worked with two legends - Bill Hillgrove and Myron Cope – and I had fun with those guys. And when the Steelers open the regular season (against Buffalo), you can bet I'll be watching the game."