Brenden Stai, Steelers Offensive Lineman, 1995-1999
First, can you tell readers what made you decide to start trying to get into coaching and how it’s been going so far at Nebraska?
When I retired we moved to California and I immediately started to coach the o-line at my alama mater high school (Esperanza) in Anaheim. That led to me coaching the o-line at a junior college in Huntington Beach called Golden West.
My wife and I decided to move our kids and raise them in the Midwest. Before we moved to Nebraska I tried to initially get in the door with the Huskers but certain entities that no longer occupy their position with the Huskers would not give me the time of day. I had always consulted and trained athletes since I retired and kept doing this on top of coaching my sons third through fifth grade football team as well as doing radio for the Huskers here in Lincoln.
Selling recreational property and being in real estate has been a passion of mine but something kept tugging at my heart to continue coaching at a higher level. Last Spring the opportunity presented itself to me @ the University of Nebraska to be an intern and help out with the offensive line. The rest is history!
What about coaching excites you and how exciting is it to be back at your Alma Mater?
Coaching allows me to give back to kids all of the experience I was able to gather over twenty-six years of playing the game of football. The energy that comes out of me is electric when I am hands-on teaching athletes of all ages.
The first day I stepped on campus back in February of 1990 I sensed an incredible feeling of tradition, family, community and pride surrounding the University. Those same feelings still exist and always will. I could not be more honored, blessed and incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity.
What coaching lessons and coaches helped inspire you most as a Steeler and now as a coach? Have you been able to implement those at Nebraska?
I think overall each athlete is different and draws on something they learned while they played at a high level and correlates these experiences into life lessons. There are so many stories and experiences to look at over my career as a Steeler but the one that inspired me the most was knowing I had a coach who believed in me.
Kent Stephenson was my line coach, he scouted me, worked me out and drafted me along with Tom Donahoe and his staff of scouts. I started as a rookie which led to starting in Super Bowl XXX. As we were warming up for the game the coaches normally would all walk around and give each player their blessing. When Kent approached me I thanked him for allowing me this once in a lifetime opportunity…he looked me in the eye and said “thank YOU for being a winner”. It is amazing what simple words can do to somebody but those words have inspired me for a long time.
You were drafted in ’95 as a third-round pick and found yourself in a Super Bowl that rookie season. How overwhelming was that first season for you and how did you cope with the stress and pressure of making the team and then contributing?
I really did not feel a lot of stress with football because it seemed to be, that year, an extension of the year before with football. At Nebraska in 1994 we won the National Championship. I was asked to switch positions in the game to go against one of college football’s greatest defensive lineman in Warren Sapp. We won the game and after that everything was a whirlwind.
I played in the Senior Bowl, went to the combine, got drafted, got married, started my fifth game as a pro, went to the playoffs, had my oldest daughter, Christina (16) and, oh yeah played in a game called the Super Bowl in a city I was born.
Lots of stories about that game, but I know this…there were some veteran players WAY more nervous than me. That first year for my wife and I in the Burgh was surreal. We enjoyed every minute of it!
Who helped mentor you as a rookie and took you under their wing – both on and off the field?
Their where a few guys. First and foremost the late Justin Strelczyk. What a huge heart and a fun-loving man….loved him!
Then there was the wily ole vet Mike Tomczak. He had been around and instilled in me a tremendous sense of confidence.
Last but not least Dirty D (Dawson). The man could do no wrong in my eyes. The way he played the game of football was like no other I had ever seen, and the way he went about his life. Just a tremendous human being who greeted everyone with a smile. Talk about playing next to greatness!
How helpful was it for you to have such an experienced group of lineman on that team like Dawson, Jackson, Woolford and Strelczyk? How did having that experience help you?
Don’t forget big Leon Searcy. All I can say is you are only as good as the guys around you up front on the offensive line. Those guys were special players and I was very fortunate to be amongst one of Pittsburgh Steelers greatest collection of veteran lineman.
Nebraska was such a run-oriented team. How did you adjust to the more pass-focused NFL offense?
It did not take long but certainly was not easy. I learned more about pass protection technique in my first mini-camp as a Steeler….more than I learned throughout my entire experience in college, high school etc.
I took a lot of pride in protecting the QB, and that first year in the Burgh we were at the top for fewest sacks allowed. Not bad for a group that was at the bottom of the heap the year before for sacks giving up. I never was the best pass protector but I had my moments. One year as a Steeler I did not give up a sack. Real proud of that one. Got player of the game switching to rigth tackle against Michael Sinclair from the Seattle Seahawks (he was leading the league in sacks at that point). Not a ton of stats an offensive lineman can garner but that one is a true measuring stick in the NFL.
How important was position versatility to you and the coaches – and do you feel it was stressed too much?
I think like anything in life it is always good to be diversified. Same holds true at the offensive line position. The more you can do the more valuable you are as an offensive lineman, especially in the NFL. Knowing how to physically play all the positions is big but also having the mental capacity to know everyone’s assignment, regardless, only helps further your understanding of the game..i.e. Big Picture!
How close were those Steelers teams you played on, and how much did humor play a part? Who were the guys that played the jokes – any examples?
My first few years in Pittsburgh there was a close bond on the team. However, when losses start mounting, rumors start flying, people begin to look over their shoulder and eventually the culture and climate of a team becomes toxic.
Some of the funniest people I have ever met came from that locker room. Jerome Bettis was a character! He would always have us busting up on his Lou Holtz impersonations. But the funniest guy ever was Freddy McAffee. It did not matter what the topic was, Freddy had a way with words…always thought he would make it as a stand up comedian. Had a great career as a special teams player.
Who were some of the toughest guys you faced in practice and on other teams? What made them so?
It’s ironic that I had not replied until now. One of the toughest guys I went against was Chester Mcglockton (who just passed away). He was a huge defensive tackle that was very explosive and powerful.
Probably the best all around defensive tackle I played against was Bryant Young. This guy had it all, especially before his gruesome leg injury. He was the type of player that either got you a promotion or fired. Loved playing against him!
A couple of other guys I thought had tremendous skill for the game at their position where Ted Johnson ( this guy was tough), Deion Sanders ( seeing him on tv vs playing against him where night and day…incredible athlete!), Kevin Greene (passionate guy on and off the field…I grew up watching him when he was with the Rams), Rob Burnett ( former Brown/Raven- tough defensive end who could rush the passer as good as anyone I had gone against and was tough, tough in run game.
Carnell Lake was a converted linebacker who played safety. He would come up and hit you like a ton of bricks! A guy who practiced hard and was a prime example of an overachiever was Oliver Gibson. Oliver and I would fight it seemed almost every day. But his hard work and drive eventually led to him getting the nod in Cincinnati. Great guy off the field!
After five years, you left Pittsburgh for Jacksonville. What prompted the move and how difficult was that for you?
It was time for a change and I was one of the pieces to that puzzle. Everyone knew their was something wrong with the formula in Pittsburgh (Cowher and Donahoe) plus we just were not the team that went to the Super Bowl. I never thought I would leave Pittsburgh but it happened and I made the best I could of it.
It was really hard leaving all my friends and dealing with finding another home in the NFL. We managed to survive the storm and found a home in Jacksonville. Of course the moment finally arrived when we played the Steelers in Three Rivers that following year. Going into the game the Steelers were playing really good especially on defense ( they were talking about the defense showing signs of the next great Steel Curtain). I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to go in their and literally take it to that defense, Joey Porter, Levon Kirkland and co.. We rushed for close to 300 yards with Fred Taylor and dominated them in all phases. It was simply put a bitter sweet victory….especially being the second-to-last game ever played in that stadium.
What are some of your favorite memories as a Steeler?
Getting drafted; the Indianapolis colts AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME, seeing the extended seating section move up and down with the fans jumping around…crazy!; Coach Cowher holding up the AFC trophy, looking down on me from the podium and saying ” this must be just another championship for you…eh?”; my two-of-three children being born @ Allegheny General; walking into Three Rivers for the first time and seeing the Lombardi Trophies; my first start vs Jacksonville; beating Denver in regular season at home in 98; Super Bowl XXX; our friends in the area especially the Millers, the McDermotts, the Pelligrinis and the Nappers-Milt and Diane! Meeting Martin Luther Kings wife, Corretta Scott King………..and last but not least Myron Cope!
Any last thoughts for readers?
Just want to say thanks for all the great memories. You are the best fans in the world! Always loved driving on game day, passing through the parking lot full of fans staying warm by trash cans of fire…five hours before kickoff. Here we go Steelers….. here we go!