The Steeler Way

An unusual program helps young players avoid off-​field mistakes
Corin Schipani The Steeler Way
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Over the summer, news reports across the country have focused on the dramatic increase in NFL player arrests since the Feb. 4 Super Bowl. As of early July, the off-​season arrest rate has increased 75 percent over last year, according to one labor economist. And of the 31 arrests since the Super Bowl, the murder case against New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez has been by far the biggest negative incident dominating the off-​season. But should these arrests really be a surprise? Typically entering the NFL at the age of 22, players become instant gods, earning millions a year and facing an array of temptations and pitfalls that many are unprepared to handle and that most people never face.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are not immune from such problems, but the team has a reputation of avoiding them more often than most. When young players enter camp, they begin to hear a phrase: “The Steeler Way.” Although they typically don’t understand it at first, in time it begins to take shape in their minds through the tutelage of their older teammates and reinforcement all the way up the ladder to the owners of the team.

When sports pundits debate who the league’s best owners are, the Rooneys are generally at or near the top of the list. The family maintains a down-​to-​earth and hands-​on approach with the team, often traveling with the team and eating dinner with players on the road. They’ve run the franchise since 1933, and they’ve learned something about managing players, including preparing rookies for life in the NFL.

If you have a team of good men in the locker room, you hope that filters down every year,” Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert told Pittsburgh Quarterly in a recent interview. “We really try to focus on the players we think are right for us in every facet. We try in every way possible to educate them to make the correct decisions in all aspects of their lives.”

The man leading that charge is ex-​NFL player Ray Jackson, the Steelers’ director of player engagement. A former defensive back for the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills, Jackson facilitates off-​season rookie programs ranging from credit management to sex education. The Steelers’ programs come in addition to the mandatory three-​day NFL rookie symposium, an orientation for all drafted rookies to focus on making the transition from college to professional football.

What’s great with Ray is that he holds you accountable because he truly cares. He wants you to do something that is going to help you as a player and as a person,” said Steelers tight end Matt Spaeth. “He has a job title, but it doesn’t fit what he does, because he does everything. He’s a terrific guy to have around the team.”

Jackson said his job is to do whatever he can to help each player, from opening bank accounts for them to counseling them privately in his office, strategically situated near the team’s weight room.

Every last player would say I treat all of them like they are my own children,” Jackson said. “From the bottom of my heart, I don’t look at this as a job — it’s my life. It’s more like a ministry to me.”

Several years ago, the Steelers also began bringing in parents and loved ones of rookie players for private meetings. The idea originated from coach Mike Tomlin.

We talk to the parents about money and contracts, and we also try to impose on them to remember that they still have more knowledge and life experiences than their son,” Jackson said. “Some families may start looking at their sons as if they have all the answers after they sign lucrative contracts. Our message is: He may have more money, but you still have more wisdom. Don’t let that role reversal occur.”

Even the simple step of designating a family member to handle ticket requests can take a huge burden off the players.

Sports agent and lawyer Adisa Bakari represents running back Le’veon Bell, the Steelers’ second-​round draft pick, and two other players on the team, running back Jonathan Dwyer and linebacker Chris Carter. “It’s really good business for the team to get all the families involved from day one,” Bakari said. “These are young players facing huge transitions. The expectations of family members are not always properly placed. It’s key to get those loved ones in the right frame of mind.”

Jackson also goes out of his way to make himself accessible to any parent or loved one at all times. “I tell them that if they talk to their son and he doesn’t seem the same, call me. I also watch every mannerism in every player all the time. I know one thing for sure — if a guy is always smiling on and off the field and all of the sudden he’s not, something’s up.”

The overriding Steelers message is: “Let’s win, but just as importantly, don’t bring any embarrassment to that Steelers name or brand. You are a grown man now,” Jackson said. “If there’s a negative incident, I feel like I failed the Rooneys and I failed Steeler Nation.”

You’re going to hear people blaming the NFL in this Hernandez situation, but I don’t know what else could have been done,” said Pittsburgh-​based sports agent and attorney Ralph Cindrich. “Sometimes, if you have a thug on your team, he’s going to remain a thug no matter what you do. The Steelers are known throughout the league as a team that does its best to draft solid citizens.”

On June 1, the Steelers ended up in the headlines when second-​year offensive lineman Mike Adams was stabbed in the stomach at 3 a.m. on the South Side. Three men have been arrested in the alleged carjacking attempt, but many fans and local radio commentators still criticized Adams for putting himself in such a vulnerable position by being out overnight.

Mike Adams? I love him,” Jackson said. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And you know the saying, ‘Nothing good happens after midnight.’ It was an unfortunate incident, and we’re blessed that he is OK. We all learn from that. Had that not have been Mike Adams, it would not have been a big story. “

In April, Steelers defensive lineman Alameda Ta’amu pleaded guilty to DUI, resisting arrest and reckless endangerment in connection with a high-​profile Oct. 14 incident on East Carson Street. A drunken Ta’amu, whose blood-​alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit, led police officers on a chase at 2:30 a.m. in which he slammed his Lincoln Navigator into four parked cars before he was arrested after attempting to flee on foot.

In football-​crazy Pittsburgh, media saturation on all positive and negative stories is to be expected. But Jackson believes there is no better NFL city. “This is a very special place — Super Bowls are a prerequisite the minute you sign that contract. I tell my players: If you stay out of trouble, when you walk around this city everyone will know you, and everyone will love you. This is not just a team you are coming to. It’s much bigger than a team.”

Retired Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden, who started on the Super Bowl XLIII championship team, said Jackson still keeps in touch with him. “Sometimes you need that extra voice in your ear, making sure that you realize there will be life after the NFL,” said McFadden, who hopes to launch a television broadcasting career in Miami. “I really appreciate the relationship that I built with Ray. I’m out of the league, but I can still pick up the phone and call him and he’ll be there for me.”

McFadden remains grateful for the care the Steelers extended him when they drafted him in 2005. “When I came in as a rookie, I did not really expect the organization to care about my personal life; I was so focused on performing on the field. A lot of us guys are suddenly dealing with more money than we ever imagined, and the Steelers really make an effort to keep that in perspective. And the Rooney family just makes you feel like they care about you as a human being. You hear of other teams where the owners don’t even talk to the players. The Rooneys talk to everyone on the team and treat us as equals.”

One of the first speakers the Steelers bring in each year for rookies is Sandra McDonald, president and founder of Outreach Inc. in Atlanta, which is recognized as one of the country’s preeminent HIV/​AIDS and substance abuse service providers. McDonald also speaks annually at the NFL rookie symposium. Jackson said he was so moved by her lectures that he personally invited her to visit the Steelers each year.

Oh my goodness, we have very direct conversations that would make most people blush,” McDonald said. “I usually start out with talking to them about managing relationships. For example, if you are going to be a consumer of affairs with women, you need to be an informed consumer. I talk to them about what qualities they would look for in a wife.”

McDonald talks about condom use, pregnancy and DNA, and the risks of promiscuity. She never tells players how to live their lives. “I don’t judge. I just lay out various scenarios. Literally, there are players who tell me stories about women who ask them to do crazy things that they never imagined. I don’t tell the players what to do; I just try to give them advice.”

Tomlin takes the session very seriously, McDonald said. “Coach Tomlin always drops by and tells the players: ‘This is very important. Listen to what she has to say.’ Many coaches do not want to allot the time to have their players sit down and go through this. When I come to visit, my interest is what happens off the field. Any time a coach gives enough of himself and his time to come into my program, that just lends support to how important it is. And Ray Jackson is one of the best directors I have ever worked with.”

The Steelers also bring in speakers to advise players on credit management, banking and the stock market. “We simulate the stock market, which is one of the programs Mike Tomlin loves,” Jackson said. “And we teach them the difference between mutual funds, bonds and stocks. These are young men making CEO money, the kind of money that maybe 50– or 60-​year-​olds are making. We can’t expect them to make 50– or 60-​year-​old decisions without advice.”

Jackson recounts a story from his NFL playing days. His debit card was declined at a Buffalo grocery store checkout counter. Jackson called his financial planner, who told him that his money had been moved to a different account without Jackson’s knowledge. “I fired my financial planner on the spot and realized that I needed to pay more attention to my own money. I tell the players: Don’t just give your money away and not pay attention. Take ownership of your money. Go visit your agent. See how your agent lives. Make them work to represent you.”

Jackson knows he doesn’t reach each and every player. “Every season is different. You have to cater to the personalities on our team. Of course, with some players, all the information is going to go in one ear and out the other. But we do all we can to give them the keys to success on and off the field.”

Jackson also emphasizes the Steelers tradition and family atmosphere to new players. “I remember when I first arrived and I called my wife and told her, ‘This is a very special place. It’s April, and there are fans walking around town in Steelers jerseys,’ ” he said, laughing. “Later, when I first came out of the tunnel onto Heinz Field and saw all those Terrible Towels, I was literally teary-​eyed.”

Tight end Spaeth understands Jackson’s emotion. “Ray is one of the most genuine guys I have ever met. I would trust him with anything. The things the Steelers try to pound into you as a rookie, Ray will stay on you throughout your career so you don’t forget. It’s an organization that truly cares. You can’t fake that. It’s real.”

Ben Schmitt

Ben Schmitt graduated from Peabody High School in 1988 and Michigan State University in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He worked as a reporter at the Concord Monitor, Savannah Morning News, American Lawyer Media and the Detroit Free Press and won a national Emmy award in 2008 for two video stories about pit bulls. He also helped report on the downfall of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, which earned the Free Press a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. He is now a staff writer for the Tribune-​Review.

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