Jeff Zgonina, Steelers Defensive Lineman, 1993-1994
First, can you let readers know about your coaching career and the Mo Betta Bull Company. How you got started in both and what your job/business venture entails?
Well, I’m not coaching now. When Coach Kubiak was let go we were all too. So I’m always keeping my eye out for other coaching jobs.
The rodeo business has been great – I’m a contractor of rodeos – we supply the livestock. I don’t do the hands on work myself. I started fourteen years ago studying the breeding of bulls and cows. It was my escape from football. I studied bulls – their bloodlines, talking to breeders – I umped into it headfirst. I built the business up so we had good bucking bulls. I got lucky – now we’re in the finals in Vegas every year. I enjoy watching and being around them.
Do you want to get back into coaching?
Yeah. I follow every coaching lead. I guess I’ll need to wait for the next January turnover. I hope I get another chance. Its really about who you know. There wasn’t a head coach this time I knew very well, so if not next year, then maybe I’ll start looking at the college level.
What coaches and coaching lessons do you find yourself falling back on now as a coach? And why?
I got something out of every coach – on and off the field. I had so many coaches and I talked to all of them to learn about how to be a better coach. I watched how they dealt with players and got their messages across. I’m not a yeller. I don’t like to yell people to the ground. I didn’t like it when coaches did that to me. I hated it. It happens, but I don’t like to do it. I’ll show you respect but you need to show me respect by working hard and not making mental errors. I wanted to repeat everything over and over so there were no errors – so you know everything and don’t have to think and you could play faster.
You were drafted by the Steelers in the 7th round in ’93. Certainly no guarantee to make the team, what about you and your play caught the coaches’ eyes and helped you secure a roster spot, do you think?
Well the funny ting is I was drafted to be a long-snapper. Cowher asked me if I could long-snap before the draft so I said yeah! No way I was going to say no. I guess I showed enough as a nose guard to make the team. I actually skipped a snap in the last preseason game and Cowher said that was enough of the long-snapping for me but I guess I played decent enough at nose guard.
What was the biggest adjustment you had to make to the NFL game -especially as a nose tackle? How did you make that adjustment?
I watched the guys around me all the time – Joel Steed, Gerald Williams…all the guys in front of me. I learned many of the tendencies from Jerry O (Olsavsky) and Kevin Greene. Jerry O especially taught me a lot. Told me where to go almost on every play. I learned and tried to develop from everyone and they helped me.
What veterans helped mentor you as a rookie – both on and off the field – and was it a competitive environment?
It was competitive – but I always tried to help the younger guys. Maybe it would cost me or another guy a job but I just want to win and be a good teammate. I figured I could always find a job elsewhere. You just have to swallow your pride and help others. There were some people who would backstab others and tell them the wrong thing, but I couldn’t do that….
Joel was not a big talker – I just watched him and learned his technique. In Carolina Kragen helped me. He was undersized so he showed me more about his technique since I was too. In Miami, “Truck” (Keith Traylor) helped me. I always tried to find something to help me be a better player – to better myself. Even if it wasn’t my own position – even if it didn’t help me it would help me to learn so I could help someone else.
I’d talk to the linebackers and learn from them because they were the quarterbacks of the defense. I’d pick their brains and let them know I was there to help them. I wasn’t an All-Pro guy – my job was to help them make plays. I told them to tell me what they wanted me to do to help them – I didn’t want to be in their way. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I’m not athletic enough to get out of the grind and make plays downfield so let me do what you need me to do and take on the double-teams.
How did you as a player “on the bubble” deal with the pressure of making the squad? How much did humor play a part in that-any examples?
I laughed about it and being cut and moving around so much. It was a shock the first time it happened in Pittsburgh – you don’t think its going to happen. But Carolina picked me up off of waivers the next day after Pittsburgh cut me. When I was not playing a lot the next time I was cut, I knew that was not good and wasn’t surprised. But I made a joke out if it. I’d sign a contract and read I the papers the next day I was on the bubble already. Every Friday I was happy I knew I’d made it to another week. I’d always wait for Friday to see if I made it another week…
I mean, I knew I could always go somewhere else. I couldn’t worry about it. Sometimes you go out and outplay others but you still get cut. Maybe the guy was drafted higher and the GM couldn’t cut him and look bad, you know?
What part did humor play on those Cowher teams in terms of keeping players loose? What were some of the funnier moments you remember and who were some of the funniest players on the team? Any examples?
That was so long ago. There was always comedy and unbelievable talent. I don’t remember – I was young and was accepted by the veterans, but not accepted too, if you know what I mean. I didn’t say much and just stayed in the shadows…
You ended up playing for sixteen years. What do you attribute that longevity too – especially as a defensive lineman?
I think it was just luck, mostly. I had two minor scopes in seventeen years. I took care of myself. I was never a big guy. I tore my triceps one year and couldn’t lift weights much. I decided to be a cardio guy. I was down to 265, 270 pounds, I had to learn all the technique I could and run to the ball. I did all I could do. By the fourth or fifth play of a game, everyone’s tired. So I just figured I’d outwork you. Yeah, I’d get rolled once in a while, even Truck did sometimes. But I was smart enough and was able to run to the ball and make plays. I guess I was active enough and got lucky.
What are your favorite memories playing in Pittsburgh?
I started my career there – it was unbelievable, going there right out of college to such a successful organization. I still have a lot of good friends there – more so now than when I was there even. Heck, I talk to Cowher more since I left than when I was there. He only talked to a fee guys then, but now I joke around with him whenever I see him.