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Back From the Brink

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Former Steeler Leon Searcy squandered the millions he made in his NFL career, enduring a stretch where he coached college football during the day and slept in his car at night.

Former offensive tackle Leon Searcy played for two of the greatest franchises in football history - the University of Miami and the Pittsburgh Steelers. He won national titles with the Hurricanes in 1989 and 1991, was the Steelers' first-round pick in 1992 (11th overall) and played in Super Bowl XXX with the Black and Gold.

Searcy, who played 11 years in the NFL, left the Steelers after the 1995 season to sign a $17 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the richest in the league for an offensive lineman at the time. He also made it to the Pro Bowl in 1999 and retired after the 2002 season.

He was an offensive line coach at Florida International University from 2004 to 2006, but he also endured tough times, squandering the millions he made in his NFL career.

Searcy recently talked to PSR's Walter Villa about the Canes, the Steelers, the money and more.

PSR: You are from Washington, D.C. What made you want to come to the University of Miami in the late 1980s?

 My parents moved to Orlando when I was 10. I only played one year of high school football because my mom was a teacher. I had to have a 3.0 grade-point average or I couldn't play. I was biggest kid in Orlando not playing football. I was discovered when the football coach saw me dunk a basketball.

PSR: What was your recruitment like?

 My coach never told me I was being recruited. The whole season, I was thinking nobody was looking at me. It kept me humble. Then, at the end of the season, my coach gave me this big ol' box full of letters from Notre Dame, Miami, Michigan.  

I was already a fan of Miami, so I went there for my first visit. My host was Melvin Bratton. He introduced me to Jerome Brown, Michael Irvin. I was in awe.

It came down to Miami and Florida State. I visited FSU, went to their dorms, where they had some kind of party - women, food. Deion Sanders and Sammy Smith were there, and they spent the whole time talking about what Miami had and what they needed to do to beat Miami.

I said there's no way I'm going to spend five years at FSU talking about how we can't beat Miami.

PSR: What did you enjoy the most about playing in Pittsburgh?

Oh, the fans. I love the fans. They've got to be the greatest fans in the world. They're die-hard, not fickle. I remember driving to the games at Three Rivers Stadium, and you'd see all the fans tailgating. You could smell the barbeque. And once they'd recognize you, they'd wave terrible towels. It's a pro football town, but it has that frenzy of college football.

PSR: Are there any ex-Steelers players you still keep in touch with?

I am in business with Ray Seals, Jason Gildon and Levon Kirkland. We own a gourmet coffee company called Organo Gold.

PSR: Are you involved in football at all?

I'm the president of the Broward Canes youth-football league (in Fort Lauderdale, Fl.). I also host a sports talk-radio show with (ex-Dolphins RB) Troy Stradford. And I'm hosting a TV show called "Canes For Life.'' We have ex-Hurricanes on, and we comment on the current team. And if they play like crap, we go on TV and say that they played like crap.

PSR: You have talked about how you blew the millions of dollars you earned in your NFL career. It got so bad that, at one point, you couldn't even afford a car, and ex-Canes teammate Hurlie Brown had to drive you everywhere. At the time, you were making $30,000 a year as an assistant football coach at FIU, working 16-hour days. What did you learn from all this? 

That I didn't prepare myself well. I tell the young guys now that - from Day One in the NFL - you have to prepare yourself for when you retire. It's a brutal business. Before you know it, you are 30 years old, and it's over.

PSR: Do NFL teams do enough to help players manage their money?

They have rookie symposiums that teach players about scams, women, agents - all those issues. But most of the time, it goes in one ear and out the other.

You are not going to tell a 21-year-old kid making millions of dollars to stay in the house. These guys want the nightlife, they want to go to strip clubs and make it rain.

PSR: What is the best advice you can offer young athletes?

Edgerrin James told me that when he started making money, there was only a certain amount of people he could trust. Instead of making the circle of people around you bigger when you get famous, you should make it smaller.

PSR: Is it true that when you lost all your money, you didn't want to ask anyone for help?

When you've been a competitor all your life, you don't want to admit that you failed. I couldn't believe some of the mistakes I made and some of the people I associated with. I was embarrassed.

There was a lot of pressure to take care of my family. And not just my kids - aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces. I had women coming at me with paternity suits. It was an onslaught.

But I eventually asked God to forgive me for the mistakes I made. And I forgave myself. For a long time, I was trying to recover what I lost. But you can't get it back. You just have to move forward.

PSR: I know you have three kids - ages 17, 13 and 11. Will you remarry?

I am allergic to marriage.

PSR: Now they you have recovered from your financial troubles, do you feel it's your responsibility to talk about it? 

Absolutely. A lot of guys share the same story. After they retired, they didn't downsize. They are going through divorce.

The NFL is about being macho and showing no vulnerability. But I have been through the storm. I am here to tell guys to get help when you need it. There is no shame in that.

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