Jason Gildon, Steelers Linebacker, 1994-2003
First, can you let readers know about how you got started in coaching?
I started off in high school coaching when a friend of mine and me started talking at a parent-teacher conference. He was also the teacher of my son who was in fourth grade. He was looking at a coaching job and told me the high school also had another open spot and that he mentioned I may be interested. That was at Peters Township.
Who and what helped influence your coaching style?
I think a big part of the coach I wanted to be was influenced by having good coaches growing up. I remember all of my coaches – from high school to my position coaches in college and at the professional level. As a young kid, having men like that as positive influences is a great help.
How does it feel to still be the all-time Steelers sack leader and in the top 50 in NFL history in sacks? Do you think you were appreciated by fans as much as you should have been in your playing days?
I think what contributed most to my success was never being afraid of hard work. If it came down to which guy worked the hardest, I felt I always had a chance. I tried to be the best I could be consistently.
As far as not getting the glory some of those other guys got, I think it just depends on who you ask. I can honestly say I’m proud to have been a part of such a great legacy of Pittsburgh linebackers. It’s an honor to have my name in the history books with guys like L.C. Greenwood that graced the team before me. I’m honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as they are.
When I look back on my career, I had a lot of fun. I can’t complain. The Steelers organization is one of the best in the country. As for the glory, yeah, it depends on who you ask, really.
Who helped mentor you as a rookie and helped show you the ropes in the NFL – both on and off the field?
It was a privilege playing with some great guys – Kirkland, Lloyd, Greene – guys in the prime of their careers while I was a rookie. I watched them day in and day out as they approached their job with professionalism and that helped mold me into the player I became.
It’s one thing to be on a team – it’s another to be held in high regard and they were always quick to point that out to me. The hard work and discipline that they showed helped me along my way.
How difficult was it for you as your career wound down to “pay it forward” to the nest group of players, even as they threatened to take your job?
You have to look at it in the context of what it is. It’s your job but you are also part of a team and part of a bigger business. The success depends on the team, and guys vying for your job is part of that success and paying it forward. You need to pay it forward – it benefits everyone. You do your part – that’s how the organization has been successful and competitive year in and year out. Guys do their part. I’ve been around a lot of older guys who helped them when they were just starting out. When the new best comes in it’s your turn.
You later took on a stong leadership role on those Steelers teams. What about you and who you were made players turn to you as a leader?
I guess I was always honest with he guys I played with. I wasn’t a rah rah guy. I showed you better than I told you. I could show you how things should be done and seeing what I do helped the other players buy into things more. It’s one thing to hear it from a guy who doesn’t do it when all is on the line. When you lead by example it’s easier for the other guys to buy into it.
How difficult was it for you to adjust from playing defensive end in college to the outside linebacker position int he 3-4 defense?
I had good position coaches – Marvin Lewis helped me a lot. He took us through things and wasn’t going to ask you to do something you couldn’t do. His philosophy was that we had to show him that we were ready.
The 3-4 was an adjustment from playing as a down end in college. It was a transition – playing in space – but I was fortunate to make it. To play outside linebacker in the 3-4 – you can do a whole lot. It’s a great spot for guys who love to make plays. It’s a tough transition but the game changes at every level. You have to be able to evolve with the changes.
Who were some of the characters on those Steelers teams and what made them so? Any examples?
You always need people who keep the mood light and people from getting too serious. Kirkland was a funny individual. Buckner was funny too. Both went to college together and had a road act that carried over to the Steelers. I remember them having the whole locker room in stitches. When on bad weather days we had to practice at Duquesne in the bubble, we’d go on the bus and they had the players and coaches rolling in tears sometimes. It was just an experience being around those guys.
Who were some of the toughest guys you faced – both in practice and on other teams?
I had the toughest battles with Leon Searcy – when he was in Pittsburgh then going up against him in Jacksonville. Lincoln Kennedy was a tough out too.
When did it hit you how different the NFL was from college?
I remember the rivalry between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Experiencing that rivalry as a young guy. Going to Cleveland on the road, we had to wear our helmets during warm ups because there were dog biscuits coming at you from the guys in the dog pound. I remember those times. It was real. You hear about it and see it from a distance, but to physically be in that setting was something…
What are your thoughts on the changes the NFL has made in the name of player safety?
I like the changes they are trying to do for safety. Player safety is the most important thing. But at the same time you have to try not to take away from the natural aggressiveness of the game.
It’s a fine line. It’s a fast, physical, aggressive game and it’s hard to ask guys to slow down and be aware of the position of contact without changing the pace of the game. I definitely agree sometimes guys are in the wrong, but, and I hate to jump on the replacement officials here, but a hard hit that happens in the natural flow of the game, it’s hard to penalize a player that way,
I’m all for keeping players safe. But it takes a grass-roots effort at a younger level. From Pop-Warner up. The guys now are playing the way they were taught when they were little. You can’t change it overnight and expect them to be able to change that quickly.
Any last thoughts for readers?
You look at the organization as a whole. Being a part of it and calling Pittsburgh home. We’re all fortunate. To have an organization like the Steelers and to be able to take part in their success. There’s a reason for that. It starts with Mr. Rooney and his approach. It really is a close-knit organization from the top to the equipment managers. You can’t see it from the outside but it’s a vital part of the success and the reason why the team is continually on the top year in and year out.