By John Dudley
[Ed.: Link to radio interview at end.]
Since retiring from football six years ago, Mark Stepnoski has changed countries, buying a house in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he now lives with longtime girlfriend Brandi Mollica.
He has also has changed lifestyles, trading the hectic demands of playing in the NFL for a relatively laid back retirement that includes travel, reading and taking in concerts and the performing arts.
But Stepnoski, 40, always a bit of an iconoclast, hasn’t changed. He continues to work toward the legalization of marijuana, an effort he began pursuing in earnest after leaving football.
And he has added a new interest, the 9/11 Truth Movement, whose adherents question mainstream accounts of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Stepnoski’s relationship with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) — he became president of its Texas chapter in 2002 — led Cathedral Prep to leave him out of its athletic hall of fame.
Nonetheless, with five Pro Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl rings, Stepnoski remains one of the most decorated athletes in Erie history.
He was nominated to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006, his first year of eligibility. Although he wasn’t elected, the honor cemented his place among the best centers ever — and, at 6 feet 2 inches and 265 pounds, one of the smallest offensive linemen in modern NFL history.
In a recent phone conversation from his new home in Canada, Stepnoski discussed retirement, reflected on his career and shared his thoughts on a variety of subjects. Q. What’s keeping you busy since retirement from football?
A. All kinds of things. We like to travel in addition to enjoying a lot of things in Vancouver. We go to sporting events, a lot of concerts. We like to go see performing arts stuff — plays and comedians. We go to the beach every once in a while.
Q. What’s the best show you’ve seen recently? A. The Black Crowes. We saw them recently in Oregon and in Seattle. Those were tremendous shows. I know them. I actually met them through Troy Aikman about 15 years ago. At the time Troy found out that a guy he knew growing up — (guitarist) Marc Ford — had joined the band. Troy realized who Marc was and when they came for show in Dallas, Marc Ford’s mother called Troy Aikman’s mother and asked if Troy would like to come. I went with a couple of other guys, because Troy couldn’t go. We’ve kept in touch, and I try to go see them whenever I can.
Q. You mentioned the performing arts. What interests you? A. There’s a theater close to our house, and the last few years we’ve had season tickets to that and we go see those performances sometimes. We’ll just go see whatever they have going on. We’ll go downtown to check out comedians. There are some pretty big names who do come up here. We’ve seen George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Lewis Black — good shows.
Q. Why did you move to Canada?
A. Well, Vancouver is a very nice city. I had met people over the years and I became friends with people who either were from here or lived here. I’ve met some people who still live here now. While I still lived in Texas I heard a lot about the city and heard about how nice it was. There was guy I was teammates with briefly when I was with the Houston Oilers — Mark Hatfield — who was Canadian and came up here and played for the B.C. Lions for few years. I came out here after hearing about it from him. The more I read about it the more I liked it. I started looking at cities and where they rank. You know, certain organizations and publications rank cities for their livability and lifestyle and stuff. Some people take rankings with a grain of salt, but I put some stock in that sort of thing. Vancouver is a city that has always ranked very high. In my opinion you couldn’t really do much better for a city as far as North America goes.
Q. Does it remind you of any U.S. cities you’ve visited?
A. You could probably compare it to the to west coast of the U.S., San Francisco maybe. Q. Do you watch the NFL?
A. I do, yeah. I like to watch guys I used to play with, if possible. Like today I watched the 49ers on TV. I like to watch Larry Allen play. I played with him in Dallas, and now he’s with San Francisco. I watch the Cowboys. They’ve been on TV a lot and they’ve been winning. I played with Flozell Adams in Dallas, and he’s still playing. It’s also fun to watch the Cowboys now because one of my former teammates is Jason Garrett, who is their offensive coordinator. He’s calling the plays. I watch the Titans here and there sometimes. A guy named Benji Olson who used to play guard in Houston, now he’s with Tennessee. Q. Are you still a Cowboy at heart?
A. I played for them the longest. I played 13 years, and I played there nine years. Just time-wise that’s the franchise I identify with the most.
Q. Is the NFL big in Vancouver? A. I would say so. I think it’s pretty popular here. It’s definitely promoted, I guess, the same way you would find elsewhere. It’s heavily promoted in commercials and ads in the paper. Bars and restaurants are always showing the big games. It’s a normal part of the culture.
Q. I’m guessing the Seahawks are the most popular team there? A. The Seahawks are on TV a lot. I’d say they’re probably the most popular here, although I don’t personally know any Seahawks fans who live here.
Q. Aside from the high-profile cases like Michael Vick and Pacman Jones, has the NFL become too uptight about upholding its image?
A. I know that the NFL is very cognizant of maintaining its image. When you have guys — as far as what Mike Vick and Pacman Jones did — when guys are getting in trouble like that, I don’t think you can be too uptight about that. There seems to be pretty serious repetitive trouble with some of these guys, and without a doubt the NFL is worried about its image, and rightfully so. They’re very interested in promoting the game. I don’t think it’s good for the league or the people who work for the league know. It’s not good for the image, and the NFL has to try to do whatever it can to minimize it. Q. Does it seem worse now than when you played?
A. It definitely seems like you hear about it a lot more. Whether or not that means it’s happening more is hard to say. If something’s being publicized more, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more prevalent. You hear about a lot of guys, like the Bengals, getting in trouble. That could just mean it gets more publicity now. When I was playing, a guy put out a book that got a lot attention. It listed all the guys currently in the league, at that time, who had criminal records. It got a lot of attention because I think there were more people in there than people suspected and they were caught off-guard by it.
It’s always been an issue. There never seems to be shortage of cases. It seems like it shouldn’t be as prevalent with guys making more money than they’ve ever made. Maybe there’s more temptation, too. But the league puts a lot of time and effort into educating guys, into warning them and preparing them for the lifestyle. There are more support services than there has ever been. Guys have resources at their disposal to try to make their lives easier. But you’re talking about roughly 1,700 guys in NFL, and there are always going to be a certain percentage who have scrapes with the law. Q. Has money corrupted pro sports?
A. I really don’t know. It’s hard to say, I think you could probably say it’s putting more pressure on young people at younger ages to try and make it. You hear stories now about parents trying to get kids to make it to pros, and kids are only in junior high school. They’re involved in everything with training and diet and stuff, and it’s a little crazy. The odds of making the pros are probably similar to winning the lottery, but some people still put a lot of emphasis on it. One thing the money has done is it’s motivated people from early on to try and reach that level.
It’s hard to make generalizations about what the money is doing for the game. It might encourage cheating more. You always hear stories about steroids and HGH and all that stuff, not even just in football but in other sports. Probably a lot of the temptation to cheat is the lure of being rewarded with huge amounts of money. I think most guys realize how fleeting a career can be, but a lot don’t necessarily act that way. I think there’s a lot of pressure on guys to max out on the money as much as they can because they realize it could be over really quickly. I think the average NFL career is three and a half years long. Some guys maybe are on the bubble to begin with or maybe they play a position that doesn’t have that much of a life expectancy and they realize it’s a short-term thing, and they put money more in the forefront. I don’t think all guys think that way. Some think they come into the league and they’re automatically going to play 10 years, and that shapes what their priorities become. I’m not saying that’s necessarily right or wrong. But when you’re talking about those amounts of money and the fact that you have to hire an agent, those issues of how long it can last and how far it will go are always going to be front and center.
Q. Was there a moment when you realized you were NFL material?
A. I don’t know if there was any one particular moment. I think the fact that I was able to play as early as I did in college, and the fact I was kind of able to follow in the same footsteps of some other guys who had gone before me at Pitt and played professionally and had great careers, I seriously started to think in college that I had a good shot at it. The main reason I went to Pitt is because they had so many offensive linemen who did well there and went on to become pros. I wanted the same thing. Once I got there and I was able to play relatively soon, do well and win some accolades, do well enough to get drafted, I thought I was doing what I needed to do to get there.
But you never really know for sure until you do get there. In my specific situation, early on I was learning a new position. I was a guard in college, and I was learning center. There was an element of uncertainty because I never played center until I got to Dallas. I knew there was no guarantee it was going to work out, but at the same time I knew that was a transition that other guys has made successfully.
It was something I had done a little bit of work with on my own ahead of time by talking to people who had made that move. Fortunately those things paid off. My rookie year, in 1989, I started the last four games and it went pretty well. But it was only four games. It went well enough, though, for them to start the following year with me as the starter, and I think then I started to realize I could play at that level.
Q. You were always undersized by NFL standards. Is there still a place for smaller offensive linemen in the league today? A. I don’t know. I don’t think you see any smaller guys in there much anymore. You see some guys bigger than others. The last I knew when I retired, I think the average size for an offensive or defensive lineman was six-four, 305, so if anything they’re probably heavier now. I don’t think you’re really going to see many guys below 300.
Q. Do you belong in the Hall of Fame? A. That’s really not my decision to make. I guess you could probably make an argument either way. That’s a difficult question because everybody would like to be in there. I felt very honored to be nominated, but I don’t expect to get elected.
Q. Why not?
A. I would be surprised if happened. I wouldn’t expect it to happen. I think my career warranted a nomination, but when you think about it there are only about 240 guys in there, give or take. That’s in the history of the game. So you know, I’m very proud of my career and how long it lasted and the teams I played on and what we were able to accomplish. But at the same time I don’t really feel comfortable saying I belong in there with 240 guys. That would be a very bold statement. Usually if you’re going to make the Hall of Fame you generally have to be considered one of best of your era. I think that goes without saying. I felt like I was able to be among best at my position at the time I played. But at the same time, I don’t recall ever being a first team All-Pro. Generally if you’re going to be a Hall of Famer that goes hand-in-hand with being among best in whole league.
Q. What are some of the greatest misconceptions fans have above professional athletes and their lifestyles?
A. I would say, off-hand, my educated guess would be that most people probably don’t realize the amount of time that goes into playing a sport for a living. They would probably be surprised to find out in some respects how similar it is to their own job. Q. By the time they pay their agents, their financial advisers and their taxes, do pro athletes have a lot less money than some people might imagine?
A. Anyone who plays in the NFL, even someone who makes minimum the salary and can play the minimum career, maybe three years, they can make over a million dollars doing that. Just having an average career in the league you can gross over a million dollars, so anyone who can do that should be able to have a pretty nice head start in life.
At the same time, a lot of guys don’t approach it that way. Maybe they think it’s going to last longer than it does. I’m sure there are people who are surprised to hear about certain athletes who used to be millionaires and wind up going broke. But there are lots of reasons people go broke, and it could be the same as what makes a normal person go broke, like divorce, gambling, a drug problem, whatever. Q. Have you been approached about any jobs in football?
A. No. Q. Are you interested in getting back into the game, maybe as a broadcaster?
A. Not really. I guess I haven’t considered the possibility. I had fun playing football. It was fun sometimes being on shows when I played. I had a radio show here and there when I played, and that was enjoyable. But I don’t think I would want to be in broadcasting.
Q. What’s at the top of your to-do list? A. I’m going to New York City in a week. I’m a big fan. I like going there. It’s a really fun place to visit.
Q. What was the reaction to the 2003 interviews you did with ESPN and “High Times,” when your marijuana use and advocacy for NORML really became widely known for the first time? A. I really can’t think of any fallout. I can’t really think of how it impacted my life in an overly negative way. You know, I was already a member of (NORML), so I already felt strong enough about that issue to be a member of the organization and to donate some money here and there.
When they asked me if I wanted to increase what I doing, I said sure. A lot of it was a timing thing. The guy at NORML who headed up the Texas chapter was getting ready to move. He asked if I would like to take over for him, and I said great. I could give many, many reasons for why I chose to do it. I could talk for a long time about why prohibition is a bad policy and why government shouldn’t arrest people who smoke marijuana, and about how much money they waste that they could be spending on more worthwhile things and helping people who really need help.
Q. Do you agree that part of the fight is overcoming the idea that marijuana use has been sort of demonized in today’s society? A. Not really. I don’t necessarily think it’s as socially unacceptable as has been portrayed in mass media and otherwise. Sometimes when you make such a big deal over something more and more people think it’s more important and more worthy of attention than it really is.
Q. You’ve traveled in Europe. The attitude toward pot smoking is different there.
A. Yes, the attitude of law enforcement in America is entirely different from Europe, in a bad way. I mean, again, we could talk about this for a long time. We could talk about incarceration rates and so on. There’s so much less crime and so many fewer prisons in Europe, and it seems to me that’s the direction we should be moving in North America. Q. Were you hurt by Cathedral Prep’s decision not to put you in its athletic hall of fame?
A. Not particularly. It was just a choice they decided to make, and I just chose to go along with it. I understand, I guess, that it put them in a somewhat difficult position. I don’t know really how it came to be such a big issue, to be honest with you. I guess, and this is pure speculation, I guess obviously somebody must have complained about it to make it an issue in the first place. I guess my work with NORML was objectionable enough to some people to make an issue out of putting me in the hall of fame.
The headmaster chose to call me and talk about it. It seemed like an easy thing to do, as far as my not pursuing it any further and choosing to not go in. Ultimately it was their decision. Really I don’t know how much good it would have done for me to really push it in any way. It was already something that I didn’t want to become an issue or a distraction for the guys going in. You want it to be a nice affair, let everyone celebrate. There was no reason to let this take away from it in any way. Like I said to Father Jabo at one point — and he agreed, and we both kind of laughed — I said, I know you’re a busy guy, and I’ve got things I want to do, too. This is a high school hall of fame we’re talking about. I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I’m too big to be in the Prep hall of fame or that it’s not important to me, because that’s not how I feel. But at same time, it’s a high school sports hall of fame, and I say this in the nicest way possible, but it’s not something I’m going to lose sleep over. I don’t want to sound like I don’t care, but at the same time it’s not that big a deal.
Q. Have you enjoyed following Bob Sanders’ success?
A. Yeah. I’ve only followed it a little bit. It really wasn’t all that long ago that I found out who he was. I think it’s great, though. Good for him. Q. Did you follow Cathedral Prep’s two-year run of state championship game appearances?
A. I used to hear about it second-hand from people. They had some amazing talent. That was a very prolific period for Prep’s football program. I believe they were nationally ranked. When you think about how many high school football teams there are around the country, for any team to get nationally ranked is just a huge accomplishment.
There were a lot of guys on those teams good enough to play at Division I-A schools, and that’s just amazing. It was a heck of a run by a school in very competitive football area. I believe at that time Joe Moore was involved with the team, too, and that was very exciting and very gratifying for me. I remember being very happy for him, number one because he was doing so well and number two because I don’t think there’s any denying his contributions had a lot do with that success. Q. When you do make it back to Erie, is there anything you’re reminded of that you miss about your hometown?
A. It’s nice to go to the beach in summer. One of attractive features about being here was living close to beach here, and that reminded me of where I grew up. I haven’t made it back lately. I think the last time I was there was for my 20-year high school reunion a couple of years ago. Q. Anything else you want people to know?
A. Well, you asked. I’ve got a lot of things I like to do, I read a lot and travel and all that. I don’t even know if you want to get into this, since it’s a little bit political in tone. But I’m really interested now in the things the 9/11 truth movement is doing. I guess I could spend a lot time talking about that and cover all kinds of policies and statistics, but I don’t know how much people want to know.
It interests me because I don’t think we’re being told truth about what really happened on Sept. 11, 2001. I’m highly skeptical of government accounts of what really happened. It’s one of those things that really won’t go away. I’ve been reading about that event and studying about it a great deal. I’ve read several books and a lot online pretty much since it happened, just because I’m curious about it and just because of other events in our historical past, like the Kennedy assassination for example.
Before anyone wants to try and pigeonhole me as conspiracy theorist, it’s like a lot of things. If you’re just willing to scratch beneath the surface and do a little research maybe you can find out some things, maybe more people would be more skeptical about our government’s involvement with 9/11. I used to read a lot of things on one Web site called “From the Wilderness.” The site no longer exists. It was run by a guy named Mike Ruppert, who wrote one of the best books on the subject called “Crossing the Rubicon.” It came out right after the 9/11 Commission report a few years ago, and I read it right after it came out.
We’re being lied to. That’s what bothers me the most. There’s a lot of evidence in almost any area of the entire event, and you can bring up a lot of inconsistencies and unanswered questions just about the event itself. Two of the three steel-frame buildings that day collapsed due to fire, and that’s never happened before, never in history. But that day it happened three times, including one building that didn’t get hit by a plane. Building Number 7 didn’t get hit by a plane and it went straight down in six and a half seconds. In the vast majority of U.S. cities that would have been the tallest building in the city. It had nothing but a couple of small fires on a couple of floors, but it fell down at free-fall speed in six and a half seconds. There are several engineers and architects who have made the argument that it was a controlled demolition because, again, there’s never been a steel building collapse due to fire. So how can it happen three times in one day?
There are many, many other things I could talk about, several inconsistencies we could talk about for a long time. If you read some of the authors like Mike Ruppert and Barrie Zwicker, and look at some Web sites, you can get a fuller account. A whole lot of insider trading occurred beforehand, and that’s a huge red flag that there was foreknowledge of the event. There were large financial transactions made ahead of time, a lot of trades made to buy stock in United and American airlines beforehand with the expectation that those stocks were going to go down drastically. A lot of the hijackers from the list released by FBI — a lot of those guys are alive. Many, many guys on the list are the wrong identity. One guy was a pilot for Saudi Airlines, another guy is living in Lebanon and is suing the U.S. government to clear his name.
I’m compelled because as time goes on there is a greater and greater growing voice among people in areas involved with different aspect of that day. You have pilots speaking about what would be involved with trying to fly a plane into the Pentagon that day in the way that it was portrayed. You have architects and engineers speaking out over the actual explanation that jet fuel could melt steel and cause buildings to collapse. You have former people who worked in the Bush administration or the military who have come forward to express doubt about the official story.
Consider the fact that the Bush administration really fought the formation of the 9/11 Commission the whole way. It fought over who was going to head it and who was going to be on it. Initially Henry Kissinger was supposed to be the chairman, but he stepped aside because of conflict of interest issues. The commission didn’t come together until a year and a half after the event. … And you think about how the government spent $15 million on the commission to investigate 9/11, which sounds like a lot. But then you make the comparison that the government spent $40 million to investigate the Monica Lewinsky affair. I certainly share a lot of those views. JOHN DUDLEY can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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Jack Blood interviewed Mr. Stepnoski November 7 on “Deadline Live,” posted at WTPRN: Listen here .