Age 7 might be early for a boy to get career advice from his dad, but when Gregory Mundy saw a chance to impart some to his son, Ryan, he took the opportunity. It had to do with entering the right door.
It was 1992, and the Mundys were soliciting donations outside Steelers games at Three Rivers Stadium in an effort to help Ryan's midget league football team, the West Pittsburgh Steelers, go to a tournament in Florida.
They lived in the West End at the time, and before crossing that span to head home, Gregory Mundy took a lap around the stadium's circular drive. He pointed to the main gates where fans entered, and said: "The people who pay to go in and watch the players, they go in at the top."
He then pointed out the lower driveway and the team entrance where Ryan had seen players like Ernie Mills and Eric Green heading to their cars, and said, "That's where the guys who get paid go in. You're going to be going in through that door someday."
"I think he got that one," Gregory Mundy said, with a laugh.
Ryan Mundy, now 26, has used the 'employee' entrance for the past four seasons at Heinz Field. On Sunday, he will make his first postseason start in Denver, in place of safety Ryan Clark, who is not playing because of concerns that the high altitude could aggravate a medical condition.
This isn't Mundy's first rodeo. He started for Troy Polamalu twice last year and picked off a pass against Kansas City this season after Polamalu went down with concussion-like symptoms. He has been a special-teams ace the past three years, playing in that capacity in Super Bowl XLV.
But Mundy acknowledges this is different.
"It's a big deal. You don't want to overlook that, but, at the same time, you don't want to get your head up in the clouds too much and lose focus of the task at hand.
"You still have to go out there, you still have to execute, play with technique, and play hard. ... This is win or go home. You have to treat it as such and prepare as such."
Preparation should not be a problem. Mundy's father, who works in sales, instilled in him the maxim that "preparation beats desperation, every time," and he has an academic approach to the game befitting his nickname -- Wonderlic -- a reference to his high score on the mental acuity test given every NFL player before the draft.
Coach Mike Tomlin this week called Mundy "starter capable." And Polamalu said: "We've kind of groomed him. Ryan [Clark] has taught him everything that he knows, as well as myself. Whenever I come out of the game or Ryan comes out of the game, he's always the first guy to replace [us], so I don't anticipate any dropoff in play."
A standout two-way player for Woodland Hills High School's 2001 and '02 WPIAL championship teams, he enjoyed academic success but endured injuries at Michigan. He graduated in four years, but still had NCAA football eligibility.
He made a gamble to transfer and enroll in graduate studies at West Virginia and play a season there.
"That was like the turning point in my whole career right there. Sometimes, you need a fresh start.
"You gotta take some risks in life, and that was a big one -- I left a comfort zone.
"Who knew the hard work, getting the grades -- making sure that I stayed on track to graduate -- during my freshmen and sophomore years would benefit me later and would play a critical role in helping me accomplish my dream."
He was taken in the sixth round of the 2008 draft by the Steelers, thus completing the Pittsburgh-kid-makes-it-with-hometown-team fairy tale, right? Not quite.
"Coach Tomlin told me as soon as I got here, specifically, that being from Pittsburgh was not going to help me in any way, shape or form to make this football team. So I had to push that aside and go to work like everybody else."
He had a high ankle sprain in training camp that summer and was waived. He was brought back in Week 9 that season, signed to the practice squad and has been understudy to Clark and Polamalu since.
He loves the game, but has keen interests outside it, including community service and politics, engaging frequently in the former and tweeting often about the latter.
"I always joke with Charlie Batch that I'm working for him when he runs for mayor of Pittsburgh. I'm picking up all the chips now."
Mundy downplayed the fact that he is a hometown kid playing for the hometown team, saying, "Probably 20 years down the road, I'll look back and be like, wow, I did it and I accomplished my dream and I did it in my hometown, so that'll be special."
His Woodland Hills coach, George Novak, has coached scores of future pros -- eight were on NFL rosters at end of the regular season -- but said he counts Mundy as one of the finest among them. He said it is particularly special, finally, to have one of his players -- especially Mundy -- playing for the Steelers.
"Pittsburgh is a special place for professional football, so, to have a guy be successful who is such a great kid, very humble and appreciative of his family, I'm just so happy for him.
"I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it."
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published January 7, 2012 5:00 AM