Robin Cole, Steelers Linebacker, 1977-1988
First, can you let readers know about the Obediah Cole Foundation - your involvement and how it got started?
Well, I’m a cancer survivor myself. In November of ’08 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I have three other brothers who were diagnosed with prostate cancer. My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer when he was 43 and passed away at 49.
We started a race for prostate cancer awareness out an organization in Denver called Us Too. Then we created our own race our of Pittsburgh out of our foundation called Man Up. Men get prostate cancer just like women get breast cancer, but you heard little about prostate cancer. More men die from prostate cancer every year than women do of breast cancer. 280,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year and 25,000 die every year.
It just takes a simple blood test to help you get fully diagnosed. Men still today are afraid to get examined – the rectal exams scare them, like by having one it makes them less of a man. It’s shear stupidity.
Being an athlete, we got exams regularly. It’s uncomfortable, but it has to be done. The foundation was started to educate men, to give free blood screenings here in my area and to bring awareness.
What’s else have you been doing since your time in the NFL”?
I’m a motivational speaker. I closed my bakery business in November of 2011. I tried to make it pan out but it just couldn’t survive in these hard times. I was doing some speaking before then, now I am continuing to do motivational speaking.
I love the inspirational part of speaking. I speak in churches sharing my faith and in high schools and elementary schools, teaching kids about values and their importance in their lives. teaching them to shoot for the stars.
I move people. I share from the heart and that moves people. Some people sing, then another sings the same song and that moves you. That’s me…
You were Pittsburgh’s first round pick in ’77. How did you deal with the pressure of being a #1 pick and was it at all frustrating for you being drafted by a team already loaded at the linebacker position?
They had a reason for it One of their pro bowlers – Andy Russell – retired. They needed a replacement and they weren’t sure if the backup – Loren Toews - was ready at the time. They shared with me that they wanted someone to replace Russell and I was excited about that.
I came here excited to be a part of the Steelers. I got in early to learn the defense and that helped me get a head start. There was a lot of pressure – some nights I couldn’t sleep. But on the field I knew how to play.
I was expected to learn quickly. Then Toews got hurt in camp so I started every preseason game. I broke my arm though in the first game of the season and that set me back eight games. I played with a cast on my arm when I got back – it was like playing with one-and-a-half arms.
The next year Loren and I shared the position.
Was that frustrating?
Sure it was frustrating at times, but that is professional football.
We learned from one another. We were the best linebacker corps then and I fit in there with my aggressive play. I enjoyed it – I could have easily ended up with a ton of sacks if I was given the opportunity to rush the passer more. But that wasn’t needed. We had the Steel Curtain. So I played the run and dropped into coverage. I could cover man-t0-man. I didn’t carry much weight – I had to cover twenty yards downfield.
Who helped you adjust to the NFL as a rookie – both on and off the field – and how?
You didn’t get much help back then. You learned at the college level and came ready when you reached the NFL. They didn’t teach positions as much – the coaches didn’t play the position themselves. No former players were coaches then besides Noll.
So many former players are now in coaching so they can teach you the position. But back then you learned from the other players.
What other players did you learn from?
L.C. and Joe Greene helped me out. I picked things up for them. I watched Lambert and Ham and learned from them that way – they didn’t say much to you.
L.C. took me under his wing and showed me the area around Pittsburgh. He started his own business and knew how to help me get started on a construction business for myself. He helped me become an entrepreneur. Back then you needed people to help you – you didn’t make the money that players do today.
Players need to be exposed to good people so you don’t get taken advantage of. You see that happen with so many players who meet guys who just take their money….
How difficult was it for you to adjust to the Steelers defense and how did you accomplish doing so so successfully?
We played the 3-4 in college – we just called it the 5-2. We were called outside defensive ends but we were really outside linebackers. Plays were different at times but they were similar, so that helped me when we ran the 3-4.
When I first got there, we were running the 4-3 and that was the first time I was in a 4-3. We moved to the 3-4 after five years. I learned how to play with my hand on the ground. We could double guys in coverage and teams didn’t know who we were covering. We had to run a 4.45 40 – Jack Ham and I – so we could cover the slot guys and free up the safeties to make plays. We did that in the 3-4 and 4-3.
How did you adjust to the new schemes?
All is new when you first come in. It just takes practice. You can’t have the attitude that this is new and its going to be too tough. You just have to learn it. Once you learn one play you can learn them all.
They don’t call or even know all the plays anyway. They only call what they practice that week. You match the plays that week with the offense you are playing. Sometimes we had plays that didn’t work, but that’s the chess game.
Did you emulate any other players?
There was no one I emulated. I was a great pass rusher in college. I played like LT. In the NFL, LT went to a team that utilized what he was good at and he had the freedom to do what he wanted. I didn’t have that freedom.
Was that frustrating, knowing you could get more sacks?
No – I adjusted. I got two Super Bowls. Lot’s of guys couldn’t handle that – they did get upset. They were hard-headed. I was able to not be concerned about Robin Cole. I should have been in the Pro Bowl in ’79 – I shut down my side all season. But I didn’t go until ’84. I was an alternate a couple times, but never quite got in. But that’s ok. I was part of a great team and great organization. I wouldn’t trade any of it. I love the guys I played with and the team.
You were there with Ham, Lambert, Toews and Winston. How competitive were the linebackers with each other and how so?
We were very competitive with each other. That’s what created the greatest linebacker corps in the last thirty years. We’ve had linebackers in the Pro Bowl my whole career.
We trusted one another. When it gets to the point you now you can make a big play any time you work hard, it becomes fun,. We all were for one another. We loved one another and enjoyed watching each other on film make plays. We were a team.
Who were the biggest characters on those teams and what made them so? Any examples?
Dwight White was the biggest character. he and Bradshaw. White said anything at any time. We did the Mel Blount celebrity roast a few years ago and they laughed at me too, so maybe I was a character too (laughing).
But White made you laugh – he enjoyed playing football and played it tough. He and Terry both.
After eleven years you actually went to training camp with the jets. What prompted that move?
I was in camp in Pittsburgh for seven weeks – through all the preseason games. I got cut the Monday of the first week of the season. So, what do I do now? I was in shape – I might as well play. I got claimed by the Jets Tuesday – they lost a couple of linebackers to injury and they needed an experienced backup linebacker. But then the starting linebacker got hurt so I ended up starting at linebacker.
But, I dislocated my toe versus Pittsburgh in the first game the Jets ever beat Pittsburgh. I caught it in the Astroturf and tore tendons…
Do you follow the Steelers today? What are your thoughts on today’s Steelers?
I definitely do. They have a fantastic team. There are a few areas we need help on and addressed in the draft. We needed offensive linemen and we still need a running back. They guys on the sidelines need to step up. You never know though what you are getting with rookies until they play
Do you like today’s NFL- the rule changes and pass-focus?
We’re human beings – you never like every decision. Sometimes you just accept decisions – I accept them all. I;m not part of the decision-making process so I can’t worry about it and complain. If I’m not part of the process and never pursued being a part of the process, I just leave it alone.
And protecting players is a good thing. Maybe some will have longer careers because of it.
What do you think of today’s players?
A lot of these guys today wouldn’t make my team if I could pick one. We got beat up in practice before every game. You practice hard, you play hard.
I used to wrestle to get ready for games. There are other things you can do to get used to the physicality of the game. Coaches today don’t understand that. Karate, Judo, wrestling – some of these coaches can’t even scratch their own backs. There are other things guys can do after practice that can help them get used to the weight of other players and the contact without crushing each other.
H0w would you like to be remembered as Steeler?
As a man and player, I know people say I was under-rated and could have had more sacks, blah, blah…. It’s not all about you when you are on a team. I stand with the team. I want people to know me as a guy who stood for his team – a guy who was a team player.