Steelers lineman Malecki refuses to take 'no' for an answer
John Malecki graduated in four years with a marketing degree from Pitt. Then his higher education began in earnest. He got to travel frequently and learn the workings of the world. He grew up fast and came to understand why the old coach Jerry Glanville said NFL means “Not For Long.”
The Steelers' backup center and guard has “bounced around a little bit,” as he put it, a wry understatement. Since signing a free-agent contract with Tennessee in 2010, Malecki has been released 10 times and assigned to countless practice squads. He has been here and there and back again, 23 separate transactions involving five teams. He has played in exactly one regular-season game.
“It's a frustrating business, but you have to understand that's what it is exactly,” he said after a recent practice. “You need to be singularly focused. Whether it's being released in the offseason or released in training camp or released in the middle of the season, you've got to keep your mindset and keep working hard.”
His hard work paid off when the Steelers promoted Malecki from the practice squad last November. A month later he made his NFL debut against Cleveland in the season finale. He played guard, his original position, tight end with the goal-line unit and on special teams.
The Steelers won the game, and Malecki was officially on the board, completing his personal hat trick. He has played at Heinz Field for his high school, Franklin Regional, for Pitt and the Steelers. A sizable contingent of friends and Malecki's large, close (and loud) family were there, including his parents, John and Angela, and his agent, Bill Parise, and his wife, Linda.
When Malecki entered the game, his mom cried. Linda Parise cried. Bill Parise, who is tight enough with the family to be called “Uncle Bill,” said, “I won't say that I cried. But my allergies were really acting up.”
“He had just played a legitimate game of football for the Pittsburgh Steelers,” said Angela Malecki, a hairdresser who became semi-famous for helping arrange outsized tailgate parties before Pitt home games. “It was amazing. He had just lived his dream.”
He hopes it keeps going. Malecki is trying to earn a full-time job, and by all accounts his chances are good. When the Steelers let offensive lineman Doug Legursky leave as a free agent, it amounted to a vote of confidence in Malecki's ability to compete for a roster spot.
Legursky himself was an undrafted free agent who wound up starting at center in the Super Bowl.
“I looked up to Doug a lot and still do,” Malecki said. “He's done a lot of great things as an undrafted free agent. He's a smaller guy, like myself.”
That has been Malecki's red flag. He is listed at 6-foot-2, 300 pounds, smallish by NFL standards. Parise said Malecki was about 15 pounds lighter coming out of Pitt, where he played for two years on defense before switching to guard. Presumably, another rap is his short arms and small hands.
Teams always are looking for someone bigger. Former Steelers linebacker James Harrison, another Parise client, was considered too small at 6-foot. He was undrafted and cut repeatedly. Finally, given a chance, he became an All-Pro player.
“If he was 6-2, no one would have cut him,” Parise said of Harrison. “His biceps measured six feet around and people want to say he's too small.”
No one is putting Malecki at Harrison's level. His practice squad options exhausted, this is make or break with the Steelers.
“I definitely see myself as someone who can play in this league,” he said.
“He's a great kid, an overachiever kind of guy,” Steelers offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. said. “Someone who gets every ounce of what the good Lord has given him out of his body. There's not much he hasn't seen at this point.”
Bicknell had some other good things to say: “Very smart,” “great character,” “very hard worker.” He said Malecki “very rarely gets himself out of position.” Asked about Malecki's weaknesses, Bicknell said, “It's just. ... More than anything it's his size and strength.”
The Steelers signed Malecki for the first time in August 2011 and moved him to center. He has since been cut four times by the Steelers but added to the practice squad on all but one occasion.
Malecki has had brief flings with the Titans, Browns, Buccaneers and Redskins, too. In his first season he lived out of a suitcase, joining three different teams. And then leaving. With the Buccaneers, he once was cut at 8:30 a.m. and went to the airport, only to get a call telling him to get back on the bus and return. He was cut again the next week.
Parise recalls sitting in a tree waiting for Malecki to join him on a hunting trip in Somerset when his cell phone buzzed at 6:30 a.m. It was Tampa Bay, again, seeking Malecki yet again. He was still en route. Parise called and told him to turn around.
“It was weird at first,” Malecki said of his twisting journey through the league. “You're so used to the college atmosphere, where they recruit you and they want you and they love you and they develop you and this and that, and you're the guy. And, boom, you get to the NFL and you're an undrafted free agent. You get released and your heart drops. The second time, you're, like, ‘All right, I get it.' And then you learn to deal with it.”
Angela Malecki said the family had a harder time dealing with it.
“(The NFL) is so much different from what you think it is,” she said. “We didn't understand. A signed contract and then they cut you? As parents, we're, like, ‘What's going on here?' I hated it. I thought it was so unfair.
“But (John) never puts his head down, never sulks,” she said. “You wonder what someone's breaking point is when there are too many nos. But he doesn't let it faze him. I think it drives him to prove people wrong.”