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Hank Poteat, Steelers Cornerback, 2000-2002

December 6, 2011

Hank Poteat:

First, can you let readers know what you are doing with yourself since the NFL?

I did some personal training last Summer for some guys wanting to get better at the game. But I’m doing two things now. I’m doing football camps with Football University. We do camps all around the country for kids wanting to improve. We have a number of present and former NFL coaches and players who work with us. It’s a great way for them to network, share experiences and life after football and memories of their playing time. It’s also a great way for us to help these the athletes fulfill their dreams. We run the camps from February through July – state-to-state.

I’m also coaching at Kentucky Christian University.

How did that come about?

I’m the secondary coach there. It’s very hard to get into coaching – I sent resumes out to every team but got nothing back. With little coaching experience  it’s hard – lots of guys think after football it’s easy to get a coaching job. But you have to have credibility.

Finally, an old Browns teammate of mine Mike Furrey called me. He’s the head coach at Kentucky Christian and asked me to come out and be his secondary coach.

How’s it going?

It’s the first year of a very young team. 80% are freshman. They won only three games in the first four years of the program, but this year we won four games and didn’t lose any games by more than ten points. It was a good year for the program.

What coaches and coaching lessons do you find yourself thinking about now as a coach?

In New England, I learned a lot from Mangini and Billichick. In college, I always got by on my athletic ability. In New England I realized I had to be a different player to sustain my career – and I teach that to the players now.

What made you realize this?

I was cut three times in two years. He challenges players to understand the bigger picture. He’s a situational coach and every day in practice he run a different situation to help you see the bigger picture – so when it happened in the games you were used to it. I try to use that now.

In Pittsburgh I was successful due to my athletic ability. I wasn’t a student of the game. I got drafted by the same city I played for in college – that helped create a lot of distractions. I can’t remember studying film – I wasn’t used to it.

I became content in the NFL and didn’t take advantage of my opportunity.

How did you make it through those first years?

I had success as a punt returner my rookie year. It fed that mentality that I could do it on my athletic ability alone. But it caught up to me. As a defensive back I didn’t know what I was doing. I could play man coverage but not zone. At Pitt I was  a running back at first – I didn’t play defensive back in high school. But Johnny Majors moved me to defensive back – I wasn’t really excited  about it.

Then Walt Harris came in and moved me back to running back. I went to  him and asked me to do it. I played running back for a couple of games and then changed my mind and asked him to move me back again. I played corner on athletic ability and was in the top three in the nation in interceptions my junior year. My senior year no one threw on me.

In college, the coaches let me play any way I wanted. I was good at press man so I always played press even if the defense was playing zone. In the NFL you don’t have that freedom. As a rookie you do what the coaches want you to do. I got frustrated and didn’t learn the off-man coverages. I struggled with that. I ended up getting cut a couple of times. it gives you time to think – to see that you need to do it differently next time.

Who helped mentor you as a rookie?

Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott helped me. I sat next to Dewayne in meetings. He would teach me how to dress – to look professional. He even had his tailor make me a suit for away games. I’d go in boots and khakis and he taught me how to look like a professional.

Chad Scott taught me work ethic. He was more of a student of the game – he showed me you have to outwork the competition. I remembered that as I got older. I wish I had listened more when I was younger.

Brent Alexander helped me spiritually. I was spiritual as a kid but lost it growing up. Brent was a strong man of God – I’d try to keep my distance from him – I knew right from wrong and knew some of the things I was doing weren’t right. But after a couple of seasons he became my roommate in camp. After running away there he was (laughing). I think it was a message from God.

But that season they got Ike Taylor and I got cut. It was the beginning of the renewal of Hank Poteat as a player and a man.

Who were some of the guys that kept the team loose?

Earl Holmes was the funniest guy I ever met. He’d watch a lot of movies and knew them word-for-word. Porter was always talking tough and trying to compete with someone on something. Kirkland was a serious leader. And Flowers was funny too.

Pittsburgh was a lot different than New England. All the players hung out together – it was like a big family. All were cool and had fun. The winning, great fans…going out together as a team…I have never been part of anything like it since the Steelers. The families knew each other….I really enjoyed my time there.

How did you deal with the stress of not having job security – not knowing if you’d be cut or not?

What you see on TV and in the media – it’s all hype. It’s not real. They talk about the guys making millions, but you never hear about the Hank Poteats and the guys that play for minimum salaries and the guys that get cut. And those are most of the players.

The majority of the players don’t make millions. Many live from check-to-check. That world is fake. Most are regular guys. I remember the first time I got cut – it was on my birthday. Almost every time I got cut it was on my birthday actually. I was about to start eating pancakes with my wife when some guy from the Steelers called me and told me.

The first time I got cut I had a house in Delaware and an apartment in Pittsburgh. I couldn’t get out of the lease so I had two payments. Then Tampa Bay picked me up so I went out there and got an apartment there. My first game there I hurt my hamstring and got cut after four weeks. So, now I had two leases and a mortgage payment – and no pay.

That’s what happens. You get signed a few weeks in so your kids are in school and you’re playing in another city – so you have to leave behind your wife and kids. And because you are signing one-year deals you can’t buy a home with no job security.

There are so many guys that deal with this stuff week in and week out. You can get cut any time. But I maintained that for ten years. I had a strong mindset and belief in myself. I didn’t worry about the media, blogs, friends who turned their back….I didn’t worry about it. I kept pushing for my dream. I’m thankful for Erci Mangini – he saw that and took me everywhere he went – Cleveland, New England and the Jets.

What are some of your greatest memories as a Steeler?

No matter how many teams I played for, my punt return for a touchdown in the last game at Three Rivers my rookie season is what people remember. I won a Super Bowl in New England and started for the Jets, but that’s what people remember (laughing).

I enjoyed being with the guys – that family atmosphere.  It’s not real in the end – you end up without that security really. It’s hard to develop friendships without that security – I talk to two guys I played with over those ten years.

Any last thoughts for readers?

Always believe in yourself – if you have a dream or vision – fight for it. The situation may seem bad but it can turn out for the good.

My story is about perseverance. Things didn’t always look promising but they worked out for the good. You have to keep a positive mindset and enjoy the experience. You can learn so much from the game of football.

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