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Sam Washington, Steelers Cornerback, 1982-1985

February 15, 2012

Sam Washington:

First, can you tell readers about what you’ve been doing since the NFL and how you got involved in coaching?

I started coaching with Larry Little – David’s brother. He  held the United Way camps in Miami when we were playing  – so I went down there with David. Larry asked me when I stopped playing to join him at Bethune Cookman as his defensive backs coach. I was there for five years – from ’88’ to ’92.

I went to Johnson C Smith – a Division II school in Charlotte – for one season. Then I got back with Larry at North Carolina Central University and stayed there for nine years. Then I went to North Carolina AT&T in 2001 and went to Mississippi Valley State – my alma mater – in 2001.

How was that, returning to your alma mater?

It was a great experience going back. It was a very rural area – adjusting to the quality of life was tough. But the people, the faces…I really enjoyed that environment and seeing my old teammates coming back. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing them.

And after Mississippi State?

I went to Grambling from ’07 to ’10. Then I came back here to North Carolina AT&T – I went full circle. The quality of life was a big factor in my return. My wife and I had many years in the state retirement plan – it was a better decision for us.

What coaches and their coaching lessons do you find yourself referring to most often now as you coach, and why?

Tony Dungy was my position coach and then the defensive coordinator when Woody Widenhofer left. He taught me my basic philosophy – I’m not a yeller and I got that from him. There are other ways of getting a point across while still being firm and consistent.

He also pushed the basic fundamentals – he did a great job of teaching. No matter how far you go, you need fundamentals. High hat, flat back…I still use that terminology today and the techniques he taught us.

When I went to Cincinnati I played under Dick LeBeau. I remember him for his ability to break down film down to the player – to see their strengths and weaknesses, what they can and can’t do.

I learned a lot about preparing for an opponent from him. He was just very detail-oriented. He’d point out how a receiver cuts and pushes off, the depth of the quarterback, can he throw for more than sixty yards….I loved this one: If we played eight yards back and the quarterback was in the pocket and could throw fifty yards, we only had to run thirty-two yards. That was always big, that thirty-two yards.

Tony’s cover-two became a big-time coverage in football.  He taught players how to read the line of scrimmage, to re-route wide receivers and funnel them to the safety. Tony helped me with that one and I’m still teaching those things today.

What was your biggest adjustment to the NFL and how did you deal with the stress of struggling to make the team?

The speed of the game. High school is one pace. College speeds up. Then the NFL speed goes unbelievably fast. If you are not where you are supposed to be, it’s too late.

And the size of the players too. I was a AA player in college. Our offensive linemen in college were big but slow. Those Steelers linemen were big and fast. Everyone was quicker, including the wide receivers.
What players and coaches helped  mentor you as a rookie – who took you under their wing and helped you adjust to life in the NFL both on and off the field? How did they do so?

Greenwood called me  “His rookie”. No one messed with me because of L.C. I have no idea why he gravitated to me – it just happened and I was thankful for it.

Blount was the guy who taught me the do’s and don’ts on corner play. I sat next to him in meetings and he pointed out things on film and on the field for me. He’d ask me why I did the things I did and suggested other ways.

He also helped on man-to-man coverage. When to turn, how to speed turn, transition turns…. Transition speed turns and beating receivers to the reception area was  talked about a lot.
Who were the greatest characters on those teams and what made them so? Any examples?

I definitely remember the playoffs – it was a totally different atmosphere. It was spearheaded by Lambert. The bullshit was set aside – I was really impressed with the whole approach. The way players walked into the locker room, the way they sat down and paid attention….The older guys – most like Franco, Ham, L.C. – they were still there. And the air – you could cut it with a knife. It was…rich. I can’t describe it but it was present.

Pollard was the jokester. He loved to wrestle and would go at it with anybody. He and David Little – it would have been an interesting match – both were stocky and strong.

Cunningham as well. He was a joke teller. Most were dry, but now and then he’d hit a home run. There was less pranking in my time.

Tunch Ilkin had a presence as well. He was verbal too, like Lambert, and was one of the offensive leaders. And how can I dare not mention Bradshaw! He had fun – he enjoyed coming to work and there was never a dull moment with him. He’d do anything he was not supposed to do (laughing).

How did Coach Noll handle that?

There was nothing he could do – he’d just look at Bradshaw and shake his head. Terry would make faces when people were being interviewed to distract them, pop you with towels…
Who were the toughest guys you faced in practice and on other teams? What made them so?

Cliff Branch was quick as a cat with that first step of his, and he could cut. He was very smart and had blazing speed.

Eddie Brown was the most talented. He had sheer speed. And Louis Lipps could run a 4.3 and stop on a dime. Most would break an ankle or knee doing that.

Largent was canny – he ran such precise routes….
You had a terrific ’84 season – with six interceptions. What happened that season for you?

If you knew how many I dropped….I had three broken fingers by mid-season. 

I was just at the right place at the right time. I give credit to Tony for preparing us. He had a great idea of what opponents were doing and that enabled me to be in the right place and break on the ball.

I was also the new guy. I got lots of opportunities when other teams tested me. Dewayne was proven on the other side. I was the new guy.
That season was your last full season with Pittsburgh. What happened and how hard was it for you to leave?
I still don’t know what happened. {Trainer} Roger told me to go see Chuck – I went to my locker first and there was nothing there. When I went to see Chuck he told me I was traded and I needed to be in Cincinnati by 1:00 tomorrow. I don’t know why or what they even traded me for.

I played against Houston after only three days of practice in Cincinnati. Then the next week we played Pittsburgh and Cincinnati didn’t even dress me. They never told me why. I wasn’t one to ask questions, but I played every game afterwards.

How did you take the trade?

I cried like a baby. In my mind I knew the Steelers offense from running the scout teams. I knew when the slant was coming and would have had a big game against the Steelers. The coaches definitely picked my brain before the game though.

What do you think of today’s NFL and the new passing rules?

If they’re not careful they’ll mess the game up. Football is a physical game and defensive backs should have the opportunity to separate receivers from the ball. Defensive backs should be able to intimidate receivers.

It’s crucial to defensive backs that receivers fear them. If there’s no fear in the receiver, he’ll make more plays. If he thinks he’ll get the daylights knocked out of him, he’ll make less plays.
What are your best memories as a Steelers?

The fans. Absolutely. And the team and locker room camaraderie was magical.

The Rooneys were great people. I don’t even think of my time in Cincinnati – I love the city. The community is unbelievable.

Any last thoughts for readers?

Go Steelers!

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