Chris Combs, Steelers Defensive Lineman, 2000-2001
First, can you let readers know what you are doing now post-NFL?
I enjoy my work as a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch and The Clark-Combs Group in Durham, NC.
I don’t have a lot of time outside of work these days but I’m involved in my church and with community work through the Durham Rotary Club, the Durham Rescue Mission, and Duke University.
You coached with your alma mater (Duke) for a while as well. Can you let readers know more about your coaching – how you got started coaching post-NFL and what you enjoy about it most?
Following my release from Jacksonville in 2003 I was rehabilitating a knee surgery at Duke Medical Center in hopes of getting another shot in training camp in 2004. When it became obvious that my playing days were over I accepted a position at Duke as an Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach. For four years I worked with Football, Baseball, and Men’s Lacrosse. The part I enjoyed most was the ongoing, consistent presence that I had in the athletes’ lives. It was very rewarding to see them mature over a four-year cycle. One of my players was Patrick Bailey who became a Pittsburgh Steeler and a Super Bowl champion in his rookie year!
The most difficult part for me was seeing my Lacrosse athletes and coaching colleagues deal with the national media circus and false allegations that came in 2006.
What coaches and coaching lessons – especially from your Steelers days – dis you find yourself falling back on now as a coach?
I liked coaches who were generous with their time and were enthusiastic about helping me improve. Our Defensive Line coach in Pittsburgh John Mitchell used to watch film with me after practice during the season and that wasn’t something he had to do but he was willing to. When I was a coach I tried to never turn an athlete away who asked me for personal attention and genuinely wanted to improve. I respected coaches who were well-prepared, clearly knew their ‘Xs’ and ‘Os’ and were willing to answer technical questions without just blowing you off.
Our Defensive Coordinator in Pittsburgh Tim Lewis had played the game at the Pro Bowl level but he was also very articulate and well-studied and you could tell it was important to him to know the answer to any question you might have. When I was a coach I worked with intelligent kids at Duke who had tough questions and wanted to know the ‘whys’ of a lot of things so I tried to make sure I was on the ball. I enjoyed coaches who had the gift to motivate.
Coach Cowher used to meet with each of us individually after the season to assess what we needed to improve on during the off-season. Even though we had just completed a 6 month season I left those meetings highly motivated and with a clear sense of where I stood. When I was coaching I tried to meet individually with my athletes both to keep them motivated and to give them individual feedback- I just think that’s good management.
You were drafted by the Steelers in 200 as a 6th round pick. What enabled you to make the squad – what about you as a player do you think caught the coaching staff’s eye and helped you secure a roster spot?
We entered training camp in the Summer of 2000 with Kevin Henry and Chris Sullivan (acquired from New England) as the two starting Defensive Ends. Kevin had knee surgery early in training camp and Sullivan suffered a back injury which would later require surgery. We didn’t have a lot of healthy bodies along the defensive front and that gave me a chance to practice a lot against the starting offense in training camp and build confidence going into the preseason games.
Who helped mentor you as a rookie – helped you adjust to life in the NFL both on and off the field, and how did they do so?
Tom Myslinski was an offensive guard there and he used to work with me in the weight room- we are still friends today. Rich Tylski was another offensive guard I looked up for his character and toughness. All the veteran defensive linemen there were good guys. I remember Aaron Smith inviting me out to lunch during a mini-camp one afternoon in the Spring of 2000. Aaron was very down-to-earth and I really got to see him develop and grow into the truly outstanding pro football player he’s become.
I remember eating Thanksgiving dinner at Kevin Henry’s house my rookie year. Kevin treated me very well as long as I had his breakfast delivered to him every Saturday morning during the season. Kimo von Oelhoffen was very friendly and generous with his football knowledge he used to stay after practice with me and help me with techniques.
Chris Sullivan was very quiet but an intelligent guy who had been successful with New England and he had a knack for pointing out things on film that were helpful. Jeremy Staat took me bird hunting once. Our team chaplain Jay Wilson was instrumental in my spiritual growth and development off-the-field.
How difficult was the adjustment to the 3-4 defensive scheme for you – what about the scheme did you like and not like?
Most defenses in the 3-4 scheme require at least one or two of the three linemen to read and react to the movement of the offensive line as opposed to attacking a gap on the snap of the football. This can reduce your likelihood of making big plays (tackles for losses, sacks) but you also don’t take yourself completely out of many plays. It forces you to stay disciplined and play with sound technique which I liked.
You have to be unselfish because your sole responsibility in certain blocking schemes is to protect the inside linebacker from being touched. It took me some time to appreciate this but the Steelers’ consistent success on defense speaks for itself. They have a formula that works and they know the type of player who will execute what they’re looking for.
Coach Cowher said that he thought you might be the best-taught player coming out of college he has ever seen, combining good technique with great hands. How did you develop those techniques and how did they help you at the NFL level?
I was very fortunate to have a college defensive line coach at Duke named Scott Brown who was a tremendous teacher of fundamentals. Coach Brown had a great ability to communicate how to get into a stance, keep your pads down, and use your hands and feet to control the blocker- these things aren’t as simple as they sound.
He taught me how to study an offense and understand what blocking schemes to expect out of different formations. I learned how to watch individual offensive linemen to see how they would pass protect and what pass rush moves they could be susceptible to. I couldn’t have asked for a better coach/2nd father figure at that stage of my life. We didn’t win many football games at Duke but I’d do it all over again.
Despite the accolades it was hard to get playing time on that line. What was the biggest obstacle for you in getting more playing time on those teams and how frustrating was it for you?
I have to tip my hat to the other defensive linemen on those teams who played and deserved to be in the lineup. It was extremely frustrating for me not to play because it was the first time in my life that having a strong work ethic and commitment to succeed didn’t lead to the results I was looking for. I have no regrets about the effort I put into becoming a contributor on those teams but the men in the lineup performed very well and some of them (Smith, Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke, Brett Keisel) are still there today.
Who were some of the biggest characters on those teams and what made them so? Any examples?
This could be an interview in and of itself because the locker room wasn’t lacking for humor or characters. I got a kick out of our fullback Jon Witman and this pickup truck he used to drive- we called it “The Steeler-Mobile” because it was all decked out. John Fiala was always upbeat and had a great sense of humor- he used to shout out random things during team stretch periods before practice that kept us laughing.
Kevin Henry’s wardrobe on game day was memorable- Earl Holmes used to call him “Dr. King.”
After the 2001 season you found yourself in Jacksonville. Why the change and how difficult was the move for you?
The Steelers released me at the end of training camp in 2002 and fortunately the Jaguars signed me shortly thereafter. The heat in Jacksonville was the biggest adjustment for me. Our facility was near a Maxwell House coffee plant downtown and I can still smell that coffee mixed with the Florida heat and humidity. I remember how happy I was to have a locker room to go to, a helmet and shoulder pads to wear, and a field to play on every day.
Coach Tom Coughlin took an interest in me and treated me very well and I had a great experience playing there with that group of veterans.
What are some of your greatest memories as a Steeler and what made them so?
Running out of the tunnel at Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field was an adrenaline rush and the excitement of playing against the best football players in the world was something I’ll never forget. I grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan so playing my first preseason game in Texas Stadium against Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith was a special memory. Lining up against Hall of Fame players like Bruce Matthews and future Hall of Famers like Jonathan Ogden is something that not a lot of people get to say they’ve done.
Being a small part of the Steelers tradition is something I’m very proud of and thankful for. Living in Pittsburgh with the world’s best fans and working for one of America’s great organizations was a highlight for sure.