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Dennis “Dirt” Winston, Steelers Linebacker, 1977-1981, 1985-1986

October 12, 2011

Dennis Winston, Former Steelers Linebacker, Steelers  (August 3,  2011):

It’s 9:00 at night and Dennis is still in his office preparing for the season as the coach of the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff……

First, can you tell readers how you got started in coaching and what you love most about the job?

To be honest with you, two coaches and friends of mine got me involved at Grove City College. Chris  Smith had me come over and work with their linebackers. It shot off from there.

I went to Slippery Rock With George Mihalek after that.

I love changing the lives of these young men. Being a father figure and sometimes a friend to them.

I’m about at the end of my coaching career now – I’ve been coaching for 25 years and coached at all levels – from SEC at Arkansas, the Canadian Football League, Division I, II and II  – from Grambling to Arkansas Pine Bluff where I am now.

I even coached high school in Texas – one of the states for high school football in the country (ok, I can’t forget Pennsylvania too).

What coaches influenced you most in your coaching career – what lessons have you used the most from your playing day?

I was touched by some of the best coaches in the game.

Chuck Noll taught me that you have to be a professional in all you do. There’s a lot more to football then playing football.  And there’s always your life’s work after football, as Chuck always said.

Now, football and coaching is my life’s work.

Bum Phillips, Daddy Ford, Wade Phillilps were all in my corner. Hugh Campbell had me as a coach in Canada and we won the Grey Cup there.

I’ve been around those that know how to win.

And don’t let me leave out Eddie Robinson and Grambling. While Noll told me not to forget my life’s work, Robinson taught me you had t be thick-skinned to play this game. Once he saw me by myself, upset after a loss. He came over and told me I needed to be a leader and can’t be so thin-skinned!

How did you marry your aggrressive, physical style of football as a player with the technique-driven style of Coach Noll?

Well, I was more vicious then technique (laughing).

Noll loved that fact. He said pound for pound I may have been the best linebacker he ever saw – I remember seeing those words. Unless he was just saying I was small (laughing again).

Did you ever feel like, despite your high level of play, that you got an unfair, lesser amount of attention/notoriety than some of the other Steelers linebackers?

You can’t worry about attention – if you are you are worrying about the wrong thing.

Worrying about accolades…..well, I worried about the team. I was fine just winning. Guys who do that are individuals and there’s no I in team, like they say.

What are the biggest/best memories you took away from the game –as a player or coach?

Biggest thing I loved about playing the game were the people I met. Being able to mix and meet with the community. Not to be higher than others – just hanging out with the regular people in the city.

You have to be respected. People found out I was a normal person who just happened to play football.

My favorite moment…..the interception against the Steelers when I played for New Orleans that won the game on Monday Night Football. It was after I was traded – it was a bit of vindication (more laughter).

It was the first Monday Night game for New Orleans – we had the best defense in the NFL…

I guess it was so good Chuck brought me back!

What happened with New Orleans that brought you back to Pittsburgh?

I had a contract dispute with the team. I was told they were going to renegotiate my contract, but then the ownership changed. The new owner – Tom Benson – refused to negotiate with anyone. After walking about a couple times they decided I wasn’t needed I guess and released me.

Shortly after that I got a call from Tony Dungy and asked if I still wanted to play football.

Bryan Hinkle offered me my old number 53, but I said no and wore number 55 after that.

Pittsburgh traded you to New Orleans beforehand – why did they decide to  do so?

It was for the simple reason that Chuck saw I was the type of player that needed to start. A lot of times I did. Me, Robin (Cole), Jack (Lambert) all did at times. I was versatile – I played all the positions – even played on the defensive line some.

Chuck said I paid my dues and he gave me the opportunity to play for the number one defense in the NFL.

What was it like returning to the Steelers after playing for New Orleans?

It was interesting coming back. I just purchased a new place so we had to get rid of it and had two places for a while.

I was welcomed with open arms though. The city was aware of the way I played. Leaving New Orleans when they were just starting to win was frustrating, but Pittsburgh was where I always wanted to end my career.

It was funny, the first thing Chuck asked me was now I knew about where that ball was going to be thrown on that game winning interception and how I managed to catch it.

I said it was the same pass you threw all the time in practice. I watched Malone and stepped in front of the pass to Rich Erenberg. I knew it was coming!

What was the most frustrating point in your career?

At first, being traded to New Orleans was. My wife saw the announcement on tv before the Steelers called us. She just got up and walked out of the room. I got the call 30 minutes later.

She loved Pittsburgh – she had so many friends there. The people of Pittsburgh are great people – like us Southern folks – they know hard work.

In his interview with us, Craig Wolfley discussed having to prove himself as a rookie. Did you feel like you had to prove yourself to the team as a rookie?

Coming in as a rookie, I had problems at home, My dad was sick – dying of cancer and could go at any time. I knew I was going to make the team if I had to knock everyone out to do it – I wasn’t coming home.

Being a fifth round pick you have to fight to get what you want.

Fortunately, Jack came in to camp late that year. That gave me the chance to play more and be seen. When he came in he took me under his wing.

Me, Robin, Jack – we played everything. Chuck didn’t care who you were – you played special teams. Even Blount and Shell did.

We used to have fun on kick-offs, all of us screaming and hollering at the other team as we ran down the field looking for people to hit.

Did any of the players give you grief as a rookie?

I was a different kind of guy. I got little grief as a rookie. They saw I wasn’t in a playing mood – that rookie stuff didn’t go over well with me.

Were you ever worried about not making it at any point in your career?

I knew I wasn’t going to get cut, I sized up my opponents – I watched the other linebackers and knew they couldn’t play better or hit harder. They may have been more athletic but they couldn’t hit harder or be better football players than I was.

How do you feel about the way veterans are treated by the NFL and today’s players?

I look at the young guys – they’re not interested in taking care of the guys in the past. We made the game possible for them to play, just like the guys before us did.

Now they throw us by the waste-side – it tees me off. I saw no young guys with Butkus and the other older guys on Capitol Hill talking about this stuff.

What’s happening to younger guys now happened to us already – we got no NFL benefits – who’s helping us?

For younger players, it’s not an issue for them. They could care less. But one day they will – they’ll be on this problem and no one will be helping them either.

Any advice for rookies today?

Save our money. Eventually they will not be able to play football anymore, but they will have to pay their bills.

And they have BIG bills.

Any last thoughts for readers?

I want folks in Western PA to know I will always be a Steeler. I’ll be buried in Black and Gold!

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