Though he holds no team records, never had a 1,000-yard season, nor did he make a Pro Bowl in his seven-year stint with the Steelers, Merril Hoge's bruising rushing style -- and name that sounded perfect in a Pittsburgh accent (Muuurrrrrl) -- made him a fan favorite, a status he enjoys to this day as evidenced by the smattering of No. 33 jerseys regularly seen in the Heinz Field stands and parking lots.
The ESPN analyst, 49, has survived concussions and cancer and has become a spokesman for The New York Institute for Regenerative Medicine after employing their non-surgical therapies, which used Mr. Hoge’s own stem cells to fully recover from a 75% tear in his elbow ligament in just eight weeks.
He'll be back in town Saturday at Southpointe to host his annual golf tournament along with former Steelers Hines Ward and Max Starks.
Q: What did you think of the Steelers selection of linebacker Ryan Shazier from Ohio State?
HOGE: I've studied him and the thing that would make him intriguing for the Steelers and their concepts and what they like to do is the guy is explosive. He is fast. When they were a really dominant defense, their linebackers were the most violent in football. And part of being violent is attacking the line of scrimmage. He'll be a very interesting guy, especially with him and [Lawrence] Timmons. They could be the fastest two inside linebackers in football. Now, I didn't find him to be a particularly dominating physical presence. That'll be something he'll have to develop and get better at. He could get engulfed and people could push him around. In the 3-4, you can't hide him as much. You can't protect him from the guards, and with the defensive line issues they've had, it will be challenging. But I understand it from the overall blitzing/pressure concept that Dick [LeBeau] has been a genius at for years. From that perspective, he's pretty dynamic.
Q: You were a 10th round draft choice in 1987. With only seven rounds now, how would a Merril Hoge find his way to the NFL today?
HOGE: I'm grateful they had the rounds they had back then. I remember when the scout who evaluated me called me and said they were going to pick me, it was no different than what you hear for a first-rounder. He told me about their needs, where I fit, what they didn't have and what they were planning to build, and that I had a good chance to make the team, even though I was a 10th-rounder. If it were to happen today, I probably wouldn't end up in Pittsburgh. I could almost guarantee that because a lot of your [undrafted] free agents come more from the region, and being in the west -- I was projected to go to the Raiders. How scary would that have been? Oh my gosh. I wouldn't have fit in as a Raider. I fit in as a Steeler, but I wouldn't have fit in as a Raider. I was right where I needed to be. ... I was the luckiest draft pick ever to end up in a great city with great fans.
Q: Do you remember your first interactions with Chuck Noll or Art Rooney Sr.?
HOGE: It wasn't the greatest [laughs]. My first meeting with Chuck, I was in the weight room and I was doing overhead squats. I had never done that before in my life. It was killing me. It took everything I had in me to do this. I'm lifting and I'll never forget, Chuck looked at me and said, "Well, I've seen your combine picture and I can guarantee you're not on steroids." [laughs] I was like, "Ow."
Probably one of the greatest experiences, one of the most awesome things that ever happened to me was after the end of my rookie year. I went into the locker room still not fully understanding how the National Football League works, thinking that it's like in college where you have a meeting, and they tell you how great you are, and they're looking forward to the next year. And I thought if Chuck Noll sees me, he'll pull me in the office and say how great I am, and how they're looking forward to having me next year.
So I went in, and it works perfect -- here comes Chuck and I'm thinking, 'This is awesome,' ... and he walks right by. Like I wasn't even there. Just walks right by me. So I messed around in my locker a little bit and thought, well, my buddy's out in the car, I better get out of here. He's obviously not coming to get me. And as I started to walk out, here comes 'The Chief' walking with [the team's chief contract negotiator] Dan Ferens. And The Chief stops me and he says, "Hey -- you are one heck of a football player. We're lucky we got you on our team." He said, "Where you heading?" I said I'm heading home to finish school and he said, "Well, get that done and get back here." And he stopped at the drinking fountain and I started to walk out and turned the corner near the coaches' offices and Dan Ferens came after me and said, "You know something? That's the greatest compliment you could probably ever get right there. The Chief doesn't say that about everybody."
I got back to the car and my buddy said, "Well, what happened?" I said, "Something even better." Unfortunately the next year The Chief passed away while we were in camp.
Q: You retired in 1994 after a series of concussions and were among the first players to address the issue publicly. Do you feel the NFL is moving in the right direction on this issue, or is the game in danger?
HOGE: I don't see it in danger ... Keep in mind all sports -- all activities -- fall under jeopardy for head trauma. ... We're starting to inform and people are becoming empowered by that information to make the right choices for kids, and the right evaluations of head trauma. We use the information to be proactive, and the technology and all the other things that are advancing now. All sports are going to be safer as long as we continue to be proactive. ...The cognitive testing and things that we didn't have years ago, we're using that as another tool to help us not only identify head trauma but to do the right thing that we remove those players, athletes, kids from those activities they're involved in.
Q: You've successfully battled non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. As a cancer survivor, what do you say to folks who are staring that down?
HOGE: The dark days of diagnosis are so overwhelming -- when you hear that word. But when we take inventory of all the things that you want that patient to realize, it's that there's a lot of things in your control here. The medicines, the treatments, they're so much better than they were even five or 10 years ago. So that's on your side, especially if the person is proactive about their health they can start to attack this process. That's helpful with the mental aspect of it. Then you can start looking at the day-to-day control. And the more you do that, you start turning the tide on it and say, "You know what -- I'm going to take the fight to this thing. I'm going use all the things to my advantage and whip this thing." And that allows you to live a little more and earn your peace through battle.