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Jim O’Brien: Merril Hoge still finds a way to outwork everyone else

November 18, 2012
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Jim O’Brien: Merril Hoge still finds a way to outwork everyone else:

By Jim O’Brien, Columnnist, Pittsburgh Business Times

Merrill Hoge is the most honest individual to be found on the pro football front, and his integrity serves him well.  “I’m not that smart,” he says with a disarming lop-sided grin.  “I was always a ‘C’ student.”

         But no one studies harder than Hoge on his favorite subject – NFL football – and it’s one of the reasons he has been a popular and respected football analyst for ESPN television since 1996.  Though he resides in Fort Thomas, Ky., he pops up on Pittsburgh radio stations over the telephone on a frequent basis.

         His dedication to detail and being properly prepared also helped him survive seven seasons in the pro ranks, six seasons (1987-1993) with the Pittsburgh Steelers and one more (1994) with the Chicago Bears.

         He suffered seven or eight concussions along the way – “I’m the NFL’s poster boy for concussions,” he boasts – and had to retire because of a brain injury.  In February of 2003, he was diagnosed with stage II Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and his positive attitude helped him get through that scary challenge.  He compared notes with Penguins’ leader Mario Lemieux, who’d overcome a similar cancer challenge.

         To hear Hoge speak, he’s been a lucky guy in so many ways.  Whereas Mike Ditka and Terry Bradshaw, two other NFL analysts with Pittsburgh ties, can wing it on TV with their over-the-top personalities, Hoge has to spend hours and hours studying game film.

         He studies more film than most movie critics, often with his pal Ron Jaworksi, a former pro quarterback out of YoungstownState, to gain an edge on the competition. 

         Hoge didn’t have the superstar credentials of a Ditka or Bradshaw, so he believes he has to offer insights and analysis beyond what they bring to the show.  From the start, Hoge didn’t have great size or speed, and he was a 10th round draft choice from IdahoState in 1987 so he had to make a great impression in a hurry with Chuck Noll.

         Hoge credits Noll for instilling the proper work ethic and need for preparation to succeed.

         Hoge preached “finding a way” to overcome challenges and obstacles to his daughter Kori, now 19, and son Beau, now 15.  So when he came home ten years ago from a visit to Dr. Jim Bradley, who happens to be one of the Steelers’ team physicians, and explained that he had cancer and warned them that he’d soon be bald from chemotherapy treatments, Kori, then just nine-years-old, came and sat in his lap and hugged him with these words:

         “Dad, you need to find a way.”

         Hoge has authored a best-selling memoir titled “Find A Way.”  He is an in-demand motivational speaker.  He appeared on the last Saturday in September in a program for cancer survivors in Warrendale that was sponsored by Western Pennsylvania Allegheny Health System.  His goal at this edition of “The Journey of Hope” program was to inspire the audience to apply his experiences in their lives.

         He was a big hit with over 400 in attendance in the main ballroom of the Four Points by Sheraton Pittsburgh North.  He pokes fun at himself, and talks about how he overcame a series of challenges in his life to succeed.

         As a child in Pocatello, Idaho he pinned his hopes and dreams on a half-wall of cork board in his bedroom.  His favorite team was the Pittsburgh Steelers and his favorite player was Walter Payton, and he came to play for the Steelers and follow Payton as a running back for the Bears.

         He learned from reading books in the library that Payton’s secret was to outwork everyone else, every day of the week, at every practice.  Noll told Hoge early on that he didn’t draft him to be a common ballplayer.

         “You didn’t want to disappoint Coach Noll,” said Hoge.

         At 47, Hoge looks terrific.  His ramrod posture is a mix between a military cadet and The Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.”  He wears skin-tight suits and favors a colorful array of wide-knotted ties and stiff high collars.  In that respect, he’s still the innocent and naïve native of Pocatello, Idaho.

         When he was with the Steelers, he served the team well and enthusiastically as an ambassador at all sorts of events.  Pat Hanlon, then a publicist with the Steelers and now the vice-president of communications for the New York Giants, still regards Hoge as one of his all-time favorite players.

         “He never let me down,’ said Hanlon, who is a lot like Hoge in his whimsical approach to life.  “When I needed someone to represent the Steelers, he was always willing.  Look what it’s led to for him.”

         And like Rocky Bleier, another former Steelers’ running back who is a successful motivational speaker, Hoge was a highly productive back for the Black & Gold.  He earned his keep.    

 Jim O’Brien is teaching a class on “Pittsburgh’s Rich Sports History” in the Osher Institute Program at the University of Pittsburgh.  His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com

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