View Full Version : Inside the Steelers' huddle

01-22-2011, 09:14 PM
Inside the Steelers' huddle
By Craig Smith
Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tunch Ilkin played offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1980 to 1992, making the Pro Bowl in 1988 and 1989. He played for the Green Bay Packers in 1993 before retiring from football.

Since his retirement, Ilkin has worked as a commentator and sports reporter on a variety of sports broadcasts in the Pittsburgh market. He also is director of men's ministries at The Bible Chapel in McMurray.

We spoke by phone Tuesday as the Steelers prepared to host the New York Jets in the AFC Championship game.

Q: How does one prepare for something like playing before 65,000 screaming fans? I mean, it's tough enough to do your job, you know, without all that.

A: That's a great question. I think you focus on the task at hand. When I came to the Steelers, the one thing that became very clear to me is that if I followed around Mike Webster, Jon Kolb and Larry Brown, and I did what they did, I would be ready to play.

Because of those guys, I remember coming early to the meeting -- I think that first meeting was like at 8 or 8:30 (a.m.) every day. And I remember coming the first time to lift before the morning meeting and I showed up, I think, about an hour before the meeting to get a lift in. ... Mike Webster, John Kolb and Larry Brown had already been there a good half-hour, 45 minutes.

And then I remember the first time I was walking out at the end of the day after we put our good eight hours in, and I walked past the offensive line room and noticed those guys were watching extra film.

And so I knew that those guys studied extra, they lifted extra, they ran extra and I said, OK, that's what you do. My point is the less you leave up to chance, the better shape you are in.

I was a guy that got nervous for every game I ever played. Normally you don't start getting nervous until late in the week or maybe the day before a game. But when you are playing the AFC Championship game, or you are playing in a playoff game, those butterflies take residence in your gut early in the week.

Q: How emotional is it?

A: Well, for me ... everybody is different, but for me it was very emotional. I am a pretty emotional guy, so there is a lot of passion and excitement in everything I do. I practiced with emotion, I played games with emotion and I lifted with it.

I did everything with a lot of emotion.

Q: Take us into the huddle. As you said, there will be nervous players, some emotional players. What's the pressure like?

A: Well, the pressure you can't wait ... . Probably the most nerve-racking time is during the national anthem. You are just standing there, and you are getting ready to kick off. Your heart feels like it's pounding out of your chest. You feel like you are about to hyperventilate, and you are hoping that you get the ball so you can be the first one out on the field.

And in your mind you are going over and over those first three plays because in your mind you know what those first three plays are, and you are thinking this is what I'm going to do on the first play, this is what I'm going to do on the second play.

And then ... they are singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." I'm rocking back and forth and I'm normally working a piece of gum to death. Actually it's probably about a five-piece wad of gum in my mouth that I'm just working the heck out of it, waiting to go. ... I've got an ammonia capsule in my sock and I'm going to hit it right before I go out on the field to clear my head and off we go.

As a young player, you don't say much in the huddle. As I grew older and became one of the leaders, then you are a little bit more talkative.

Normally the quarterback is the only one who talks, but sometimes as a veteran guy you speak up about different things. If the game is getting a little too emotional, too heated, like the Ravens game (with) extra pushes, you just say, "Remember, guys, let's not retaliate. No dumb penalties. Let's get them on the next play."

And sometimes you are saying that to yourself because you are on the verge of maybe taking an extra shot at a guy because it is a very emotional game. Sometimes the chatter is for yourself as well.

Q: Are the coaches feeling the same kind of pressure, or is it a little different for them?

A: You know what? It's a little different for them because they ... have no outlet. I remember I was talking to (Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator) Mike Mularkey and I said, "What's the biggest difference between playing?" He goes, "You can't hit anybody."

At least when you are playing you have a little bit of control; you can control yourself. He said as a coach you have no control. So you are kind of like all dressed up and no place to go.

And then you've got to keep your wits about you and not get caught up in the emotion of the game because you have to think clearly.

Q: You mentioned the Baltimore game. What do you think the Steelers learned about themselves from that game?

A: Well, I think the main thing -- and I'm not sure that it's anything new that they learned but maybe it just confirmed or reaffirmed -- is that it doesn't matter what's going on, that they have the kind of football team that can come from behind on any given Sunday.

I think they learned that they are truly the best defense in the National Football League. I think that they learned that their quarterback relishes those situations where he's got to bring them back from behind.

I think they learned, relearned or reaffirmed what they already know: that they can beat anybody.

Q: If you were coaching Sunday, what would you tell them?

A: I would remind my offensive line that nobody touches No. 7. I'd remind the defense that these guys got some points on them last time -- can't let them do that this time.

And I'd maybe play the coaches' game and go, "They think they can beat you."

Q: Your prediction?

A: I think the Steelers are going to win this, I think they'll win by 10. ... Yeah, I like the matchup for the Steelers.

Craig Smith can be reached at csmith@tribweb.com or 412-380-5646.

Read more: Inside the Steelers' huddle - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/opinion/columnists/qa/print_719320.html#ixzz1BpBOtfB0

01-22-2011, 10:15 PM
Very interesting read. I've often wondered how the battle with the butterflies goes for these guys. Tunch does a great job describing it. I also like his prediction. :tt03: