If you cover sports long enough you can pretty much write the reactions, the thoughts, the feelings of the participants without even talking to them.
But there come times when seemingly the smallest items – such as the end of the road for a backup nose tackle – incite such emotions in teammates that one could not script the pauses, the heavy sighs, the forced laughter that substitutes for tears, the frailty, that signify the item’s enormity.
That was the reaction yesterday from Steve McLendon, who was asked to talk about the end of the line for Chris Hoke after Hoke had announced to the Steelers he will undergo neck surgery and miss the rest of the season, and probably the rest of his career.
You expect McLendon to say the right things, of course, and pay the proper respect to Hoke. But you could not expect the sadness, the emptiness, in his eyes.
“Where do I start?” asked McLendon, the young nose tackle who earlier this season had passed the 35-year-old Hoke on the depth chart behind Casey Hampton.
“Since Day One, Hoke has been like a mentor. He has helped me tremendously, like my eyes, what to see, how to see things before they happen, quick hands, just using technique. He took everything that the coaches gave him and he passed it along to me. He’s been in my ear (chuckles) the whole year, last year also. No matter what, he’s always been in my ear, and today was one of the (pause) toughest days for me, because I’m in the meeting room and he’s not there. I probably looked back 10 times today and just listened to hear Hokie telling me ‘You gotta get your hands on him. This guy’s physical.’ Or, ‘You’ve got to watch the little NFL emblem.’ It’s been tough. It’s going to be tough. But me and him, we’ll sit down today after practice so we can work some things out to help me elevate my game to the next level.”
Hoke will undergo the same “neck fusion” operation that Aaron Smith underwent a couple of weeks ago. Few thought that Hoke’s back-to-back “stingers” earlier this season were so serious, because Hoke himself either did not know or was in denial.
“These young kids around here think I’m inactive because I’m hurt,” Hoke was saying last week. Hoke asked what I had thought, what I had heard. I told him that since Hampton was 34 the Steelers could not get caught without a developmental project, that McLendon had to play.
“That’s what my dad told me,” said Hoke, who clearly hoped to finish the season, and his career, in a way befitting a 10-year vet who poured his heart and soul into his team.
“When I say ‘work things out,’ I’m not just talking about the season, but life. Period," McLendon said. "He’s helped me with a bunch of things off the field also. This is going to go way past football. He’s a family man and he’d help me with stuff with my family, like trips to take with the family, a lot of little things. But he’s going to help me a lot. I told him we need to talk every day, because some things I can’t break down like Hoke can. He’s been helping me, so I don’t want to change that. Like I told him, we’ll talk every day. He told me we could talk every day. He’ll be around. This is pretty tough for me.”
After Smith underwent his surgery, he told gory tales of doctors cutting him in the front of his throat and moving his trachea and esophagus aside and placing the “innards” on a table in order to remove the disc that was pinching his nerves and spine. When he awoke, Smith said he could immediately move his neck better, but understood there was still a recovery process in order to do simple things such as swallow. A few weeks later Smith was still having some trouble eating and drinking, but he was making progress. He said that when he’s fully recovered he’ll make a decision on whether or not he’ll play again. But at 35, even with a contract that’s been extended a year, Smith has to know the end is at hand.
”No, he helped me even more after I started playing ahead of him. It’s amazing to have a guy like Hoke. For me, it was truly a blessing. When we’re on the field together, he knows almost (chuckles) 90 percent of the stuff that’s going to happen before it happens. He knows offense well; he knows defense well. He could tell me where to line up. He basically could tell anyone on the front where to line up and how to line up. I gotta say, it’s just pretty tough right now. There’s not much I can really say.”
Smith and Hoke are two of only 15 men in the world who were part of the 53-man rosters that represented the Steelers in three Super Bowls this century. They are part of an era that will be remembered forever in the city of Pittsburgh, and that era is passing.
Smith and Hoke are just the tip of the iceberg. Hines Ward, Chris Kemoeatu, Bryant McFadden, Trai Essex could join the two defensive linemen in leaving the team this coming off-season. Larry Foote, James Farrior, Brett Keisel and Hampton won’t be too far behind.
“I’m sure it’s a sad day for Hamp, too. They’ve been together for 11 years. I’ve only been around here for three. It’s tough for me, but I can imagine how tough it would be for him. Hokie was a real big brother for me. Honestly, people think that you’re playing the same position and that there would be fighting against each other, but not one time did Hokie turn on me. He never told me anything wrong. He always gave me the right path. Like I said, he’s been on me more (laughs) than ever. When he was hurt, and he got hurt against Jacksonville, he was still on the sideline with me. He stayed in my ear the whole game. Arizona – stayed in my ear the whole game. No matter what he’s always in my ear. That’s what I n-e-e-e-e-d. He’s going to tell me when I’m right or he’s going to tell me when I’m wrong, no matter if it hurts my feelings or not he’s going to tell me, and that’s what I need. Same with Coach Mitch. He’s going to tell me if I’m right, and if I’m wrong Hokie put things in different perspective than anyone else because Hokie played.”
A few years down the road, McLendon will be in Hoke’s position, and he’ll be telling some young nose tackle the same things Hoke had told him. McLendon will pay it forward. It’s the circle of success that’s come to epitomize the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“No question. And that kid will meet Chris Hoke. I’ll make sure of that, because like I told Hoke, man, as long as I’m playing I want his help, no matter what, even if we have to meet up once a week. No matter what it takes.”