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Idaho-born Hoge beat the odds

March 25, 2012
By John Hartsock ( , The Altoona Mirror

BEDFORD - As a 12-year-old boy growing up in the tiny town of Pocatello, Idaho, Merril Hoge had a simple request concerning the wall in his bedroom.

"I wanted a wall made up of cork,'' Hoge, the former Pittsburgh Steeler fullback and current ESPN television football analyst, told area coaches, athletic directors and athletic trainers on hand for the first-ever CenPenn Youth Sports Symposium sponsored by ProCare Therapy and Fitness and University Orthopedics Friday at the Bedford Springs Resort. "I wanted to pin up my list of life goals on that wall.''

One of those goals was to someday play in the National Football League. He knew that the odds were against him.

"I know that only .02 percent of all high school football players ever play in the NFL,'' Hoge said. "But I was going to take action. I was going to find a way to play in the National Football League. I was going to find a way.''

Hoge did, too, and with his favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, no less.

Hoge played fullback for the Steelers from the 1987 through 1993 seasons, exhibiting a rough-and-tumble, smash-mouth running style that netted him a career total of 3,139 yrds on 825 carries - an average of 3.8 yards per attempt - and 21 touchdowns.

Hoge loved his time with the Steelers, and he loved playing for legendary Steelers coach Chuck Noll, who was later inducted into the National Football League's Hall of Fame.

"Chuck Noll was the greatest leader I've ever been around,'' Hoge said. "He's equivalent to people like General [George] Patton. I've read about the way in which General Patton trained and prepared his men, and I got the same life lessons from Chuck Noll.''

One of the lessons Hoge received from Noll - who coached the Steelers to four Super Bowl championships in the 1970s and early 1980s - was to go above and beyond the call of duty and to exceed the ordinary.

"Chuck Noll emphasized going beyond our jobs as football players, and doing the uncommon rather than just the common,'' Hoge said.

It's a lesson that Hoge, who has always gone full bore into everything he's attempted, took to heart.

"Whether you're an all-star or not, if you get everything out of the skill set you've been given, you've been excellent,'' Hoge said. "I firmly believe that to be true for me.''

Hoge's accomplishments off the field are even more impressive than they were on it. The father of two beat cancer back in 2003, and he serves as the board chairman of the Highmark Caring Foundation and Caring Place Centers, a Pittsburgh-based organization which helps grieving children. He has used his position as an ESPN football analyst to accomplish, among other things, a public platform for the treatment of the type of head injuries that ended his career in his final season, at the age of 29, with the Chicago Bears in 1994.

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