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Matt Cushing, Steelers Tight End, 1998-2004

October 27, 2011

Matt Cushing:

First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself these days and how you got started?

I am the owner of First Choice Dental Lab based in Downers Grove, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. We work with general dentists throughout the Midwest to provide crown and bridge work as well as custom made sports mouthguards.

When I retired from the NFL, I took a sales position for a dental lab. I worked at that for a few years until the opportunity arose to start my own business. My company has been in business for almost 4 years now.

You came into the league as an undrafted free agent. How difficult was it to make the team that way and what did you do to prove yourself to Coach Cowher and the rest of the team?

It was very difficult to make the team. There are a lot of guys directly competing for your spot and a lot more that would take it in an instant if offered. I did not make the roster to start the season until my 4th training camp. Ultimately, it was my ability to play fullback that helped me get on the roster.

Being able to play multiple positions and doing it consistently is how I proved myself to Coach Cowher.

You played a number of roles – H-back, tight end, fullback….which did you enjoy most, and why?

I enjoyed each one of them for different reasons. I enjoyed being able to play multiple positions and fill in where needed. I wasn’t great at any one thing but I felt that if you asked me to get a job done, I would. 

You were released and re-signed by the Steelers at least five times. How difficult was that for you and did you get any good-natured teasing after a while?

It was difficult. Living life on the bubble was stressful at times. Not knowing if you’ll be employed from week to week or day to day can get to you but I learned to live with it and the constant evaluation that goes on in the NFL. It made me a better player because I felt like I had to prove myself in every drill, every practice, and every game. Ultimately, it made be a stronger person. 

Who mentored/took you under their wing you as a rookie – and how did they do so?

Mark Bruener and then tight end coach Mike Mularkey took me under their wing and really taught me what it meant to be a professional. They showed me the work ethic, attitude, and attention to detail it took to play in the NFL. 

After a few years, did you in turn become the mentor for younger players coming in? What was the most important lesson you imparted on young players?

I tried to show young players that you had to show up every day and perform. Nobody wanted to hear excuses or reasons you didn’t do something, you just had to find a way to get the job done consistently.

Who were the leaders on those teams that kept the players focused – and how did they do so?

The leaders of those teams were guys like Alan Faneca, James Farrior, Hines Ward, and Joey Porter. They led by example by showing up week in and week out ready to play and perform at a high standard.

Who were the toughest guys you lined up across from in practices – and what were the toughest parts of practices under Cowher?

 I had to face some tough competitors in practice. Guys like Aaron Smith, Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, and Brett Keisel. Going up against those guys on a daily basis forced you to improve each day.

Coach Cowher did a great job knowing when to push us and when to pull back. Our most physical practices were always in training camp when we were trying to establish the type of team we would become.

Do you still talk to any of the players that played during Cowher’s time? If so, what do they say are the biggest differences between Cowher’s and Tomlin’s approaches to coaching? 

I have not had much contact with the guys I played with that are still with the team so I can’t speak to differences between Coach Cowher and Coach Tomlin.

What memories on and off the field with the Steelers stand out to you most, and why?

I have so many great memories of playing for the Steelers. Off the field, Steeler fans are second to none. It was always impressive to travel to places like Seattle, Dallas, and San Francisco and have the Steeler fans taking over the stadium. Seeing 20-30,000 fans in black and gold at road games was a cool sight.

The support in the community in Pittsburgh was also memorable, including the playoff game that when I drove out of my neighborhood to go downtown the night before the game, most of the houses had balloons and signs wishing us luck. That exemplified the spirit in the community and why I love the city of Pittsburgh so much.

On the field, I loved playing at Heinz Field. The most memorable game I played in was against the Browns in the playoffs when we rallied from being down 21 in the second half. The stadium was the loudest I had ever heard it and them team fed of that for the comeback.

The game has changed, and with that the role of the tight end and fullback. What are your thoughts on the “new” NFL tight end?

Throughout football, the most successful offenses usually have a tight end that is very involved in the pass and the run game. The “new” NFL tight end is merely teams realizing the benefit and finding a hybrid player that can do a little bit of everything.

Any last thoughts for readers? 

While I love being back in the Chicago area so my kids can be close to my family, I miss the city of Pittsburgh and the great people that live there. The Steeler nation is amazing and we made many great friendships during our time there. I feel very fortunate to have spent 6 seasons with the Steelers, a first class organization that starts with incredible leadership from the Rooney family.

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