Steelers defensive lineman Hoke persisted despite long odds
Chris Hoke was the consummate role player. He planted his hands in the trenches and committed to doing the dirty work that enabled others to thrive amid the spotlight.
Every now and then, the 305-pound nose tackle would steal the show in training camp with an Irish jig that inspired the crowd and his Steelers teammates. On Thursday, flanked by longtime friends — nose tackle Casey Hampton, defensive ends Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith — Hoke retired without much fanfare.
Hoke, 35, decided his 11th year with the Steelers would be his curtain call, in part, because of a series of nagging injuries, mostly a neck injury that landed him on injured reserve this past season.
"I had a couple of big injuries this year, and it helped put things in perspective for me," Hoke said. "I think the man upstairs was talking to me, and it's time for me to move on."
Hoke's wife, Jaimee, and his three sons were at the Steelers' training facility during his emotional farewell. Coach Mike Tomlin, who had been at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., also made an appearance.
Hoke said he resisted the temptation to continue playing. He said he spent part of last season in denial — his neck injury was far more severe than he imagined.
"I would have been doing my family a disservice to continue playing," Hoke said. "It could have been pretty bad.
"I'm glad I went to see the doctor when I did."
Hoke started only 18 games in his career, but hardly anyone was as reliable. The odds were stacked against him when signed as an undrafted free agent in 2001, partly because the Steelers selected Hampton with their first pick in that draft.
In 2004, Hoke had his most successful season, recording 27 tackles and one sack, as Hampton nursed an injured knee.
"When I walked in here 11 years ago as an undrafted free agent, I had a lot of dreams, but I never thought I'll be standing here 11 years later," Hoke said. "The feeling of family makes this a special place. Coach (Bill) Cowher stuck with me doing my growing years, and coach Tomlin believed in me.
"I was blessed to play for the best defensive coordinator in NFL history," he added. "Coach (Dick) LeBeau was the turning point in my career when he came in 2004, because he helped me turn things around."
Hoke, choking back tears, also credited defensive line coach John Mitchell.
"My dream was to just make the team," said Hoke, who helped the Steelers advance to six AFC championship games. "To be a part of a couple of Super Bowl teams is truly unbelievable."
Hoke's departure leaves questions about the rest of an aging defensive front.
Hampton and Keisel might have to take considerable pay cuts to resolve the Steelers' salary cap issues. Also, Smith isn't likely to return next season, meaning the Steelers will lean more on their young linemen — ends Ziggy Hood and last year's No.1 pick Cameron Heyward, and nose tackle Steve McLendon.
"It's about helping the team to win, and those three guys have that attitude," Hoke said. "They are going to be great players for many years to come."