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Blue-Collar Mentality

Pittsburgh's Von Oelhoffen gained notoriety when Palmer was hurt, but he's just a guy with two jobs trying to do the best he can

January 20, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH — Your back aches, your knees throb, and you're constantly looking over your shoulder for younger, quicker, stronger players trying to take your job. Such is the life of an NFL defensive lineman.

But, hey, at least you're playing pro football for a living. You could be digging ditches.

And if you're Pittsburgh's Kimo von Oelhoffen, you do both.

Von Oelhoffen, 34, a mainstay on the Steeler defensive front, is the rarest of NFL players: one who has a non-football job in the off-season. He owns a development company in Walla Walla, Wash., and operates a lot of the heavy equipment himself.

In the Steel City, he's Mr. Black-and-Blue Collar.

"I've dug at least 3,000 feet of soil before," he said. "That's what I'm accustomed to.... I guess that's why I still love this game. The real world is tough."

The 6-foot-4, 299-pound Von Oelhoffen cruised along quietly under the radar for the better part of a dozen seasons -- six with Cincinnati, six with Pittsburgh -- until two weeks ago, when he found himself in the spotlight as the guy who accidentally blew out the left knee of Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer in a first-round playoff game.

Palmer completed a long pass on the Bengals' second offensive play, and was hit low by Von Oelhoffen after he released the ball. Had Von Oelhoffen gotten both legs, it probably would have been a routine knockdown. Instead, he got one, and Palmer's knee buckled sideways, snapping two ligaments.

"I felt bad for him," Von Oelhoffen said, wincing as he recalled the play. "He'd come a long way to finally get his chance, and then that.... " His voice trailed off. Several Cincinnati players and coaches were upset, and there were several on-field skirmishes after Palmer, a candidate for league most valuable player, was injured. But even the quarterback acknowledged after the game that the hit was not malicious.

Pittsburgh trailed early in that game but rallied for a 31-17 victory. The Steelers will play at Denver on Sunday, with the winner advancing to Super Bowl XL in Detroit.

For Von Oelhoffen, it's the chance of a lifetime, yet football consumes only half of his life. He's married and has three young daughters, and when he can get away from the game, he does. At a construction site, for instance, he seldom talks football unless he's asked about it. He'd rather strangers not know what he does the other six months of the year.

Von Oelhoffen, who is of Hawaiian and German descent, didn't grow up around the game. He was raised on Molokai, where his family works in commercial fishing. His hometown, Kaunakakai, was so tiny it had no stoplights and the tallest building had two stories. His alma mater, Molokai High, was among the smallest in the islands and didn't field a football team. Except for the two weeks he attended another school as a freshman, Von Oelhoffen had no experience playing organized football in high school. Instead, he played basketball and volleyball and ran track.

When he goes back for visits, he's the same old Kimo.

"A lot of people there understand me, and they know I'll never change," he said. "You can take the boy out of Molokai, but you can never take Molokai out of the boy."

A marginal student who scored well on college board exams, Von Oelhoffen was admitted to the University of Hawaii, where he tried out for the football team and was presented a scholarship in his first week. He played one season as a defensive lineman, then moved to offensive line for three games his second year before deciding to leave with his newlywed wife for Washington, her home state.

The couple settled in Richland, where they still make their off-season home, and Von Oelhoffen joined a junior college team in Walla Walla at midseason.

From there, he earned a scholarship to Boise State, where he showed promise despite being slowed by a broken foot and badly sprained ankle. In 1994, he was drafted in the sixth round by the Bengals, where he stayed until 2000 when he signed as a free agent with the Steelers. He began his Pittsburgh career as a nose guard before moving to defensive end.

Although Von Oelhoffen is not on his 2003 pace, when he finished with a career-high eight sacks, he has been typically reliable this season for a team which has won six straight games. He finished the regular season with 22 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks.

Steeler linebacker Joey Porter recently called him "one of the top defensive ends in the game," even if the numbers don't reflect that.

"He doesn't get credit for it because he doesn't have the name of [Miami's] Jason Taylor, [Indianapolis'] Dwight Freeney and all those guys," Porter told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "But he does everything we ask him to do. If you want him to hold up two people, he'll do it. A guy like that you have to have on a winning team."

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