Steelers test new career paths
Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward had some words of advice for Steelers teammate and fellow Pro Bowler Troy Polamalu.
"Don't cut your hair, buddy," Ward said.
The place was the locker room at the Steelers' South Side training facility. The occasion was Ward seeking material for one of his weekly media ventures, the PNC Hines Ward Show on KDKA-TV.
Ward decided to ask some of his teammates about Polamalu's flowing mane, and how Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson tackled Polamalu by tugging hard on his Samson-like locks and pulling him down.
First, Ward wanted to know if any of the Steelers players thought Johnson's tackle was dirty. Then, he asked if Polamalu should cut his hair.
Safety Tyrone Carter said no. "Oh, boy, he would look crazy," Carter said.
Ward, of course, had the final word, telling Polamalu to keep his long locks.
Trailed by a camera crew on his way around the locker room, Ward walked past a group of reporters and teased, "I'm just trying to steal your jobs."
Ward and other Steelers are among a number of professional athletes who have parlayed their on-field fame into off-field job opportunities in radio and television.
One of the most popular Steelers players, Ward has his TV show, which appears at 11:30 Saturday nights with co-host Bob Pompeani. He also does a radio talk show Tuesday night during the season on WDVE-FM (102.5) with teammate Deshea Townsend and host (and former Steelers tackle) Tunch Ilkin.
Other Steelers taking the media plunge include linebacker Clark Haggans, who does a Monday night talk show on WPGB-FM (104.7) with Ellis Cannon; second-year cornerback Bryant McFadden, who has a Tuesday night talk show on WEAE-AM (1250) with host Mark Madden (teammate Verron Haynes fills in when McFadden can't make it) along with a Saturday morning TV show on WPMY-22; and starting tackle Max Starks, who has a Tuesday night radio show on WBGG-AM (970) with host Joe Bendel.
It's good business to have Steelers players do radio and television shows because they attract more listeners and viewers. Steelers players are supremely popular in the Western Pennsylvania market, and they help spike the all-powerful ratings that allow stations to charge sponsors more to advertise on radio and TV.
"There's definitely a high level of interest with the Steelers. I can't tell you having a Steelers player on a show increases ratings, but I do know we get very good ratings for Hines' and Deshea's show," said John Moschitta, operations manager at WDVE-FM (102.5).
Not all of the players knew what to expect upon replacing their helmets and shoulder pads with microphones and cameras. Although part of their job description as football players includes regular interaction with reporters, some Steelers players felt like they were entering unknown territory, at least initially.
"It's something I was unsure about," said Ward, who has had his radio show for several years but wasn't ashamed to admit he was a relative TV novice.
After speaking with Jerome Bettis, Ward agreed to replace the former Steelers running back on the KDKA airwaves after Bettis' retirement and subsequent move to become a co-host on NBC's Sunday night pregame show. Bettis still maintains his local television venture, although it has switched to NBC's WPXI-11.
"It's just a different avenue that I want to try to do," Ward said. "Maybe one day I can do what Jerome's doing. I can't play football forever, but I can use football to help jump-start or kick off other career moves and opportunities. It gives people a chance to know my personality, just know me outside of football."
Said Starks, who is in his first season on radio: "At this level, you have to plan for when you retire now. You don't know if it's going to be tomorrow, or 10 years from now. You have to have something to fall back on."
Ward and McFadden invite teammates on their TV shows, which are taped in front of a studio audience. Ward believes that being a pro athlete gives him an insight into what makes his teammates tick and what questions he can and cannot ask.
"I've got the advantage over most media guys," Ward said. "They won't answer that question if it's a regular media guy. I give insight outside of football, give people a chance to know who these guys are. I think that's what appeals to most fans, for them to get a chance to know who I am, what a big prankster I am."
While people know all about Ward, lesser-known Steelers such as Haynes, a reserve running back, are taking advantage of the Steelers' large fan base and attempting to build their own followings.
Haynes, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last Sunday against Oakland, said he waited a long time for an opportunity to appear regularly on radio.
"I'm one of the guys who's been around here for a while," said Haynes, a five-year veteran. "But I've been in a backup role, so a lot of people don't know who No. 34 is. I really wanted to get out there and let people see there's more to Verron than just a running back."
McFadden has grown in his role in front of the camera. He's now comfortable enough to not only interview quarterback Charlie Batch about his foundation, but also branch out into segments like "Dancing with the Pros," a spin-off on the popular "Dancing with the Stars."
McFadden is surprised at how well his TV show has been received.
"I'm not a starter. I didn't think people would watch," McFadden said. "It's going pretty well. I'm getting more camera friendly. We do a little entertaining, something you can laugh about."
If people don't watch, Ward is out of a TV gig. So he feels good when he talks with pride about the ratings from one of his recent TV shows.
"I heard we're getting some high ratings," Ward said. "I think one of our shows beat out 'Saturday Night Live.' "
Steelers on the airThose with TV shows
1. Hines Ward'The PNC Hines Ward Show'KDKA-2, 11:30 p.m. Saturday
2. Bryant McFadden'Hometowne Sports B-Mac Corner'WPMY-22, 11:30 a.m. Saturday
Those with radio shows
1. Clark Haggans with Ellis CannonWPGB-FM (104.7), Monday
2. Bryant McFadden with Mark MaddenWEAE-AM (1250) (Verron Haynes fills in when McFadden can't make it), 7:30 p.m. Monday
3. Max Starks with Joe BendelWBGG-AM (970), 6 p.m. Monday
4. Deshea Townsend/Hines Ward with Tunch IlkinWDVE-FM (102.5), 7 p.m. Tuesday