Lupe Sanchez, Steelers Safety, 1986-1988
First, can you let readers know what you’ve been up to since your days in the NFL – and about your investment work, including how you got involved in the investment business?
A lot has happened since I left the Steelers. I took advantage of an internship with Merrill Lynch that I found out about through the NFLPA, and got my securities license to become a stockbroker. So I’ve been in the business for over twenty years now.
I currently work for a company by the name of Stifel Nicolaus headquartered out of St Louis. It is a wonderful company to work for. My wife and I are raising two children, our daughter Jacque 19 and our son Christian 15. They are our pride and joy.
You started off your pro football career in the USFL after being drafted by the new league in the first round in 1984. What made you decide to play in the USFL versus the NFL and how did that ultimately compare with your later NFL experiences?
I really enjoyed playing in the USFL. My rookie year I had the opportunity to play for legendary coach George Allen. That was a great experience even though it was very difficult to finish my senior year at UCLA and turn around the following month and play a full sixteen game season, as the USFL played in the spring.
Also it was a very good stepping stone to the NFL as we had many great players but nowhere near the depth the NFL had. So getting to play for the Steelers was an absolute dream come true. The people and the fans of Pittsburgh were fantastic and made for memories I will never forget.
After two seasons in the USFL, you found yourself in Pittsburgh in ’86. What do you think attracted the team to you – why do you think they pursued and ultimately signed you?
Jed Hughes had been our defensive coordinator at UCLA while I was there, so when I was released by the Chiefs in ’86 that was kind of my in. Plus Tony Dungy I think remembered me well from the combine the year I came out of UCLA.
It also helped that I had returned kickoffs and punts in college.
While not a professional football rookie, you were still new to the NFL and the Steelers. Who helped you adjust to the NFL – both on and off the field – and how did they do so? Any examples?
Tunch Ilkin and I shared the same agent, so when I got to Pittsburgh, he was a huge help to me. Also, Bill Hurley had the same agent also and even though he was no longer playing on the team, he still lived in Pittsburgh and rented me a room in the condo he lived in.
Those guys gave me good advice and helped me a great deal. I made friends with some really good guys on the team like Bubby and Merrill Hoge and Steve Bono, who had been a teammate of mine at UCLA.
What was your biggest adjustment to the NFL and life as a Steeler, and how did you make that adjustment?
I think the toughest adjustment for me in the NFL was having to play against great players every single game. Whether it was in practice against Louis Lipps or John Stallworth, or against Drew Hill and Ernest Givens or Jerry Rice or Chris Collinsworth and the list just kept going.
Also played against Chris Carter, Anthony Carter, Webster Slaughter and so many great receivers not to mention trying to tackle great running backs of that time.
The Stelers went through a tough stretch while you were there – the best record over those three years being 8-7. How did you, the other players and coaches deal with those struggles and how did they affect the locker room/team culture at the time?
It was tough at times when we struggled. It made me realize how good all the teams were. Like they say, on any given day anyone could beat anyone. We beat some teams we shouldn’t have and we lost to teams we should have beat. So it was tough whenever we lost and it made it worse to feel that anyone could get cut at any time. So you just had to give it 100 percent at all times and hope for the best. It was a grind at times.
Who were some of the biggest characters on those Steelers teams you played for and what made them so? Any examples of the antics of some of the players?
It was great playing on the same team with Donnie Shell, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. I really learned a lot from Donnie, being a defensive back myself. They were all great teammates and classy individuals. Those are guys I look forward to telling my grandkids about some day.
Also made many other friends on that team like Bubby Brister, Merrill Hoge, Rod Woodson, Louis Lipps and many others. As far as antics, I think it was just very special to get to experience the NFL with a great group of guys from so many different backgrounds and personalities. Just so many great memories of which some could be repeated and others maybe not. Lol. But without a doubt, an experience that changed my life and one I will never forget.
You excelled on special teams as a Steeler. What made you such a good special teams player?
I enjoyed playing special teams. I think what helped me as a kickoff return specialist was good coaching in college. I had a coach that taught us to always catch the ball moving forward.
Even now you see most return specialist take a step back as they catch the ball and then they start running. That usually takes an extra second or two to get going. And by then that can make the difference of getting through a hole in the defense or not getting there in time to get through it. So I always tried to get up in there as quickly as possible.
Tony Dungy was your defensive backs coach at the time. How did he help you as a player – both on and off the field?
Tony was great. He was extremely professional. I never once heard him raise his voice in the three seasons I was there.
I remember him saying something along the lines of: “Guys we aren’t here to teach fundamentals. At this level either you can do the job or you can’t. And if you can’t, you won’t be here.” And it wasn’t that he was being mean or negative, he was being very honest with us and we all appreciated it. You always knew where you stood and that was very important.
He was a great teacher not only about football, but about life. He would always walk through the training room as we were getting treatment for nicks and injuries and he would say: “Remember Wally Pip!” We would look at each other and say, who’s Wally Pip? He finally told us that Pip was the starting center fielder ahead of Lou Gehrig until he decided to take a day off because he just wasn’t feeling so well, and then no one ever heard of Pip again. Tony was a great motivator in many ways.
What are some of your greatest memories of your time in Pittsburgh?
My greatest memories of Pittsburgh would have to be the feeling of running onto Three River Stadium on Sundays in front of all those great Steeler fans and looking across the way and seeing another NFL team that I grew up watching, and having the feeling that I couldn’t believe I was actually on the same field with them. That was very special.
One moment I will never forget was a game in Chicago in 1986. I had been special teams player of the week, the week before, and therefore I was the special teams captain against the Bears that day. When I got to go out for the coin toss at mid field, it was a surreal feeling. I could not believe I was standing in front of my childhood idol Walter Payton. I still cherish that photo more than any other picture I have. It was truly a dream come true.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Last thing I would like to say is that I grew up pretty sheltered, due to the fact my parents were immigrants from Mexico. My dad passed away when I was only four and therefore my mother was Mom and Dad as I grew up. She raised us on her own and she is the reason I came back. I did have a brother fourteen years older than me and he was great to me.
But my point is that I had never really been much outside the town of Visalia, where I grew up and where I now currently live. So when I got to Pittsburgh I had no idea what to expect. After getting there and getting to know the people there, I was so pleasantly surprised at how genuine and down to earth people were. The friends I made and still keep in touch with to this day made it such an incredible experience. So thank you Pittsburgh for making my dream come true! And boy do I miss Primanti Bros to this day!