Twice during a conversation that lasted no longer than 20 minutes, Bryant McFadden caught himself when talking about the Steelers.
“You hear me say ‘us’ like I’m still part of the team,” the former Steelers cornerback said. “That’s just something that’s in my blood.”
McFadden played six seasons for the Steelers from 2005-11 (spending ’09 with the Cardinals). It’s been about 40 months since he’s last worn the black-and-gold, but after two Super Bowl titles and three AFC championships won with the team, old habits die hard.
Even if he is now an unbiased member of the media.
“I always wanted to be able to talk about sports,” said McFadden, who for almost a year now has been getting paid to do just that by the 120 Sports Network.
“Even when I was in Pittsburgh, we’d always have heated debates in the locker room. We’d go back and forth, and I always wanted the opportunity of doing that for a living.
“It’s a pretty cool gig. I can’t complain at all.”
McFadden, Trib readers of Steelers coverage might recall, was prominently quoted in the Sunday story on the team about how they’ve neglected taking cornerbacks in the early rounds of the draft. McFadden just happens to be the most recent cornerback the Steelers selected as high as late in the second round.
I called McFadden last month for the story, and – just as he’d been when he played – found him to be engaging and well-spoken. Those qualities make him a natural fit to join the media, specifically broadcast media.
That’s exactly what he’s done. McFadden is one of the primary hosts for 120 Sports, a Sports Illustrated-backed online venture that talks sports via video and audio throughout the day. People can download the app for Apple or Android devices and listen live or pick-and-choose the topics they want to hear the panel pontificate on.
“The name ‘120’ comes from the concept of every topic is 120 seconds,” McFadden said. “A lot of people are on the go and always looking at their phones, and a lot of people don’t have the attention to look at topics that linger to be 5-10 minutes long, so we cater to any casual fan that loves to get updates about any sports-related topics in rapid-fire fashion.”
Even while he was playing – McFadden started 62 of the 110 games he played (counting the playoffs), including Super Bowls XL, XLIII and XLV – McFadden was thinking about life after football. He attended the NFL’s “broadcasting boot camp” and, after his playing career ended, initially worked for free for the Miami CBS affiliate, just to get experience.
“I ended up meeting with some broadcasting agents and a few already remembered me from my playing days and heard about what I’d been doing,” McFadden said. “And once we got word that this new company, ‘120,’ was eventually going to take off, they sent my reel to them and I came up and did a few interviews. And the rest is history.”
The 120 studios are based in Chicago, and Florida native McFadden had been commuting there from his Atlanta home. But he said he enjoys the travel. The toughest part of the gig? McFadden said he had to initially do plenty of reading and studying up on some of the sports he hadn’t grown up exposed all that much to.
“I’m a football guy, that comes second nature for me – college and the NFL,” McFadden said. “But I’m also talking about all other sports: baseball, hockey, basketball, soccer. Which is good for me because I had to really hone my skills on that. Growing up I’d always been a football-type of guy, a basketball-type guy, and a casual baseball guy. But now knowing that I had to talk about some of the hockey-related stories – of course we’re always talking about the Penguins; they’re one of the top teams in the news – I really had to study and really focus in and challenge myself. I’ve come a long way, especially with other sports. Every day is a day for me to get better, and I’m enjoying it.”
So has 120 Sports, which in less than seven months of existence was awarded by Apple as one of its Best of 2014 apps.
While I had McFadden on the phone, I got his opinion on some Steelers issues…
On what Troy Polamalu meant to the franchise (and to McFadden):
“Special guy, man. He’s so instinctive and very, very smart. His football IQ is like a Peyton Manning of the defense – that’s the best comparison I can give you about what he brought to the table. And one thing I love about Troy – he loved to be able to help others get in position to make quality plays. He studied the game that well. He understood the concept of offenses and how they try to attack the defense, and he made sure everyone was on the same page. And he’s a dynamic guy. One thing about Troy, he revolutionized the safety position into something totally different. Troy wasn’t a big safety, he wasn’t a tall safety. He was more of a short, compact guy, put well together. Troy kind of took that safety level to another dimension. At one point in time it used to be the Roy Williams of the league were the safeties that were (in style): Bigger safeties that can run and hit. But Troy was a shorter safety, fast, who can run and hit and do it all and also play in the box. What he meant to our defense when we were played in three Super Bowls and won two Super Bowls, clearly we would not have to got to that level without Troy being in the lineup.
“He means more to me just from a personal standpoint; not just from a teammate standpoint, but just as a good individual. You rarely come across great people in the NFL. There are a lot of people who could care less about you when you’re not on the team anymore. Once you don’t have that uniform or that helmet, they’re not going to call you or text. But Troy has always been a stand-up guy, not just to me but to anybody in that locker room, and I think you need that. You need that around. Because now you’re starting to get a different mold, a different identity with the Pittsburgh team. A lot of the older guys that were mainstay guys for such a long time are no longer there. Now it’s up to the younger guys to be able to uphold the standard. When I got drafted, I was able to hone my skills under a guy like Deseha Townsend, a guy like Ike Taylor, a guy like Troy Polamalu, a guy like Chris Hope. Watching those guys, it helped me to become a professional on and off the football field.”
On how Polamalu was, in effect, quietly pressured into retiring by the Steelers (note- we spoke before Polamalu officially announced his retirement):
“That’s the nature of the business, unfortunately. But to hear, basically, the ultimatum of what his options are was the most difficult thing for me. I think, of course, Troy has battled injuries the past few years – but I think he’s meant so much to the organization that if he really wants to play one more year and really feels like his body is able to last a full season, allow him to go at it. Give him the opportunity to be like, ‘You know what, I don’t have it anymore.’
“I still stay in contact with Troy. We briefly chatted this past week, actually. Just on a friendship level; nothing professional. But I get the feeling that he still wants to play one more year, me personally. And I think he’s meant so much to the organization that if he does want to play one more year and he feels he can give us the Troy Polamalu we’ve been accustomed to seeing, give him that option. Not to mention, I haven’t heard anything about them potentially asking him to take a pay cut or re-structure his deal. Which is weird for me because give him the common courtesy to be, ‘You know what, Troy, your cap number is a little bit too high. You know, we’d love to have you for one more year, but for us to continue to bring in quality players in order for us to get up to the next level of winning Super Bowls, we need to cut your pay down or re-structure it. Are you willing to do that?’
“From an organizational standpoint, sit down and talk with him: ‘Do you really believe, Troy, you really can give us what we need to have out there on the football field? And when we say, ‘Give us what we need,’ we mean play at a high level and be healthy.’ And Troy’s a standup guy. If he thinks his body is prepared enough to go through a whole other season, let’s bring him to camp. Let’s see how he performs in camp; let’s see if he’s healthy enough to go in camp.
“But for them to just be like, ‘We’d rather you retire than cut you?’ Not to mention, it got out in the media — if it would’ve been closed-doors then I don’t think Troy would have minded. It would have been an emotional decision for Troy, but now that everybody is talking about it, and what he meant to the organization, what he meant to the city, it’s easy to be torn between this tough decision to make.”
McFadden’s thoughts on another recently-retired former longtime Steelers secondary mate of his, Ike Taylor:
“Outstanding guy, a guy who overachieved. Wasn’t that high of a draft pick; he was basically still raw when he got to the professional level, never really played cornerback consistently at Louisiana-Lafayette – and he became one of the most consistent corners in the Steelers’ organization history. Of course, he never got the national recognition the other top corners were receiving year in and year out, but to us he was always a quality, top-flight corner. Early in my career you’d see Ike on Chad Johnson, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, week in and week out. That’s a tough task to have – that’s a lot of food on your plate, and he used to go at it and hold it down. The only issues with Ike is if he would have caught half of his interceptions he’d be one of the best corners in the game.
“But to us, we knew what he brought to the table because we saw it in year in and year out. Unfortunately this past season he didn’t get to show people the top-fight corner he is because he was battling injury and he was in and out of the lineup with injuries and that makes it difficult to get into that chemistry level, to get into that understanding and knowing how your body is going to maintain against that type of competition.”
On where the Steelers are at as an organization this offseason:
“Pittsburgh always has a chance to make a run. I think this is going to be a very critical offseason because a lot of quality guys (are no longer) a part of this team, so who’s going to step up and hold the fort down? … Jason Worilds, he was their best pass rusher. Can Jarvis Jones stay healthy? I think he has the potential and the skillset, but can he be healthy enough to show that production on the football field?
“Of course, the offense, you’re talking about having one of the best wide receivers in the game. Ben played like the best quarterback this past season statistically, and then at running back, you’re talking about one of the best running backs in the game. So you’ve got a three-headed monster on offense that can be tops in the league against anybody in my opinion. Can the offensive line be consistent enough to get (the Steelers) over the hump?
“But I think, offensively, they’re right where they need to be. Martavis Bryant, oh man, he’s a touchdown waiting to happen. It’s just about who’s going to step up on defense. Lawrence Timmons has to be THE guy. He was THE guy this past season, but… not having Brett Keisel.. Troy, Ike … Who’s going to be the leader of the secondary? So there’s a lot of question marks — more question marks on defense than the offense.”