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Steelers Former Steelers offensive guard Haselrig fights back after drug problems, jail term

Monday, July 16, 2001

By Paul Zeise, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

For the first 26 years of his life, Carlton Haselrig was someone you didn't bet against.

Carlton Haselrig
"Going to jail was a wake up I needed." (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

He won a PIAA wrestling championship even though his high school, Johnstown, didn't field a team. He won a record six NCAA wrestling championships, including three Division I titles, despite competing for Division II Pitt-Johnstown. And he became a starter at offensive guard for the Steelers in only his third year in the NFL and made the Pro Bowl in his fourth, even though he didn't play college football and was a 12th-round pick.

"I'm not sure people understand how incredible it was that Carlton accomplished what he did without playing college football," said former Steelers lineman Tunch Ilkin, who was Haselrig's teammate. "He had tremendous physical skills, but what set him apart was his understanding of leverage. At one of his first training camps, he was involved in some one-on-one drills and was just snatching guys by their shoulder pads with one hand and throwing them down. And those weren't nobodies, they were NFL defensive linemen."

At that point, 1992, he was on top of the world. But almost as quickly as he climbed to the top, he fell to the bottom.

That's when he became someone you didn't bet on.

In April 1993, he checked into the Betty Ford Clinic as part of his sentence after a DUI conviction. That fall, he was suspended by the NFL for violating its drug policy by testing positive for cocaine. In '94, he had several stints in rehab and disappeared for days at a time, at one point leaving Steelers camp. He ended up on the injured/left camp list and had to sit out the season.

After several arrests and more trips to rehab, Haselrig signed with the New York Jets and played part of the '95 season before he was suspended by the NFL for violating the league's drug policy. He disappeared again.

The downward spiral continued until March 1997, when he was sentenced to 6 to 23 months in prison for violating his probation. He had been arrested for riding a motorcycle through Johnstown intoxicated and wearing his helmet backward.

"Going to jail was a wake up I needed," Haselrig said. "You spend a year or so in jail and you have some time to reconsider your choices and think about whether or not you want to continue down that path. I grew up a whole lot through that and knew it was time to pull myself together."

Haselrig, 35, is now working as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Colts of the North American Football League. He hopes it will jump-start his coaching career with the ultimate goal of returning to an NFL sideline. He also is working on starting a wrestling school in Johnstown and teaches young athletes at wrestling clinics and camps throughout the state.

But most important, he has found inner peace and is happy with his life.

"Back then, it was too much, too soon," Haselrig said. "Some guys can handle it well. I just didn't. But now I'm a lot more mature. I've learned a lot about myself. All that wild stuff is over. I'm just enjoying life with my family and making sure each day counts."

Haselrig, who lives in Johnston with his wife, Michelle, and their two children, said he knows his choices might have cut short his career, but he'd rather reflect on the positives than the negatives.

"Not many guys can say they played in the NFL and the Pro Bowl," he said. "I know that it could have been more, but what's the use of wasting energy on regrets when I was blessed to have been able to do the things I did."

The Colts, a semipro team, have provided a support system for Haselrig since he was released from prison in 1998. He joined the team, then called the Outlaws, in hopes of getting another shot at the NFL. He then signed with the Buffalo Destroyers of the Arena Football League and played the '99 season.

He returned to the Destroyers in 2000, but his season, and for the most part, career, ended when a disc in his neck was smashed while making a tackle. He was temporarily paralyzed in the accident and required spinal fusion surgery.

Haselrig has continued to work out, shaving 30 pounds from his playing weight of 290, and is coaching the Colts' linemen. He said he is happy for the opportunity because it affords him a chance to learn the coaching profession at the grassroots level.

Haselrig has been sober and arrest-free since before he went to jail in 1997, although in '99 he was mistakenly arrested on a bench warrant issued for his brother. But given Haselrig's track record could a prospective employer rely on him?

"There will be people who won't want to give me a shot, but that means I'll knock on other doors," he said. "I've been reliable for the past three years and will continue to. I live in Johnstown, but I get here to Green Tree for practice twice a week.

"I've never been one to back away from a challenge. Will this be a tougher road? Yes, probably. But I'm much more equipped to handle the bumps and setbacks than I ever was, and I know that things will work out if I keep moving forward."

Those close to Haselrig say he has put the past behind him.

"Four years ago he couldn't even look you in the eye and he had this faraway look when he did," Colts Coach Ed Brosky said. "But he's developed a very healthy sense of self and he's now so much more confident in who he is. He's been great to work with and a great influence on our players. There is no doubt, he's on his way again."

Said Pitt-Johnstown wrestling coach Pat Pecora: "I've known Carlton since he was a little kid and have been behind him through thick and thin. There were times when I worried that he'd turn up dead, but no longer. He realizes how much he has to offer. He continues to grow each day. I feel very good about where he is right now.

"But there has never been a middle ground with Carlton. Early on, he accomplished the extraordinary, then he hit the bottom. Now, he's much more consistent and steady and taking things as they come to him."

On the surface, it appears Haselrig is again ready to defy the odds and write another chapter in his amazing story.

And he's confident that betting against him is the losing proposition, again.

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