Bringing you another Pittsburgh Steelers’ interview courtesy of our good friend Ron Lippock of the Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin. Today, Ron chats with former Steelers’ offensive linemen Lonnie Palelei, who played with the team from 1993 through 1995. They discuss what it was like being drafted, who helped him in his rookie year, and share stories about teammate and friend Justin Strzelczyk.
Be sure to check out Ron’s book, Steelers’ Takeaways: Player Memories Through The Decades, featuring over 400 interviews with players and coaches, past and present. You can buy it on Amazon through the link provided here.
First – we’ve been chatting back and forth on Twitter as you’e been traveling across the country. Tell me about the trip – what drove you to start the trip and how it’s going.
Well I ride a lot – I have a couple of bikes. I stay on the West Coast normally. I usually go back and forth from Kansas City since I had kids in the are. I’ve probably done that ten times already. But I’m riding now to West Point to see my son, he’s a law major there. He plays football there and there’s a list of things other than football he can do. He’s struggling a bit. His older brother started at the Naval Academy and I think my younger son is trying to hold himself up to that too. I guess I’m going there to tell him it’s ok to walk away from the game – the game ends for us all at some point.
So he’s having a tough rookie season?
Well, my kids all turned out to be smart – unlike me! They have options. I didn’t have a second plan after football. My grades were terrible in college. I don’t want my kids to be that way. I think because his dad played football, he thinks he has to play. But he’s had a lot of injuries. I want him to know no one would think it was weird if he decides to stop. The military stuff and his grades are the most important part. I sent my boys to military school after all because it meant 100% job placement.
So we also talked a bit on Twitter about the fact you may be tone of the first Polynesian players to play for the Steelers. But there have been many since – tell me why you think the Steelers seem to like Polynesian players?
I don”t think it’s a coincidence. The values the Steelers look for in players are the same ones we hold. We’re strong family guys and guys that work hard to be there. Those are values the Steelers seem to really care about. It’s funny – Pittsburgh was the first organization I played for – I figured they’d all be like that. I had a lot of stops along the way but none were like the Steelers.
The Polynesian players, we have the same values as the Steelers. The Warrior Way. Old school. So it’s not a coincidence we may have what they’re looking for. I’m just happy I didn’t mess it up for everybody! I was there when the first wave of us came in to the NFL. Whenever we’d all get together, the last thing we’d say to each other is “Represent!”
So tell me a bit about when you were drafted by the Steelers. Were you surprised?
Well – Mel Kiper picked me at that exact spot – right there at the Steelers pick in the fifth round. I thought, that would be great. I played in the All-Star game in college but didn’t get that much attention. I played at Purdue my freshman season but flunked out. My stipend check there was only $380 – housing was $450. I was in the hole every month. So I went to UNLV and was able to focus more on school and football because they gave out the highest stipend of any school at the time.
Who called you?
Cowher called, but I wasn’t sure if it was really him. The night before, my friends were calling me acting like coaches trying to trick me. So I was leery when he called. Then I heard offensive line coach Ron Erhardt in the background, “How do you pronounce his name again?”
The Steelers were my favorite team growing up. I was born in 1970 – in my senior year guide I put in there the Steelers were my favorite team. Cowher said “Lonnie, I sent in the paperwork – we’re about to pick you.” I was thinking the whole time about Mel Kiper – how did he get that right? I’m not sure Erhardt wanted me. I also heard him asking Cowher where I was from!
I found out later Cowher was roommates with my cousin when he played in Cleveland. He may have been hip to me from him. I’m used to telling people where I’m from – I grew up in Missouri after all. But the stereotype was great, that we were tough, athletic guys.
So who helped you out as a rookie – anyone mentor you?
It was a weird deal as a fifth round pick. Duval Love, Haselrig, John Jackson, Dawson, Jugs, .they all helped. Ariel Solomon and Strzelczyk were the guys that really helped me the most though. They were probably threatened by me trying to take their job – we were all backups fighting for two to three jobs. But that didn’t matter to them. Justin was a huge part. I went everywhere with him on and off the field. Ariel – I still talk with him – he was another Colorado guy. Seemed like we had their whole team there.
As backups, they had more time to spend with me. Those two taught me how to play. I must have been a headache for [offensive line coach Kent Stephenson] early – I was so flustered. I probably shortened his life, I’m sure. I had no idea how to learn his system – Gammons helped me too. They all had mercy on this dumb kid from UNLV.
But, the third season, they didn’t bring Duval back – I had a chance to start but I tore my knee up in a charity basketball game. They put me on the PUP squad and brought be back by the eighth game. But at the twelfth game they needed to sign another defensive back and kept Rod Woodson on the roster (he was injured and couldn’t play though). So by keeping Rod on the roster, I became a casualty. After my leg healed, I played for the Jets and Bill Parcells, and then with the Eagles. But no one invests much in an injured lineman.
Tell us more about Justin Strzelczyk – a guy you were close to. What should fans know and remember about him?
Jugs – he looked like a crazy mountain man – but he was literally all heart, He was a caring guy, he hid all of the issues well. In his private time he’d come to see me – everything affected him.
I just recently saw the movie (Concussion) – I’m sure they got all that stuff about him from Tina (his ex-wife). I’m not going to say much about her – she had already married some young guy when before funeral was done. For her to say that no one was at the funeral, that wasn’t right. His teammates – we were there. We were all his brothers. I’m sorry… this is just really hard [editors note: brief pause here for Lonnie]. I wish I knew he was suffering more. He was always so worried about me…about my weight….He was such a good guy, I wish he was still around.
Tell us a story that makes you feel good about Justin – one that makes you happy to remember.
My first year – as a rookie I went to Barcelona with the team – we played there for a game that season. Justin felt I was lost – that year the team flew our wives to Barcelona, too. He and his wife took us out to dinner, It was on the top of a mountain in Barcelona.
I was so uptight then – worried about what people thought of me and whether I’d be cut from the team. He just told me to cut it loose. He ordered a lobster and started making it dance on the table. He sang in this high-pitched voice – made the whole place laugh, He was like a big bear – a giant dude with a kid inside. This is another reason I can afford to be a better friend now that I retired. I can see all of my teammates that reached out to me. For all of us – I just wonder what we can do for them.
In regards to the way the NFL has worked with players now in light of thee CTE reports -what are your thoughts about the NFL’s work with players?
I think they have showed general care. The NFL benefits office called me. They told me I was one of the only ones left that haven’t come in. I think they’re making progress, they’re doing all they can do. It’s a business. I don’t want them to ruin the future of the sport. I don’t want them to change it too much – even with the CTE stuff. In my experience the NFL is doing great – flying me around to see doctors…the guys I worry about most are the guys not getting vested – the ones that play for less than four years. No one is talking about them. Most stopped playing because of injury. Even the college players – no one is looking out for them. I think about them often.
Tell me about some of your favorite memories as a Steeler?
The thing I really cherish is the fact I had a front row seat to some of the greatest athletes of all time. To see Woodson, Lake practice…their work ethic wasn’t anything they had to build up. Lloyd was a freak of nature – to get to practice with them. Even my draft class – Chad Brown, Deion Figures, we were tight. I never found that again.
In my first preseason game, I remember walking out – I must have had a dumbfounded look on my face. I asked the guy that was working there how many people were in the stadium – he told me 72,000. The whole island of Samoa I came from only had 64,000. I had my mouth open and Cowher slapped me on my back and told me “Now you’re here – you have to play. Stop looking around!”
To me – that was the biggest impression I ever had. My identity when I signed with the Steelers was as a Pittsburgh guy. That means something in the NFL. That goes with the qualities I talked about earlier – hard working, family men. It’s true more than on any other team. There’s nothing like what I found in Pittsburgh.
But you have achieved much of that for yourself as well.
When I go home to Samoa – it’s still a big deal. I didn’t get to accomplish what I wanted – we all want to be the best ever. I was humbled by my understanding of the time and situation. I’m just privileged to have gotten a chance to be what I wanted to be.
When I’m coaching, I can reach third and fourth string guys. I can see where they’re at. I was happy to build a nice program for my boys. I wanted my boys to be better than me, I knew they probably wouldn’t athletically. But they have academically. In the end I’m glad that when I go places they remember me. That’s all I ask for. I obviously wanted that gold jacket – but most of us don’t get one of those.