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John Fiala, Steelers Linebacker, 1998-2002

November 14, 2011

John Fiala:

First, can you tell readers what you are doing with yourself these days?

I have lived in the Greater Seattle area for the past seven years. I help people obtain their real estate goals as a Realtor for Windermere Real Estate. I am a blessed husband with three amazing children.

I have also cofounded a nonprofit organization called The Madhouse Project that raises funds for the world renowned Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. 

You were drafted by Miami before coming to play for Pittsburgh. What made you decide to join the Steelers and how did they convince you to sign as a free agent?

I was fortunate enough to be drafted by the Dolphins but was released after the first preseason game. I received a call from the Steelers asking if I was interested in joining the practice squad.

The practice squad consisted of five players at that time. We did everything the other players did except play in the games. The call came the Sunday before the first week of practice of the regular season. I was thrilled to be given an opportunity to work with a team that had such a rich history of linebackers. 

Your “forte” was excellent special teams play – what made you such a good special teams player, and did you feel “pigeon-holed” in the role as a special teams ace?

I loved the role I played on special teams. It was full speed, high impact and there were always opportunities for big plays.

I believe that my success on specials was due to how serious I took my role. There were many players that were concerned with just being a starter on offense or defense and I knew that I could excel in that role with special teams. This was the reason I was able to play with the Steelers for six years. I was a leader of the men on the special teams, studied and watched film just like I did as a linebacker.

You can learn a lot by film study and tendencies by becoming a student of the game. Leading by example and playing every snap I was on the field at full throttle also helped. My role was a special teams player but every opportunity I received to play at linebacker, I made the most of. The defense never skipped a beat when I was in. I had a chance to learn and backup some great linebackers when I was there.

How did Coach Cowher and his special teams coaches prepare the Steelers special teams units? What drills and opportunities to practice in camp and each week did you get for special teams?

Coach Cowher always spoke about  the special teams as  one-third of the game. He knew that games were won and lost by the kicking game and by field position. We had time for special team meetings, film study, walk throughs and time at practice to prepare against the other teams schemes.

What do you think of the NFL’s new rules on kickoffs – pushing kicks back to the 30 and new wedge-blocking rules? Do you think they’ll help protect players from injury and do you think it imposes too many restrictions on how impactful special teams can now be in the NFL?

I understand why the rules were changed. Kickoff is a high-speed race to the ball. Getting two guys running as fast as they can towards each other, big collisions are going to happen. I know as a player, the buildup leading to the kickoff and when that ball is kicked, there is so much excitement for the first play. I was always disappointed when the ball was a touchback. I wanted to go down and make a big hit.

As my career continued, I kept noticing that more and more offensive line and defensive lineman where forming the wedge. You knew that you just had to strap on your chin strap a litter tighter. These rules will cut down on the injuries, especially with concussions.

You started a couple of games in Pittsburgh and played very well as a linebacker in doing so. Were you frustrated not getting to more time to play as a linebacker?

I made the most of the opportunities that came up for me when my number was called at linebacker. I always studied and prepared as if I was starting because you never know when it is your time. I had to be prepared to run the defense and call the huddle plays if the starter went down. I always prepared for both inside linebacker positions.

I was able to learn from the great Levon Kirkland and Earl Holmes. They helped me bring my game to a higher level competing with them and trying to fill the shoes of the great Pittsburgh Steeler linebackers.

When you first arrived in Pittsburgh, what coaches and players did you work most closely with, and how?

I worked with my linebacker coach Mike Archer to help me understand the defensive scheme. I watched Levon Kirkalnd and Earl Holmes on how to run the defense and worked with the younger players that made up  the “show” team.

Who were the toughest guys you lined up against in practice – and what made them so?

I had the honor and privilege to line up every day against the greatest center I have ever played against, Dermonti Dawson. He was so fast, agile and he always gave 100% in practice. I feel that he helped me the most my first year on the practice squad.

You can’t forget the Bus and the Bus Driver.

What are some of your most memorable times playing in Pittsburgh?

The Steelers have the most amazing fans out there, running out of the tunnel and being surrounded by  a sea of Black and Gold, will never be forgotten  Playing for an organization that has so much history and pride was inspiring.

The first time I was asked to be a captain, Coach Cowher asked me to fill in for injured Special Teams Captain Freddy McAfee. Starting the AFC Championship game in 2001 at linebacker. 

After being released in 2002, you could have played for Houston but chose to retire. Any reason why?

When I was released, I told my agents to find me an opportunity as fast as they could. Houston wanted me to come down and join them. I was coming off of my first season that I had an injury that I could not play with. I had torn my PCL and had shoulder surgery during the end of the 2002 season.

I took a long hard look at my injuries and my future health. The NFL puts  wear and tear on your body. I decided that I needed to respect the current condition of my body and think about my future health. I decided to retire before I went to Houston and headed back home to Seattle.

When I got back home, my wife and I started our family and it has been an amazing next chapter to my life.

Any last thoughts for readers?

The Pittsburgh Steelers run an incredible program. It starts with the Rooney Family. The Rooney’s are a class act that looked for good athletes that are great people. I am incredibly blessed to have shared six years of my life with Pittsburgh.

Go Steelers!

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