Igor Olshansky: My Coaches Never Played a Defensive Line
Former defensive linemen for the San Diego Chargers, Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins, the one and only NFL starter from the ex-USSR gave an exclusive interview to Russia based internet media.
About ten years ago, Igor Olshansky was in great demand. His career was on the rise; when he had been meeting Russian football aficionados on his rare visits to Moscow, he looked to them like a man who had it all. And then in 2011, he had to retire — and came off the radar.
I had an opportunity to interview Mr. Olshansky — truly a legend for every Russian or Ukrainian fan of NFL — quite of the sudden thanks to Maxim Osokin, then-HC of Saint-Petersburg “North Legion” who was attending coaches’ clinic at the school where Olshansky worked with young defensive linemen.
I deliberately refrained from non-football matter in our conversation. By all means, you can learn about the Olshanskys’ move from Dnepropetrovsk, USSR (now Dnepr, Ukraine) to San Francisco, CA late in 1980’s; about his grandfather Abram Rubashevsky, a decorated WW2 hero who was wounded eleven times; about his Magen David tattoos — from almost everywhere. When you have a chance to talk to a man who was playing on the highest level, you want to focus on the game.
“Football was my day job; I was somewhat whirled”
“I played basketball in my school years — reminisces Olshansky — Our program was one of the best; rated 5th nationwide, I think. Never have I been a starter, but I was someone you call “the 6th player” — the first one on the bench. And, one way or another, I felt like I will not ever shoot the moon in that sport.
One fine day I met one Vince Tringali. Septuagenarian, he was just a retired old man who watched football just for fun, but back in 1960’s he was coaching a football team in my school, and that team was really good. My basketball season was over, so I worked out at the gym and dropped in to the stadium occasionally to see a football game. As soon as Mr. Tringali caught a sight of me, he began to convince me that I belonged to football and had a great future waiting ahead…
As I already told, those days I felt like I could not fulfil myself — regardless of numerous sports I exercised: basketball (I could easily slam-dunk at age of 14), discus, shot put — those were not what I really wanted. Vince had opened my eyes.
And then you enrolled in Oregon University, free of tuition…
Tringali had strong ties to Neal Zoumboukos, who was Assistant HC for the Ducks. Zoumboukos played football at my school under Tringali back in the days. And me — at the age of 17 I was 6-foot-5, 255-pounds; I did 440-pounds bench press and dashed 40 yards in 4.8 seconds. Moreover, I was not afraid of hard hits, and knew how to take an advantage of the opponent’s aggression. So, after a brief tryout I was told that they want me right here and right now.
Oh, that was great!
Yes, but… One thing you need to know about playing a defensive line: it is a dogfight. (I gave reality to it as I started coaching myself.) If you want to play really good you require a proper skill set, and to have a proper skill set you require a good coaching. For the lack of it, you try to develop it on your own, watching other players on TV. I was in lack of proficiency — physically fit, but my skills left much to be desired. A few know how to coach D-line — even in the US, even in Oregon where the coaching staff was one of the best.
If you throw a pass, it is easy to tell whether it is good or not. The same if you catch. Of course, there are nuances. But when defensive line hits the offensive line, no one can tell what is happening. And this is the basics, this is where the football begins.
If it is an issue in the US, there is no saying about other countries…
On the internet I watched Team Russia played Poland; I also watched number of games of Moscow Black Storm. I am telling you, these guys are dimly aware what they need to do. It is not their fault however: they are vigorous, venturous, but their skills are poor. It is about hands, arms, legs, hips, it is about how you position your body, how you hit your opponent, how you move.
Were you happy with the Chargers’ defensive line coach?
Yes. But the problem was that Wayne Nunnely, defensive line coach for the Chargers, never played a defensive line. On the bright side, he had excellent players next to him. Many of them deserved the Hall of Fame jacket.
And the Cowboys’?
The same — defensive line coach did not play. You know, my whole career I was coached by people who never played a snap on a defensive line. Everything they knew they learned from the books. But they never felt it in their bodies. It is quite another story. The practice matters.
On the other hand, you may play the D-line ten years at the top level, but this does not make you a coach. This does not mean you can teach other people. Few ex-players made coordinators. It is like being a chef: it takes to cook it fine, to serve it fine, and to make your guest feel fine.
So you offset lack of skill with your physical abilities?
When you are going to build something, you require construction materials. I was tall, I was strong, I was aggressive, and I could endure the pain. All-in-one.
The other day me and my wife went to a grocery store; there was a worker who moved pallets — he was taller than me! “Look, the guy could play football, too” — my wife said. I replied: “You just do not understand. It takes it all at the same time”.
What did you miss as a player?
Enjoyment. Football was my day job; I was somewhat whirled. I had to play, had to work, had to help my family… I had no time to stop and think what is going on. It was my war, my mountain I had to climb to reach its top one day.
One more thing. For instance, I wanted to play all the defensive snaps. Instead, they sent me on the field on first and second downs and on short yardage — so called basic defense. Tentatively speaking, I wanted to play 75% snaps, but played only 60%. This is where I lost a bit of enjoyment.
Back on the skills — I saw no coach who could teach me. Of course, there were drills, but I had to watch my teammates, had to try to repeat what and how they did. Skill always comes first. There was a defensive end for UCLA, David Ball. His coach was former NFL player — so Ball recorded 16.5 sacks in a college season, which was the school’s best.
It took years to work up a good skill. Through the years came the injuries. I could not play as good as my 24 years old self. And then, on my fifth NFL season, I suffered an injury so bad that no one can tell how I could play four more years.
“I had an entrapped nerve nobody knew about”
No NFL career goes without injuries; Olshansky is no exception. He talks about the injuries unwillingly, focusing on the recovery, not the pain. Certainly, he could endure.
“My first NFL season run well. On the second one, I tore a ligament but was out for 10 days only. You will not be out for long when you play defensive line. Defensive backs — they can recover for months, but the linemen are different.
On the third season, in its very first game, Robert Gallery, an offensive guard for the Oakland Raiders, base-blocked me, but I outplayed him and made a tackle. In reward for this Gallery made a steel-roll block, taking a spin on my knee. In old good times players used to steel-roll one another to deliver career-ending injuries; this technique is banned in our days. Anyways, Gallery tore my knee, and I missed three weeks, knee bandaged. The next game I started was on week 5 against the Steelers. Played it to the final whistle, but on week 6 vs. the Niners the knee made itself felt again — torn tendon. Generally, in that season, I injured the knee twice missing four weeks.
I played my fourth year injury-free. Made lots of tackles, 3.5 sacks, forced 3 fumbles and 1 interception. Maybe, it was my best season. However, I met serious competition making Pro Bowl. I was nominal defensive end, but having played in 3–4 scheme, where my job was more of a defensive tackle: working on the inside, against two opponents. Anyway, I was listed as an end. Typical end is 225 lbs. max and is sacking like crazy; I was 315. Look at Warren Sapp: in 4–3 scheme he recorded 9–10 sacks a season; and as he went to Oakland where he played my position in 3–4, he sacked only once.
On the fifth season I entrapped a nerve in my shoulder. Could not press with my right. (I continued to play, but my progress the following four years was much worse than ever.) Nobody knew about the entrapment. I am left-handed, played on the right side of the defensive formation, and could control my opponent with one hand. I was good at reading the play, I sharpened my skills, but…
But the injury did not keep you from joining Miami…
It did not. I travelled to the East Coast alone, without my family; I used to live some weird places there. The Dolphins promised I would be a starter; in fact, I was offered a backup position. Being a backup is totally different. You are hanging about the sidelines, then all of a sudden you are sent in for one play, and then you are back to the bench. A starter never cools off, which is a big plus. On the contrary, backups warm up, then cool off, then again — this was the way I ricked my back. It was a cold day in New Jersey; I twisted somewhat amiss… As I came home I could barely move half my body. I thought, that was it. Time to call it a career.
As a matter of fact, did I still have something to prove? My 107 career games as a starter — since my first league year, when I was 22 — were enough proof. Few rookies make starters, but not me — I was drafted 4th of all defensive linemen in 2004. Roughly speaking, to make it to NFL you have to be among top 200 players in your position. To make a starter you have to be top 32. There is only one starting right defensive end per each NFL team.
“J.J. Watt is a gambler — he goes all-in”
Olshansky started to “prove” long before he was picked by the Chargers 34th overall in 2004. After his sophomore year in University of Oregon he was selected in Pac-10 All-Conference Team. He was recognized the best defensive linemen his sophomore and junior years. He set school’s best in bench press, 505 lbs. And this was just a beginning.
“On the scouting combine I did 41 reps in bench press, which was the best result so far. But then there was that Hawaiian guy who did 42. I felt myself offended so couple of days later, on my pro day, I did 43 reps. Later in the league 46 reps were my routine.
Such a strength…
I was 315 lbs. with only 11% body fat. I was the heaviest of the Chargers in terms of muscle mass. Okay, there was a guard, Toniu Fonoti, who might have 8–10 lbs. of muscles more, but he was 385 total.
Again, the muscle is not everything what it takes. The rumor had it once that Alexander Karelin (Greco-Roman wrestler, considered the greatest wrestler of all time having the career record of 887–2) could possibly join the ranks of the Cowboys. Who can tell how that could have played out? He might have stomped the field ripping people in halves — on the contrary, Brock Lesnar, ex-UFC champ, took NFL tryouts and underperformed. The game requires your body work the other way.
Two years later the No. 1 pick was Mario Williams, another physical freak.
Williams? Honestly, didn’t follow his career. Is he still playing?
Started for Miami in 2016.
Well, he is tall, long arms. But yet you need to know how to use your natural abilities. I cannot remember Mario impressed me with his skill.
You were #99. There is another famous #99 nowadays, for the Texans, who is considered the best defensive player.
Oh, J.J. Watt! Man, he is skillful, there is no doubt. Rather small, shaped, not so physical — but skillful. I doubt he could be as good at my position as he is. When your QB is right-handed, you put your best and strongest offensive linemen on the left wing. Failing to do that you are about to lose your quarterback very soon — as well as your whole season.
So Watt plays left end, where the quarterback is closer — in most plays, after the snap a QB moves to his right. J.J. is an outstanding player, but he is hit almost every snap. This is his way to play football; he leaves everything on the field. Blood on his face — this is from his manner; he is a gambler, he goes all-in: either I eat your quarterback, or you stomp me into the filed. Moreover, Watt mostly is a pass rusher, while I was a run stopper. In other words, against tough offensive linemen you would rather use Olshansky as they could easily break Watt.
Who was the most difficult running back to play against?
Adrian Peterson, of course. The top player. Curtis Martin of the Jets, Jerome Betis of the Steelers, Mike Elstott of the Bucs — to name a few.
Do you remember your first NFL sack?
Michael Vick of the Falcons. He did not expect me getting him; he was about to pass but I made it to him just in time. This was a clean sack, no injuries.
“In Cleveland they brought us broth instead of Gatorade”
Olshansky played along with the legends like Ladainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, Antonio Gatres, Drew Brees, Darren Sproles. San Diego has zero Super Bowl appearances in 21st century, but in Olshansky’s five years with the franchise, they made it to the playoffs four times.
“We had a strong team. In 2006, we finished 14–2 and lost to the Patriots 21–24 in the divisional round. We lost the ball number of times in the final quarter — like everything was against us. We fumbled on a punt, and then, when it seemed like we stopped their offense, someone committed a personal foul and awarded the Pats with the automatic first. Self-inflicted wounds, we called it. The loss costed Marty Schottenheimer his work — he was fired a month later.
About Schottenheimer… It is held that as a coach he paid more attention to the offense.
Marty is a great coach and a very good teacher — I learned a lot from him. He is good about the defense as well as about the offense. Schottenheimer’s strategy based on a turnover ratio — the difference between our turnovers and the opponent’s ones. To win the game, we needed to win in turnovers. If they snatched a ball once, we had to snatch it twice. Most times, it worked.
You once mentioned that you were close to linebacker Shaun Phillips.
We both were drafted in 2004. Shaun was a very good man, very helpful. We parted ways lately. The money changes people, you know.
What was the most unusual game you played?
Once we played in Cleveland. It was so cold that they brought us broth instead of Gatorade — everything else froze to the ice in minutes. Veterans knew the drills; they vaselined faces, loosen tape bandages, lengthened cleats. Well, I was no idiot — I looked after them and tried to do the same. You will not live to see an NFL player kindly advices a teammate — you are on your own, you have to observe and to notice. But yet I would rather play in severe frost than in fervent heat.
“Russia? It would be quite a long trip”
We are going back to where we started: to Martin Catholic, where Olshansky works as a defensive line coach and where Maxim Osokin attends coaching clinic — and is heartily welcomed.
“In the practices Maxim mostly sits next to head coach and hangs on his words. Football in the US is like a military training, it is where the men are made. America lacks the men, especially the strong ones; the sport helps a man come in full.
Plus, football builds personalities. In football, you may be the starriest of the stars — but when you venture too far, you are done. They just cut you — and you are done, no team wants an arrogant jerk no matter how good with the game he is. (This does not work in basketball, for instance: cut your star player and your team is done.)
Any future NFL players among your students in Martin Catholic?
There is an Australian kid, he did not play football before. We worked a year so far, and he already costs $200–300 thousand, salary-wise.
In general, Martin Catholic is one of the best schools in Northern Cali. But nonetheless, they do lack the skill, too. Something like you play it in Russia, maybe. You guys are much bigger — I saw a couple of players above 440 pounds — but in terms of skill you play pretty much the same football we have here.
Maybe one day you should come to Russia or Ukraine to clear the details?
Russia? It would be quite a long trip. Maybe later — when my younger son grows a bit older. But I like the idea! Anyway, I do not think about spending the whole season, it is rather a clinic or a camp.
There was a study reading 78% former NFL players file for bankruptcy or face financial straits in two years after retirement. Have you ever run into this kind of trouble?
Well, you have to move forward. Life is moving forward. Living in the US may be hard, but still it is a best place to live.
Plans for the future? Staying with football, taking care of my family. My older son is 8, while the younger is just a baby. Have to raise them.