Trai Essex loves working with his “hogs.”
That's a term of endearment he uses to talk about the offensive linemen, the O-line, the “big uglys” as legendary college football analyst Keith Jackson used to say. They're the heart-and-soul of a football's offense, but often overlooked by media and fans.
Essex was one of them, and deep down remains one of them.
It's almost enough to make the former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman want to jump into coaching.
“Every time I get out here, the juices flow and I think that's something I could do,” Essex said Monday after running New Haven's linemen through drills before the final night of his Trai Essex/New Haven Football Camp.
“Coaching is stressful,” he said. “I've talked to enough coaches to know it is. But coach (Steve) Cooley came up here yesterday and that was a great surprise. I saw him and he said, 'Trai, you need to get into coaching.' He was the one who got me into football (at Fort Wayne's Harding High School). I was just going to play basketball. So his word holds a lot of weight. If he sees something in my future, that's not something I take lightly.”
Essex, a Fort Wayne native, played at Northwestern University and spent nine years in the NFL, primarily with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He has his hands in a lot of outlets, including broadcasting and working with the NFL as a uniform inspector.
But if coaching is on the long-term list of possibilities, it makes sense.
Essex went to Northwestern, so you know he's a cerebral guy as well as strong former athlete. It's said often that offensive linemen are the smartest players on a football team. It's not just muscle. It's technique, it's anticipating a defender's move, it's being part of the physical chess game of football.
The New Haven players working with Essex gave him their full attention.
“It's huge,” New Haven coach Jim Rowland said. “Kids don't always identify with the NFL, but here's one who has been in the NFL right in front of them. And he was very successful, a two-time Super Bowl champion, and he sends that academic message as well.”
New Haven linemen Luke Watson and Geoff Johnson, two of the team's best veteran players, soaked in the instruction. They were also observed by coaches from the University of Indianapolis on Monday at the school.
“There are always things to learn and things you can get better at,” Watson said. “There are things you can get away with at the high school level that you have to cut out before you get to the college level.”
Essex spent a good portion of his time Monday working with the players on their footwork. The drills might seem simple, but Essex explained to the players the necessity of proper, advanced footwork.
“My calling card when I got drafted was my footwork,” Essex said. “It's something you don't have to be super athletic to work on.
“(Footwork) gets you in position,” he said. “You can be fast and super strong, but if you don't have proper footwork (to pass and run block), you don't have anything. You can see yourself getting better every day.”
That was spoken like a true coach. Or maybe a true coach in the making.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.