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Will Blackwell, Steelers Wide Receiver, 1997-2001

May 7, 2012

Will Blackwell:

First, can you let readers know about your post-NFL coaching career – how you got started and what you enjoy most?

I’m the head coach now at Skyline High School. Some guys pointed out to me when I was playing that I would be a good coach. As a player you have confidence in your skills and I shared a lot with others. I didn’t see it as coaching then – I just saw it as showing them how to destroy defensive backs.

I had three different wide receivers coaches at San Diego State. Dino Babers was one of them – he wanted to know what we knew and let us critique one another. That showed me a lot. I didn’t like to be embarrassed if I dropped a pass or was covered. I wanted revenge – it was hard for me to get over it. I didn’t want anyone to say I got you. Sometimes it got comical, sometimes they got sensitive and took it hard. But I learned a lot that way.

What coaches and coaching lessons influence you most as a coach and why?

I had four offensive coordinators in five years in Pittsburgh. Gailey, Sherman, Gilbride and Mularkey. I learned a lot of different strategies and ideas after all those coaches and years playing.

I’m looking to get back into the NFL as a coach. I put a lot of what I learned in my high school offense to make it explosive. People make it too complicated- like rocket science. I learned to make it less complicated, They say the Cowboys ran a high school offense when they won the Super Bowl. I’d love to coach a college All-Star game to show people how I coach.

How did you make the transition from player to “real world”?

I remember when Joey Porter came up to me on the sidelines one day when I was injured. I was holding the clipboard and he said to me “Willie Bo – you look like a real coach!” I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was still a player – I just wanted to heal and play. But I guess then my teammates looked at me for information like I was a coach.

God helped me with the transition. I don’t look at agents like other players maybe do. When everything hit the fan my agent was nowhere to be found. It’s easy to negotiate a contract, but what do they do for you when it’s time to go out in the real world? When you are thinking about your next direction….when you are hurt and it’s time to move on, do they help you then?

I started a couple of business trying to find my way. It was hard to accept my career was over with. You have to have a strong mind and will to get to the NFL level. You hear a lot of “No’s” and overcome them. You need someone from the outside to say it’s time not to fold the tent, but to expand it to different areas. You can call it abandonment by my agent, but that’s what I didn’t get and is needed from an agent.

There really is no education for how to pick an agent as a college player. There’s no class on how to pick one- you do what your teammates did or go to who has the most clients…

You were drafted in round two by the Steelers in ’97. How did you deal with the pressure of being a high round pick and how tough was it fighting for playing time behind guys like Thigpen and Hawkins?

I didn’t look at is as pressure. I thought I should have been drafted much earlier – in the first round. Many of the guys before me were from bigger schools. I had the same numbers as they did. I knew I was a polished receiver and was athletic – I played basketball, baseball and football and excelled at them all.

I pulled my quad in my workout at Sand Diego State. Fortunately, I did all the stuff at the combine. I just kept learning  – I was known as the “jack of all trades” in high school because I did it all. I’d learn all the positions so if someone messed up I could jump in. I just wanted to play and played linebacker, safety, receiver, cornerback….anything.

I took that same attitude to the NFL I knew there was  a learning curve. The vets knew everything already. Gailey got me going though – he gave me chances as a rookie. He liked my toughness – I’d crack block guys a hundred pounds heavier than me. He could see I was starting to make plays in practice. I had to fix my jersey in practice all the time. That meant defensive backs were grabbing my jersey to stay with me. I practiced like I played. I never wanted to see poor play on film.

With Thigpen, Charles Johnson, Hawkins….I fell into the fourth spot right away. I only got to play on four-wides. I was more aggressive so they’d drop me in the backfield at times to help block. Sometimes I look back and wish I had more chances, but I’m a football player and I did what I was asked to do.

Then I got my ankle hurt against Indianapolis. They kicked away from me and to Mike Adams. A defensive lineman grabbed me, threw me down and jumped on me. I believe he was fined for the play…

Who helped you adjust most to life in the NFL – both on and off the field – and how did they do so?

It was mostly an older team. Kordell kept to himself more then. Charles Johnson trained with me. He picked me up and I showed him San Diego State and he built a training program that we worked out on. Hawkins was a big inspiration and gave me a lot of advice.

Hines was one too – he came in a year after me. We became friends – we both felt the frustration of trying to play. They let both of us play the final game of my second season. Then they let Charles Johnson go and drafted Troy Edwards. We knew it would be the death knell for someone, but it didn’t stop me from trying.

Hines and I tried to be the ultimate duo. He did things I couldn’t do and I did things he couldn’t do – but we both helped the other guy out to sharpen each other’s skills. We knew Troy was going to get playing time as a first rounder, unless he insulted someone’s mother or something!

Of course we helped Troy. But we were frustrated – we thought we had a nice receiving corps. But there’s nothing you can do except try harder.  Then, they drafted Plaxico. Now, what do you do? We helped him too.  I was still here, fighting for a roster spot. But there were two  round one receivers. We had a nice array of talent but still little success.

You played with a couple different quarterbacks in Pittsburgh. What were the biggest differences for you as a receiver between Stewart and Tomczak?

They brought in competition for Kordell – Tomczak, Maddox… Kordell was always scrutinized so he handled it well. He took it as a professional. The first time they took him out in ’99, he still went in as a receiver. He still got to play. He wasn’t a pouter and he trained incredibly hard. He was always ready to go. He took the attitude that he had no control over what they did so he just did what he could do to get better. Remember though, just like me, he had four offensive coordinators in five years!

What held him back?

As a rookie, Gailey had this play, the Statue at Eight. It was an old school quarterback sweep. I think he knew that when Kordell could initiate the contact and get it early in games, he had more success. He needed to make the contact to succeed.

Mularkey saw Kordell through the eyes of the coordinators that came before him. he started running Kordell again and we made it to the AFC Championship. I have much love for Kordell, but his best success was when he was able to run the ball and take advantage of his God-given athletic ability. That’s just my opinion…

How much did humor play a part on those teams you played for – and who was behind most of that humor? Any examples?

We were a good group that liked each other. We all played Madden – Hines and Deshea Townsend were the best. Earl Holmes – I remember practicing in the cold at Three Rivers they’d bring the water faucets in to clean them off in the showers. It was like thirty degrees outside and Holmes would get the water hose and start spraying all of us in the shower with that freezing water, We’re run like girls…that water was freezing!

We all had a real brotherhood. We supported each other. When Holmes was close to breaking the tackling record, we all supported him and cheered for him. We all hung out together and had similar interests.

I remember too after the Thanksgiving game where they screwed up the coin toss. I had Thanksgiving at Jerome’s house. It was the first time I had Thanksgiving dinner away from home because I couldn’t get home.

These kinds of feelings are the ones you have on teams that go. You’ve got to like each other. It’s got to be about “us”. You’re all connected – if you’re down in the tank, you drag us all down unless we lift you up.

What are your best memories of your time in Pittsburgh?

I remember when we beat Baltimore my rookie year. We played on a grass field and I had some key plays in the game. I returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown and earned a family in the stands free season tickets from a contest for that!

Before Randel El broke my record, I had the longest punt return in the post-season for Pittsburgh against New England. I had four men in front of me and no one blocked anyone though so I didn’t score! Cowher came up to me after the run and yelled at me that if I have a return that long I should score a touchdown (laughing). He watched the film later and told me then he’d have to talk to those guys.

I had lots of injuries playing that held me back. Broken foot, separated shoulder, broken ribs, torn ACL, dislocated fingers… After my second year I stayed in Pittsburgh  to spend time rehabbing and getting healthy. I wanted to rehab in front of {trainer} John Norwig – I wanted them to see and chart what I was doing. I wanted to do it they way they wanted it done – I didn’t want to go elsewhere. I felt I handled myself the right way. I had a rookie card that said “They put their trust in me by drafting me, so I would do everything they asked me to do.” 

And that’s what I did.

Any last thoughts for readers?

I flashed in the pan, but my teammates did well and I always supported them. You don’t always get that support in the NFL. We are all “the man” in college but once you get to the NFL many aren’t any more. For me, in each huddle I tried to support the guys and listened and understood them. Even when Jon Witman told us that if we see a deer hit on the road, to call him and he’ll come get it. I said, “What the hell??” But then I understood it and said sure (laughing). I supported everyone and they knew it.

Hines and I, we supported each other, When Jerome was on the team, I’d tell him we needed more octane! When Kordell was hurt versus the Raiders, I came into the locker room and told him he needed to get back out there and play. And he did – and we came back and won the game.

Oh, and one piece of trivia. I was the one who gave Joey Porter his nickname JPeazy! I had a friend I nicknamed RPeazy – that’s where that came from. There was no more standup, real cat than Joey Porter.

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