Merril Hoge, Steelers Running Back, 1987-1994; ESPN Broadcaster
First, can you tell readers how you got started in your broadcasting career?
It was back I think in my rookie year. I was asked to do so some autograph sessions and did some call-ins after the sessions for B-94 – the radio station. I was then asked to do some for WDVE – B-94 wasn’t paying me then, so doing them for WDVE was interesting to me. The only thing was I had to go into their studio on Monday mornings to do them. At first I didn’t like that idea, but the studio was on the way to the stadium, so I said what could it hurt? I got up thirty minutes earlier and started doing them.
The first day – well, I was never in a studio before. When I got there it just hit me – this bis what I wanted to do. I just knew this is what I wanted, and took advantage of various opportunities since then.
Tell us about the Highmark Caring Place – how and why you started working with them?
In my third season in the late 80’s – all the steel mills were shutting down. There were lots of uninsured children because of that. So, we went to schools to help kids help each other, really. We helped them raise money but having our Steelers basketball team play local teams, and other things.
Mr. Rooney picked me and Carnell Lake to represent the Steelers then for Highmark’s work in helping uninsured kids. That’s really how it started. It’s actually become a government adopted program now.
Then. when the director’s son died, we talked about the grieving process. My mom died in college unexpectedly, so I understand the grieving process too. So we steered the program together towards a new Caring Place program, which helps grieving families who suffered deaths from anything from cancer to car accidents. The focus is on children but it’s for the whole family. It’s evolved over thirty years ….
As a former player, many teams required players to attend certain numbers of charitable events. How is that perceived by players and tell us how doing so affected you then?
It starts with the Rooneys. Chuck Noll was a great counselor on this as well. He told all of us that when we work with charities, before we associate our name with them, to make sure it’s credible and done right. Noll had great council there.
That being said, most feel a strong push to do so. Players have an awesome role and responsibility to help others and most players embrace that. I’m grateful that the Rooneys wanted me to do that.
You were drafted by Pittsburgh in ’87 (round 10). Were you happy or concerned being drafted by a team that already had the likes of Abercrombie, Earnest Jackson and Rodney Carter on the team?
I wasn’t concerned. I remember when they called me when I was drafted. The scout actually called me and told me that they needed me and I could make this team. He said I was exactly what they needed. Now, that could be what he told every player, but I found him to be sincere and true.
With Noll – the more you could do, the better chance you had to make the team. You can’t be one-dimensional. I could play running back, fullback and could catch the ball. Also, the prior year, the team started six or seven guys due to injuries. So, while I was last on the depth chart at first, I played on special teams and could do more than most of the other backs. That’s how I stayed confident – there wasn’t one guy on the team who could do more than me.
I knew after the first preseason game too that I had a good chance of making the team. I was put in positions in the first preseason game that you would only be put in if you were expected to produce. I was the first third-down back in and on special teams.
What were the biggest adjustments you had to make as a player and how did you catch the coaches eyes and make the squad?
I didn’t get overwhelmed. But my first practice, they handed me the ball. It was a basic gut play – not difficult. Just J-Step and hit the four-hole. So, I hit my J-step and saw the hole open up then close before I even got the ball, then open and close again. I said to myself – “Holy Mother!” The game was so fast and quick. Wicked fast. I thought to myself then that I’d have to adjust to that if I was going to make it. I needed to go to a different gear and mentality.
These guys were playing for their jobs – their livelihoods. There was a level of ferociousness I had never seen before. I’d never been in that environment before. I knew I had to take that same approach or I wouldn’t make it. And it took me just one play to realize that. I’m glad it didn’t take a month to do so or I would have never made the team.
Who helped mentor you as a rookie – both on and off the field – and how did they do so? Any examples?
Bubby Brister. I loved his confidence. He was as confident as any player I’ve ever seen. He always used to tell me that if they didn’t want me, thirty-one other teams would. That’s how he talked and played. Now he was in a different position than I was, but he was still a backup – though probably better than the starter and ended up starting the next season.
He didn’t shy away from anything and that helped me. You have to trust and believe in what you have.
How did humor play a part on those Steelers teams and who were the biggest characters on those teams? Any examples of the hijinks of some of the players?
Bubby was notorious for that. I was Bubby’s roommate, and he didn’t believe in curfews. I did, but he used to go out until one or two in the morning, then come in and shake up a beer and spray it on me.
But once, Bubby got busted. He walked by Cowher one day in practice and Cowher told Bubby it would be $1,000 for going out last night. Bubby just said to him, “Make it $2,000 because I’m going out again tonight!” Bubby’s attitude helped keep me balanced – helped me not to take everything so seriously. He kept me balanced and kept things lite.
Tell us how you prepared for life after the NFL – and what are your thoughts on the difficulties many players face when adapting to life after the NFL?
The NFL and the teams do a lot. Noll always said that football was not our life’s work. It’s a great stage – that we should use it to discover what our life’s work is now, before we stop playing. We wanted us to prepare for our passion “now” so that transition was easier for us. He did a great job that way and the NFL has a lot of great programs.
It falls on the individual to take the initiative to go and do it. You can’t wait until the very end. The Steelers give you great council not to wait – but the responsibility falls on the player.
I went through depression when I left the game – though some of that was due to my injury. But I had planted the seeds at least for myself….
Some may not know this, but you’re also a big outdoorsman/hunter. What kind of hunting do you do and did you do so as a player? If so, who were some of the guys you hunted with as a Steeler – any good stories?
I came from the West – and hunting in the West is very different from the East. I remember going to a bank in a strip mall in North Hills and looking in the woods behind the bank and saying “What the heck – is that hunting orange?” I struggled with that. In the West, there was no civilization where you hunted. You were in the mountains, far away.
To be outside of a strip mall and hunt….I didn’t get that. It didn’t appeal to me.
Did you hunt with any teammates?
Bubby was a big hunter and invited me to go on a commercial hunting trip/show he was doing. He, me, John Elway and Mike Shanahan all went turkey hunting together. That’s the only kind of hunting I’d do when I played.
Well, for starters, it never fell at the right time. And again, I really didn’t like the hunting in the East.
When I moved to the Kentucky-Cincinnati area, I remember walking in the woods near where I lived. There was thirty-five acres of untouched woods. I was more of a gun hunter then – for deer, elk…. But I tried bowhunting. I put up a tree stand and felt like I was in the woods away from civilization. I really liked that and now hunt deer and turkey.
Tell us about how humor played a part on those teams?
I remember Mike Tomczak and I used to do a fake broadcast on Fridays during practice when we were on the sidelines watching the other guys. We’d switch off doing play-by-play and color, commenting on what just happened and joking about how unprepared our teammates were. It was fun to joke with the guys and poke fun at them.
I also remember on Fridays, Neil O’Donnell and I used to race home in the HOV lane to see who could get home first. Probably not the smartest thing (laughing).
I also remember Rick McMaster – he used to own the Grand Concourse and now owns the Capital Grille. They had the best cheesecake. On Fridays, everyone would race out after practice and I didn’t know what was going on. It turned out McMaster had brought in trays of cheesecake for the team. It took me eight weeks to figure out what it was – I thought it was just some cake laid out for everyone.
What are your favorite memories of your time as a Steeler?
When I was drafted, I was so naive coming to Pittsburgh. Coming in from the West to the East – it was all so different. I had only flown three times in my life when I came to Pittsburgh, and never to the East. When I was flying in to Pittsburgh, I looked down. Now, the West is all mountains and desert. But looking down, I saw all of those hills and trees and thought, this is where they must have filmed all of those Tarzan movies!
The language was different too. As a rookie, I was asked to go speak at a midget football banquet. Wolfley was supposed to do it but they said he got hurt in practice. I said sure, though I didn’t remember Wolfley getting hurt. I just thought maybe it was one of those things veterans promise to do months before and change their minds.
Well, I hurry and go home and get changed and get directions. There was no GPS then. And I was thinking to myself, I never saw a midget football game before. They must have at least 33 midgets to form a league – to have enough of them to have enough teams for a league. I said to myself, “Good for them! They have their own league.” It was really inspirational and I thought it would be really cool to see them play.
I started forming my speech in my head….it was the little league, not midget football!
Well, when I got there a lady was sitting there when I walked in. All I see is the welcome Craig Wolfley banner and a bunch of parents and kids. I was late, so she hurried up and announced me and gave me the microphone. I’m sitting there saying to myself, “Oh my God!”
I had only prepared the midget football speech. So, I gave them the speech anyway – I explained to them what I had thought and they were rolling on the ground they were laughing so hard.
I was so green and naive then… To this day, I still have people who come up to me reminding me of that speech!