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Chris Fuamatu-Maʻafala, Steelers Running Back, 1998-2002

March 9, 2012
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Chris Fuamatu-Maʻafala:

You’ve been heavily involved in youth sports since the NFL – especially in Hawaii. What brought that interest on and what do you enjoy most about this work?

I love working with the kids. In my line of work, I’m in charge of overseeing everything from the rooms to making sure they all have a safe environment. I make sure they all have fair playing time – I can make all of those decisions and make the adjustments to make sure they get playing time.

I know what it feels like to be the kid who had to wait because the game was too tight and the coaches kept the stars in.

So, you weren’t always a star yourself?

(Laughing) Negative.  No -I was not always the star.

What coaches and coaching lessons do you find yourself falling back on in your work coaching and training young athletes?

Yeah – my little league coach Faatea Faatea. He taught me discipline. No matter how good you are you have to bust your butt just like everyone else. There’s no such thing as a star player.

How did he instill that in you?

I thought I was too cool and he put me in check. I was just acting too cool – not hustling as much as I should. (Laughing) he definitely put me in check.

You were drafted by the Steelers in the sixth round in 1998. What players and coaches helped take you under their wing as a rookie and showed you how to adjust to the NFL – both on and off the field and how did they do so?

I knew through my time at the combine that my chances of getting drafted were slim to none. In my interviews with the coaches of all the teams, I was just listening  to them talk about why I left early. Teams do their homework and my coach just destroyed me.

How so?

He said i wasn’t ready for the pros. He said the same thing to everyone. He was upset that I left early. I did it for my own financial reasons – I did what I had to do for my family. But he wanted me to stay.

Why do you think he did that?

He wanted me to stay. His job is on the line if they lost..you know how that works. I have no hard feelings now. I spoke with Coach McBride two years later – we’re ok now. But interviewing at the combine – it was tough listening to what they said. It wasn’t true but you had to listen to it.

As a sixth round pick, there were no guarantees on you making the team? What did you do to prove yourself to the coaches and make the team?

I went out there and was just myself.  But I think what put me over the top was my one on one with Levon Kirkland in training camp. I got an early jump and hit him and we ended up in a scuffle. I was naive – I didn’t know he was the defensive captain (laughing). We were pushing and shoving then all the linebackers came in and knocked me over.

I think the coaches saw then I wasn’t afraid. But it was a long training camp after that.

So, it didn’t end there?

Oh no – they all targeted me after that. You don’t touch the captain of the defense. But I didn’t back down.

Did the other running backs support you?

Yeah – Jerome {Bettis} came in after the scuffle with Levon and pushed some folks back. He and McAfee told me to keep my head on a swivel and told me who to watch out for. We’d watch film after practice and could see who was coming to get me and who to watch out for. It was a long five weeks…

Who were some of the toughest players you faced – both in practice and on other teams during your time in Pittsburgh?

Kendrell Bell was unbelievable. He was 255 pounds and ran a 4.3. And he loved to hit – they nicknamed him “Contact”. In one on ones, when he wanted to he could beat you any way he wanted – there wasn’t much you could do with him. He could beat you with a swim move or a bull rush. It seemed like I ended up matched against him every time – I don’t know how that happened!

Porter was also so fast and could run you over. He was so athletic.

On other teams – Jesse Tuggle -the Atlanta Falcon linebacker was stout. He was short and stocky – you couldn’t run him over. He got the better of me once – I lowered my shoulder and it felt like he broke it.

You became somewhat of a cult figure in Pittsburgh. Why do you think the fans were so enamored by you as a player?

I just think it was my running style. Pittsburgh is a blue-collar, hard-working smashmouth mentality, and that’s how I ran.

I remember pulling up the stadium in camp in my ’92 Ultima. I was still on my 6th round rookie salary. It had a dent in the left side….it cost me $2,500 but worked well (laughing). I was embarrassed  but the fans didn’t care. I was driving with the windows down because the air-conditioning didn’t work and I was just trying to keep my head down and not get noticed. But the fans saw me and started yelling “FU!!” They didn’t care….I never expected that kind of following.

You were a physical running back. Do you think your style of play made it hard for you to have a longer career – and do you think there’s a place for your style of running in today’s pass-oriented NFL?

No doubt – injuries pile up because of all the different things I had to do. I had to do it all – special teams, scout team and the regular offensive plays, every day. That was like seventy plays a day – that’s like playing a regular game.

The vets only had to do the offensive plays. The wear and tear in practice was brutal. That had a big part in cutting my career short.

Other guys had the same issue. Verron Haynes was always physically in great shape. But the wear and tear got to him too. Guys like that never get hurt, but he did due to that wear and tear.

How much did you running style effect that as well? Did you have guys telling you to take it easy – especially in practice?

It’s like a boxer when people tell them they should retire. It’s the same thing. I can’t change who I am. They showed us how to sidestep people in practice and use footwork to step by a defender. But for me, I loved the individual matchups. I want to be the tougher guy.

If I had to choose between a touchdown or running someone over, I’d pass up the touchdown all the way. My mentality is that I have to prove I’m tougher. If I had a different style, yeah, I definitely would have lasted longer.

Who were some of the biggest characters and leaders on those Steelers teams you played on, and what made them so? Any examples?

Fred McAfee – “Fast Freddie:”. He’d do standup before the games – guys huddled around him.

What made him so funny – you’re not the first to point him out.

He was just smart and had the gift of gab. If there was anything he found to pick on you with, it was over – it was tough to get him to stop. He was witty – I don’t know where he came up with some of the things he did, like when he announced “I’m so fast I hunt rabbits with a hammer!” He just goes off….

You left the Steelers after the 2002 season to play in Jacksonville. What caused you to leave the Steelers and how hard was that for you?

Injuries in preseason did it. Pittsburgh had to do what it had to do. I had no hard feelings but it was the hardest time in my life. It was the first time I wasn’t picked to be on the team. In high school, college and being drafted in the NFL – someone always wanted me on their team. Then, not to be needed, especially having a family at the time…I was lost.

How did you adjust?

The good thing was that in Jacksonville, there were two other Hawaiian guys on the team – Chris Naeole and Vince Mamuwai – their bookend guards. That made it easier to transition for me.

That’s a good segway – what are your thoughts on the increasing number of Polynesian players in the NFL? Is this a tribute to the culture, the football programs, both or something else…?

The culture – we were all warriors before – it’s embedded in us to compete and challenge. Growing up, I remember grampas playing rugby and other physical sports. It was our culture – everything was tough – we worked for everything. Physical sports were fun (laughing). The bloodline is still inside us.

What are your favorite memories of Pittsburgh?

The people. The food….

The North Park Lounge’s wings and hamburgers. Primanti’s, and Paula’s breakfasts.

The fans are so loyal. Back in 2010, I took my wife and kids back to Pittsburgh. They saw pictures but never experienced it. We went through the tunnel and onto the field. There were guys in the stands yelling “FU!”. My kids asked my wife why they were booing me (laughing). We explained to them what they were saying. My daughter was nine then and she was just starstruck.

My ties with Troy {Polamalu} are still tight. He was a rookie when I was there and he’s “Uncle Troy” to my kids. I can’t wait to go back and probably will again this year.

Mr. Rooney was first class – and I’m not saying that to kiss up or anything. They know everybody – your wife and kids’ names…they took the time to know you. They will never forget you if you make use of your time there. I was blessed to play for the organization.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 22, 2012 8:50 pm

    Why don’t you pick up the phone and talk to Mike Wallace a few minutes? That could be a big help to all Steeler fans if Mike gets his head on straight & soon.

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