PITTSBURGH - Chris Hoke spent 11 seasons carving out a niche as one of the best backup nose tackles in football, winning over coaches with his work ethic and his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates with his affability.
Even better, he did it while staying relatively injury free, remarkable considering his position. Yet when a neck injury sustained early in the 2011 season lingered and doctors told him surgery was required to fix the problem, he figured his time was up.
"I think the man upstairs was trying to talk to me," Hoke said.
Mirror file photo by J.D. Cavrich
Chris Hoke tackles Chris Johnson at Heinz Field.
He briefly considered attempting a comeback but thought better of it when warned of the risk of re-injury.
"I could have tried, but to me that wasn't responsible," Hoke said. "That was doing my family a disservice."
The way Hoke looks at it, his wife Jaimee and their four kids had already put up with enough, sticking with him early in his career as he struggled to stay on with the Steelers after getting picked up as an undrafted free agent out of BYU in 2001.
Hoke spent three seasons hanging by a thread, convinced defensive line coach John Mitchell hated him. Turns out, Hoke was wrong.
"He breaks you down then he builds you up into what the Steelers want you to be," Hoke said. "You think this guy doesn't like me at all [but] he sees the potential in you. He's building you up."
Hoke finally caught on in 2004, filling in capably when Casey Hampton went down with a knee injury early in the season, posting a career high with 24 tackles in 14 games while helping Pittsburgh to a league-best 15-1 record.
The Steelers rarely lost when Hoke started, going 17-1 when Hoke's No. 76 was in the huddle on the first defensive series. Though he knows he could have gone elsewhere to compete for a starting spot, Hoke was content to remain in Pittsburgh as part of a core group that's made the Steelers one of the league's best defenses over the last decade.
"I'm in a great organization, I'm playing for great coaches, I've got great teammates," Hoke said. "I didn't want to give that up. To me it was more than just going and chasing the almighty dollar. It was about my family and my way of life."
Hoke's retirement is another step in what could be an eventful offseason for one of the league's most stable franchises. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians retired last week. The 34-year-old Hampton is facing surgery on his injured left knee and 35-year-old defensive end Aaron Smith is mulling retirement after sustaining a neck injury similar to Hoke's.
Smith, Brett Keisel and Hampton stood off to the side while Hoke spoke, with Hoke joking Hampton has been tasked with developing a new version of the "Hokey Pokey" dance Hoke frequently performed during practices.
Hoke briefly fought back tears while talking about his journey, one that included a pair of Super Bowl victories while becoming a fan favorite for his blue-collar mentality.
"I brought my lunch pail to work every day," Hoke said. "I worked and I worked and I worked ... I gave everything I had every day. I think people here identified with that because that's the way this city is."
Popular in the media because of his accessibility, Hoke admitted he'd be interested in working in TV or on the radio one day, though Keisel thinks Hoke's future lies in coaching.
Pittsburgh nose tackle Steve McClendon cried when Hoke went on season-ending injured reserve in December, and rookie Cameron Heyward likened Hoke to a coach in the huddle.
"I love the mental part of the game and helping others," Hoke said. "[Coaching] is always an option. It's something I want to do. I feel like I've created a lot of great relationships over 11 years."