In a guest appearance on the Getcha Popcorn Ready with T.O. and Hatch podcast, Pittsburgh Steelers CB Ahkello Witherspoon spoke with former NFL WRs Terrell Owens and Matthew Hatchette about various topics on the near hour-long show. The group talked about Witherspoon’s time with the San Francisco 49ers, learning tricks of the trade for CB Richard Sherman, the best WRs he has had to cover, and also the passion and energy he plays with on the football field.
During the podcast, Witherspoon was asked by HOF WR Terrell Owens about his experience having Mike Tomlin as his head coach, of which Witherspoon responded with heaping praise on Tomlin and the impact he has had on him during his short time in Pittsburgh after getting traded from Seattle right before the start of the regular season in 2021.
Hatchette decided to dive deeper into the topic of Tomlin, asking Witherspoon if having an African American coach has allowed Witherspoon to open up more and have tough conversations that he may not feel comfortable having with others.
“I did actually. He was speaking to us about just being a man and how the challenges of the league can cause people to be kind of fold as a man or it’s difficult to overcome those challenges,” Witherspoon responded to Hatchette. “He was speaking to people that didn’t have their fathers in their life in the room. He was saying, ‘some of you don’t have your father. So, if I can be that light of male influence for you, please take it. If not, if you have it, please take it.”
The National Football League is a business. Executives, coaches, and players can make millions of dollars based on individual/team performance, but also can get their walking papers the very next day if they aren’t performing to the level of expectation. Still, the game of football is a game of relationships. The relationships that are shared between teammates, coaches, the support staff, the front office executives, and the fans. So, it is important for the head coach of the football team to be dialed into his players’ well-being and be a presence that they feel they can go to.
Tomlin has exuded this persona since he became the Steelers head coach in 2007, often being deemed “a player’s coach” by the outside media as well as his players and other coaches/executives. For Tomlin to actively address the team and make it known that he is willing to be a father figure in the lives of those that both have fathers and those that don’t speaks to his true character as a man. Witherspoon made sure to commend Tomlin for his willingness to take on that role for his teammates in the locker room.
“I just remember walking up to him in the practice as a man that has a father and a very secure relationship with my father. I told him, ‘You do a great job, delivering your message to make it comfortable and acceptable for all people in the team meeting,’” Witherspoon continued.
Having a father figure in one’s life can be vital to the development of a young man. I, like Witherspoon, have had the privilege to have my father present throughout my youth and young adult life, nurturing me and teaching me life lessons on how to carry myself as a man.
Still, I have experienced what life came be like without a father figure in one’s life during my time at Florida with the Gators Football team. I had several players come to me from single-parent households after workouts and practice were over, asking me to keep the facility open for them when I had to lock up at night because they wanted to get extra work in, referencing their needs to “make it” with a single mother at home trying to support all their brothers and sisters.
These experiences opened my eyes, coming from a rather sheltered community in Northwest Iowa and how family dynamics can be completely different, whether it be because of race, socioeconomic status, or other factors. Thus, the fact that Tomlin actively approached his team in a meeting Witherspoon was in attendance for and made it known he would be that father figure for both players coming from a married household or from a single parent/no-parent family dynamic resonates with me as it obviously did for Witherspoon.
“It was just cool,” said Witherspoon regarding Tomlin’s message to the team. “Just being that transparent and being honest. I don’t think I could have done that with anybody else, especially another black man that has children that he’s raising that knows the value and the importance of that presence and in a young man’s life specifically.”
In a previous article where I highlighted Witherspoon’s thoughts on Tomlin, Witherspoon calls Tomlin “very relatable” and “very ground level”. These qualities, as well as the way he creates a culture of brotherhood, accountability, and love for each other in the locker room has me believing that Tomlin’s influence on Witherspoon in one season in Pittsburgh likely was a key factor in him returning to the team, agreeing on a two-year deal this offseason. Now entering the offseason with a full year under his belt and as the presumed starter on the boundary, Witherspoon has the opportunity to represent his coach and be the player Pittsburgh thought he could be when they made the move to acquire him.