Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin aspired to be a standout wide receiver in the NFL. But in high school and college things didn’t transpire as he hoped, at least not in terms of his playing career.
In a virtual interview with Carl Francis and Vernon Lee, co-founders of the Hampton Roads Youth Foundation, Tomlin said: “I had bigtime football playing aspirations, so for a lot of my playing years, I was miserable, because it wasn’t unfolding in the ways in which I envisioned it.”
Even getting a scholarship to play football at the College of William & Mary was a letdown, because his big brother got to go to an ACC school. Tomlin recalls that his mother couldn’t understand why he was upset.
“She was trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Man, I got free school, at an awesome institution … but I’m mad, because man, I wanted to go to Duke. I wanted to play at Duke.”
‘Sharpening my Sword for Coaching’
As it turns out, Tomlin’s coaching career was already underway before he came to accept his limitations as a player.
“I went on and had a really good experience [at Willliam & Mary], was a captain and so forth, won a lot of games, but just really wanted to play professional football, thought I was capable of playing professional football, and felt like I got slighted in some way because I didn’t.”
Though Tomlin didn’t realize it at the time, not being good enough to get a scholarship at a Power Five school—and not being good enough to play in the NFL—turned out to be his ticket to the highest level of the game.
“In pursuit of playing aspirations, I didn’t realize all along I was sharpening my sword for coaching. I was really passionate about the game. Playing to win and leading. Getting into the schematics of it,” said Tomlin.
Today, he draws on his experience as a player and uses it to help him relate to his own players—especially the wide receivers.
“When you are a wide receiver, a lot of people have to do their job in an effort for you to do your job. I had to gain some global understanding of why I wasn’t getting the ball enough. That is why to this day I have so much patience for those who play the position,” Tomlin said.
Passion + Hard Work = Success
The lesson Tomlin imparts during the virtual interview is that your dreams may not unfold exactly as you envisioned, but you can still achieve great success, assuming you pursue what you’re passionate about and never stop working hard.
It’s a message he tries to get across at the Mike Tomlin Meet & Greet Reception at the Hampton Roads All-Star Football Camp, which takes place every year in his hometown of Hampton Roads, Va. Except this year, of course, cancelled due to COVID-19, hence the video interview:
As Tomlin noted at an All-Star Football Camp meet & greet from days gone by: “I’m a miserable failure, so I just get to coach the Steelers, because I wasn’t good enough to play. That’s the reality of it.”
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