Hard work paying off for Hoke
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Watch backup nose tackle Chris Hoke during the Steelers home game Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. It won't matter if he's on the Heinz Field lawn or on the sideline. He will be bouncing up and down, a 305-pound block of endless enthusiasm, working on his footwork, working on his punching technique, working on every aspect of his game.
"We love Hokey's energy," Steelers defensive captain James Farrior said.
On the field, anyway.
"He can be annoying," linebacker Larry Foote said. "We'll be in the cafeteria line and, all of a sudden, he'll break down into his 3-point stance. It's like he's always kissing up to the coaches."
"But that's Hoke. That's just how he works. He's always working on his craft. He's a true professional."
That's why Hoke has lasted 11 seasons in the NFL despite being an undrafted free agent. That's why the Steelers defense was more than effective -- above the line, in coach Mike Tomlin's words -- with him starting for injured Pro Bowler Casey Hampton in the 38-17 home win against the Tennessee Titans.
"I love having Hokey in there," Farrior said. "He's my man. I always remind Hamp that I made the Pro Bowl the one year I played behind Hokey when he was starting. Hamp doesn't like hearing that."
That was the 2004 season when Farrior made All-Pro. Hoke started the final 10 regular-season games after Hampton went down with a knee injury in Dallas. The Steelers won all 10.
"I think the Hokester has a better record than anyone else in the business when he starts," defensive end Brett Keisel said.
It's 16-1 after the win Sunday. The loss was against the Oakland Raiders in 2006, but that hardly was Hoke's fault. That was the day the Raiders managed 98 yards but still won because Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw four interceptions, two that were returned for touchdowns.
"I have a real easy explanation for that [16-1] record," Hoke said Monday. "The other guys realize I'm in there for Hamp and they know they have to step up their game. It has nothing to do with me and everything to do with them."
Don't you just love a modest athlete?
"Hokey could start for a lot of other teams," Farrior said.
Hoke said he has never regretted not pursuing such an opportunity. He has made a great living. His wife loves Pittsburgh. His five kids are comfortable here. He likes the city, his teammates, his coaches. He likes his two Super Bowl rings. He likes being a Steeler. He can't imagine being anything but a Steeler before he retires.
"Packing up and leaving just never seemed worth a few extra dollars," Hoke said.
In some ways, Hoke can't believe he has lasted this long in the NFL. He and Hampton came in together in 2001. Hampton, as a No. 1 draft pick, was destined for greatness. Hoke, out of Brigham Young, not so much.
"I was just talking about that with my wife," he said. "I remember my first training camp when I wasn't getting any reps. I remember calling home. 'Babe, I don't see how I can make the team. I'm not getting a chance.' I'm just so glad I kept putting up the good fight. When you're a free agent, you have to have talent to make a team, but you also have to be lucky. I was lucky. It's been an unbelievable ride."
The Steelers are glad Hoke stuck around. Facing salary-cap issues, they didn't re-sign him until early August, after camp began. He earned his pay Sunday, being involved in three tackles of Titans running back Chris Johnson for losses and getting a hurry on quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
"Thanks, but you know me, I concentrate on what I did wrong," Hoke said.
It turns out Hoke was responsible for Johnson's 21-yard run on the Titans' first play. He was held up by center Eugene Amano and chopped down by right guard Jake Scott. Johnson cut back and ran by him.
"I don't want to say I panicked," Hoke said. "But I was like, 'Oh, boy, that's the same play teams have been hurting us with. I can't let this happen all day.' After that first series, I went to the sideline and gathered my thoughts. After that, I was better."
Johnson finished with 51 yards on 14 carries.
What an improvement for a defense that allowed the Houston Texans 180 rushing yards a week earlier in a 17-10 loss.
"At our meeting Saturday night, [defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau] stood in front of us and said, 'There's no way in hell anyone can tell me that you guys can't stop the run and can't make plays,' " Farrior recalled. " 'I've seen you guys play. I know what you can do.' "
That includes Hoke.
"Oh, yeah, [LeBeau] believes in him," Farrior said. "He trusts him. Hokey has earned that trust."
There's a good chance Hampton and his bad shoulder won't be ready Sunday for the Jaguars. Hoke will be prepared for a second consecutive start. He's glad the Steelers finally called again this summer with a contract offer. He's thrilled he didn't have to retire even though he's looking forward to his "second dream job" -- hopefully as a coach at BYU.
"I just want to help the team," Hoke said. "I don't want to be a deterrent. I want to be someone who lifts the guys up. I want to bring energy."
On the field during practices and games. In the meeting room and locker room. Maybe even in the cafeteria lunch line.
A kiss-up to the coaches?
"Nah," Foote said.
"Just Hoke being Hoke."
First Published October 11, 2011 12:00 am