Jeff Hartings, Steelers Center, 2001-2006
First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing with yourself since the NFL – especially about Urban Impact and the church you started with former Lion teammate Luther Ellis?
When I retired I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah and helped set up a non-denominational church (with former Detroit teammate Luther Ellis). But then God called me back to Pittsburgh where I could help raise money and expand the ministry for Urban Impact. We developed baseball and basketball programs for kids – and I’m still working on raising money and developing programs.
How difficult was it for you adjusting to retirement from the game?
It wasn’t real difficult. I definitely miss the game and playing – but my body isn’t capable of playing now. That helped with the adjustment knowing I just couldn’t play any more. It wasn’t that I wasn’t wanted.
Adjusting to the fact that all of a sudden real life happens was tough too. The day-to-day. Not working out with the purpose of playing and having that purpose every day – that’s difficult.
One of ten kids – how did that impact you as a player/competitor?
The greatest impact was always having someone to play sports with. Playing more sports just makes you more athletic. But what led me to the NFL was my love for the game. I loved playing football – everything about the game -and worked hard to get that opportunity.
Your faith has been a big part of your career – both on and off the field. When did that start for you and how do you think it has influenced your football career?
I prscticed my faith before football – I went to church weekly. But I didn’t have a relationship with God – God was not my number one priority growing up. I wasn’t glorifying God. I thought of myself – my football career, marriage and kids. But football wasn’t fulfilling on it’s own- I still had a void. That’s what led me to go to Bible study class after a teammate recommended it to me.
I think faith had an impact on the team, but with only five or ten of us in the study, it’d be a stretch to say it was a great impact. Nothing like it was on those 70′s teams.
You were a number one pick of the Lions in ’96. How much pressure did you feel to excel as a rookie and how did you cope with that pressure?
I definitely felt a lot of pressure being the new kid on the block. I told myself, just play football and do what I have always done. It was still just a game. After my first game blocking guys I used to watch play, I did alright and that eliminated any uncertainty.
Who helped you adjust as a rookie to the NFL – both on and off the field – and how did they do so?
Kevin Glover – the center in Detroit helped me on the field. Luther Ellis helped me off the field.
Luther was young too – he lived in Detroit year-round like we did so my wife and I and he and his wife spent time together.
Kevin helped me with the little things. How to watch game film and approach the game, and to study your opponent. We believed that more was caught than taught. Watching him prepare was how I learned a lot – I admired the way he was a professional and wanted to be like him.
What made you decide to play for Pittsburgh in 2001 – what about the team and coaches made that your destination of choice in free agency?
There are not a lot of opportunities in free agency. It boiled down to Arizona, Cleveland, Detroit or Pittsburgh. I wanted to win a Super Bowl. I knew Coach Cowher was a guy who won every year, no matter what players they lost. I felt like that was the place I could win a Super Bowl at.
It also didn’t hurt that they gave me the contract I asked for and that it was close to home.
How difficult was the adjustment to center for you in Pittsburgh and who helped you most with that adjustment – and how?
I wasn’t excited about it, but it wasn’t that difficult. Russ Grimm helped me a lot with the adjustment. Watching film on Dermontti Dawson helped, as did talking to a lot of centers after my first season to get some advice and pointers on how to play the position.
The most difficult thing was learning to snap the ball then block. That took a while to get used to.
Kendall Simmons. in an interview with him, spoke highly of the help you gave to him in terms of helping him with blocking assignments and in staying relaxed on the field. Was mentoring younger players something the team fostered more than you saw in Detroit and elsewhere, and what about your approach to the game helped Kendall and others?
It’s an unspoken element. I just wanted to stay focused on what I was doing and I didn’t worry about others on the team. I didn’t compare myself to others. I just wanted to do the best job I could and play the best I could. If I wasn’t good enough, well my career is over then. That’s up to me.
I definitely feel like some players don’t help others – especially the younger guys who were insecure about their jobs. Detroit was the same as Pittsburgh in terms of players helping one another. It’s an individual thing, not a team or culture thing.
Pittsburgh had the better focus on winning and the overall culture of professionalism – in the community and on the field. In Detroit then it was more about personal success and money then about winning.
You played through a number of knee injuries. How is your health now and how did those injuries affect your play?
It affected the joy I had playing. I made two pro bowls and won a Super Bowl when my knees were at their worst. If I had six or seven more years, I could have made more pro bowls and maybe the Hall of Fame. But, the injuries ended my career. I’m thankful though, for the pro bowls and Super Bowl win.
Do you think fans fully understand and appreciate the physical toll many players go through? Why/why not?
I don’t think fans relate. People come up to me still and say to me that it was good I got out before I got too banged up. I don’t know what they mean. Before I am paralyzed?
Fans forget that we play football in high school, college then the NFL. At forty years old your body feels like you are sixty. You have to do all you can to maintain your health now – to avoid having to use painkillers. In my era, we weren’t educated on the effects of concussions and the pounding a body takes, but we’re getting there now.
The game has changed a good deal in the short time since you’ve retired. What do you think of the rules changes both as they relate to player protection and in opening up the passing game?
It’s good for the health of the players. On the other hand, I don’t like the excessive fines for unintentional hits. They happen due to the speed of the game and the NFL hasn’t reached a balance yet.
I think the NFL over-protects quarterbacks. You talk to fans and owners and they are thankful their quarterback is protected. It’s not as exciting watching the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger at Quarterback, I know. But as a throwback kind of guy you don’t like the way the game has changed.
How important was humor to you as a player – and who were some of the biggest characters on those Steelers teams you played for – and what made them so?
Jerome was a comedian on a daily basis – he and Porter. He brought humor into the warmups – he would act like another teammate and imitate them – especially Porter. He would always get the defense fired up on nine-on seven drills.
What are some of your best memories as a Steeler and what makes them so?
The Super Bowl parade – I gained a new appreciation and perspective on the Steelers fans after the parade. The Steelers fans can be fanatics and that can be overwhelming. It definitely was for me at first until we won the Super Bowl. Then, I realized they just love the Steelers. They are not obsessed – they are just die-hard fans.
It was a great experience for me.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Just my appreciation. My wife and I have made our home in Pittsburgh,. I was blessed to play six years in Pittsburgh. People come up and thank me for my time as a Steeler. Thank me? I always say thank you – for the great years I had ini Pittsburgh.