One day at a time. It’s a simple philosophy. You don’t climb Mt. Everest in an afternoon. Figuratively, you take it in chunks. Literally, in steps.
The same could be said about becoming an offensive linemen. One day, one step at a time. That’s the message the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive tackle Brian Mihalik, converting from defensive end, received. No one says it’s easy. Neither is climbing a mountain. But hey, it’s been done.
There are two cursory facts most associate with Mihalik. Height, he’s every bit of 6’9, and hockey background, though only for the fact he substituted the ice for the court in the winter. But his hockey days were finished by middle school and football became the main focus by sophomore year.
Where that first step in Pittsburgh would be was initially an uncertainty. He went to Boston College as a defensive end, was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles as such, and had a winter workout with Pittsburgh mainly going through defensive drills.
But the Steelers floated the idea of a position switch.
“They kind of took a look at me and my frame and said, ‘have you ever done any offensive tackle stuff?’ And I had done a little bit, I had done it at my Pro Day for some teams and things like that. So they put me through some offensive line drills and then they told me at that point, once the season was over, they were going to sign me. And they were going to let me know at that time what I’d be playing.”
When Pittsburgh called on January 20th, it was to announce they’d be signing him. As an offensive tackle. A sudden change but in Mihalik’s mind, not an intimidating one.
“It wasn’t too concerning. I actually had people telling me I should play tackle since high school. Some of the teams coming out of high school recruited me to play tackle.”
“I said, well, I guess I better start working on it.”
A challenge, but one embraced. If there’s a city for such a switch to work, it’s Pittsburgh. Alejandro Villanueva followed a nearly identical path. A defensive end with the Eagles, transformed into a tackle under Mike Munchak in Pittsburgh. Both players have been instrumental in Mihalik making a smooth transition. As much as there can be one.
“[Munchak] just knows so much because he’s been around both as a player and a coach. It’s just one of those things, every single day, you try to go into the meetings room and listen to everything he has to say. Because if you’re listening you’re always going to pick up a good amount of knowledge from him.”
Villanueva offers perspective even Munchak can’t provide, knowing exactly the transition Mihalik is being asked to make.
“I was doing something the other day with my strikes and [Villanueva] said, ‘you’re kind of using your hands like a defensive linemen. You gotta grab a different way, you gotta do this, you gotta do that.’ It’s just been really helpful because he’s gone through the process before and he knows what to look for.”
Mihalik has most of the weight Villanueva needed to pack on. Villanueva added over 100 pounds in 18 months. Mihalik sits at 320, only 20 pounds heavier than Philadelphia. He can focus on his craft, not calories.
He’s worked on the left and right side during the spring, something that will continue in the fall, switching off weekly as is the norm. He has no preference to either side, citing positive aspects about left and right tackle.
“I’m left handed so I kind of always have been in a left handed stance. So from that aspect, left feels a little more comfortable. But I think sometimes my footwork in the run game is a little better on the right side.”
One day at a time. That’s the first thing Munchak told Mihalik.
“It’s going to be a process to learn,” Mihalik recalls of that initial conversation with his coach. “You’re not going to be able to jump in right away and feel like you’re doing everything perfectly. It’s just going to be a process of learning and getting as many reps as you can.”
Maybe that’s the toughest part of all. There’s the physical element, football at the highest level, but the mental game is just as daunting. There will be moments where he looks like a former defensive end trying to play tackle. A bad rep, a bad practice, a chewing out from one of the coaches. It’s not fun to think about but for someone in his situation, it’s a given.
But when you climb a mountain, you might lose your footing. It’s all about getting back up. And that’s all Mihalik wants to prove to himself and his coaches.
“I just want to come in every day and compete and show them I’m improving every day.”