By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — It was quite emotional in the defensive line meeting room for the Pittsburgh Steelers Tuesday, as nose tackle Chris Hoke was absent for the first time in 11 seasons.
Hoke, 35, signed as an undrafted free agent from Brigham Young after the 2001 NFL Draft, will have season-ending neck surgery that will end this season and likely his Steelers career. He was a last-minute roster addition the past two season and likely would not have been re-signed next summer.
In a second straight start for injured nose tackle Casey Hampton, Hoke left the Oct. 16 Jacksonville game due to a stinger in his neck. There was numbness in his right arm for weeks, and he has not played since. Hoke subsequently was replaced as Hampton’s backup by second-year player Steve McLendon, and the 11-year NFL veteran hasn’t even dressed the past few games.
“We talk a lot, Hokie and me, and he said I’ll just see you on Tuesday,” McLendon said, obviously holding back tears. “But I asked Coach (John Mitchell) about it, and he told me what had happened. It’s been a tough day for me, really tough, and it’s really sad for me. He’s been like a big brother, a great mentor, so I have to sit down and think about a plan to elevate my game.
“That’s why I’m very thankful and grateful for a guy like Hokie. … We’re like family, (and) we’re here to win a championship. That’s our only concern. Whoever contributes, our goal is to win a championship. It doesn’t matter who plays or doesn’t play. The other guys are going to help out who’s in there, and Hokie and Aaron (Smith) were the biggest help to me more than anyone.”
Smith is another veteran who probably won’t be re-signed next season. Injuries have ended the past three seasons for Smith, who has played in just 15 total games during that stretch. Third-year pro Ziggy Hood, the Steelers’ No. 1 pick in 2009, has done more than an admirable job replacing Smith. He commented about losing the two D-line veterans.
“They want the young guys to step up, because they know they might have to lean on us once or twice in their careers, so I’m appreciative of what guys like Aaron and Chris did for me and other young guys to make this team better,” Hood said. “They were not worried about us replacing them someday. They all welcomed me with open arms and made me better as a player.
“Hopefully, if I’m blessed with the same amount of years in this league as those guys, I’ll get a chance to do the same thing for some young guys here. They showed me the little things, and that’s what made me a better player. So, I tip my hat to them for sticking with me the past couple years, even when they were hurt, because they never said no when I asked them for help.”
While Hood is entrenched as the Steelers’ starting left defensive end in the team’s three-four scheme, McLendon will be hard-pressed to overtake 11-year veteran Hampton anytime soon. Still among the premier three-four nose tackles in the NFL, Hampton has one more season on his last contract with a base salary at $4.89 million for 2012. McLendon, however, has been a productive backup and can play both on the nose and at either end if necessary.
“Hokie, he’s a great guy, someone who did everything he could to help me,” McLendon said. “That’s why it’s such a tough loss for me. I probably feel worse about it than he does. He keeps telling me to keep my head up. Hokie, he’s just like a big brother. He’s really been a good guy around here, and I owe a lot to him for helping me with my development in the past couple seasons.
“I know it’s tough for him, too, but it’s really hard for me to swallow. The past two seasons here, he was a big part of my development as a player. I liked having him around. I looked back probably 10 times looking for him behind me. He’s always been in my ear, telling me things, so it was weird not having him in our meeting room today. That was a tough one for me.”
McLendon, Hood and this year’s No. 1 pick, defensive end Cameron Heyward, are workout warriors. They are among the team’s strongest players, but Hood — the acknowledged team leader in weightlifting — knows that the off-field work is just as important.
“The way to get better is to study film off the field, and when you’re on the field just get a good practice in, because it’s true that practice makes perfect,” Hood said. “The more you practice your craft, the better you will be with it. And then you can perform well on the football field. (And) Hokie, he’s a real technician on what he did, and every time he got in the game you could see it.
“He’s not one of the biggest, strongest or fastest guys, but his technique made him one of the best on this D-line. A lot of people didn’t see it like that, but when I look at him I see a guy with a lot of skill. He’s very smart, and he knows how to beat the double-teams. He can do a lot of the little things the right way. That’s what made him a good player, and that’s what I learned from him.
“So you’ve got to follow a guy like that,” Hood added. “He didn’t get drafted in the first, second or third round, but as a free agent, and he really makes you work hard because you can see where that hard work will get you just by looking at Hokie and following his career. If you do all the little things right, you can get your shot and get your chance to play. And it will pay off in the end.”
Hoke saw limited play in most seasons as Hampton’s backup, but his most extensive playing season was the 2004 season after Hampton was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. Hoke started 12 games, including two in the post-season, and had 18 career starts. He played in 114 with the Steelers, who were his only NFL team.