In seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Meril Hoge built a solid reputation through hard work and a punishing, straightforward style as a running back. His career ended in 1994 with a head injury while playing with the Chicago Bears.
Hoge, now an ESPN analyst and co-host of NFL Matchup, also battled cancer and has written a new book, Find A Way: Three Words that Changed My Life, published by Center Street Press. He talked with City Paper about head injuries, the NFL's crackdown on illegal hits, and his time working with the late Myron Cope.
Find a Way comes off as part motivational book and part memoir. Was it your goal to merge the two?
It was, and going about it the right way was the biggest challenge. I went through several ghost writers because they just couldn't get the right feel for what I was trying to accomplish. The first few all started it with a football story or some statistic, but I didn't want to write a football book. There's football in it, but in telling the story of how I became who I am -- and yes, football is a big part of that -- it's not the whole story.
You seem to have chosen stories that were pivotal moments in your life, moments that helped form the person you are today.
That's perfect a way to describe it. I'm the product of a lot of people. I know that I who I am today because of guys like [former Steelers head coach] Chuck Noll and [former Chicago running back] Walter Payton. I went by and saw Chuck a couple weeks ago to give him a book and to personally thank him for his impact on me. That was really something special.
Head injuries are really being scrutinized in the NFL right now, and your career was ended by a couple of on-field hits to the head. Do you wish the attention had been paid to those types injuries when you played?
What's being changed now in the NFL would not have saved my career. What ended my career is that I was returned to the football field without ever being evaluated or treated for the injury that I had. What ended my career was ... that doctor allowing me to play before I was properly cared for. If I was playing today and the same thing happened, I probably would not have seen the field for a month.
What do you make of the NFL's new fines and enforcement policies?
[The controversy around] what's been happening now in the past few weeks is probably one of the greatest overreactions that we've ever had in the history of our game. All that's really being asked of the payers is to play the game fundamentally sound and correct. No more deliberate acts. No more taking your forearm or the crown of your helmet and throwing it up and through the neck, shoulder and head area of your opponent. It's over. Now that doesn't mean you can't strike that son-of-a-bitch as hard as you want to strike him. Please do, we encourage you to do that. But let's strike him right -- same foot, same shoulder, target area and run right through him.
What about James Harrison saying he was considering retirement over this?
He just completely misunderstood what the league was saying. He just went off on how "this is how I was trained." I would love for him to show me or tell me the coach that taught him to take your forearm and try to shove it up into the throat of a wide receiver coming across the field. I played a long time and I've never seen that drill. Go read that rule and I'll guarantee you there's nothing in that rule that says you can't go out and hit that guy as hard you want to hit him.
One of the more interesting things in the book is the difficulty you had working in the Steelers broadcast booth with the late Myron Cope. Was that a miserable time?
It was painful because I knew that Myron didn't want me there. So from the beginning I didn't have much of a shot. Even though it wasn't great, Bill Hillgrove was fine. He has been and is still very genuine and kind to me. But Myron made it brutal. I know he loved me as a player, and we had a great relationship, but that changed when I went into the booth.
I guess I understand why he felt the way he did, but he never softened with me and he never got that I wasn't there to take his job. But he never warmed up to me, and maybe that's because the Steelers made him take me in that booth. That fired him up and unfortunately I took the beating for it.
But now you've got a great job with ESPN.
With all that said, I sat there and I watched him and I learned from him. The greatest thing he did was connect the fans to the players by providing some unique insights about the player as a person. I liked that it was smart. So I learned things from that perspective.
I wasn't really part of the broadcast, they made me sit in the back, but I decided that "I'm here, so what can I learn from this situation?" Throughout my life that's something I've always tried to do.