Former Americus and Georgia Bulldog star Leonard Pope (45) works out during Steelers practice earlier this week in Pittsburgh. Pope, who was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals, then signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, landed with the Steelers this offseason, reuniting him with former Chiefs head coach Todd Haley, who is now the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh.
PITTSBURGH — Leonard Pope smiled, shook his head and rolled his eyes incredulously. Then he politely answered the question.
The former Americus-Sumter and Georgia Bulldogs star was the only unrestricted free agent the Steelers signed in the offseason, and questions for the 6-foot-8 tight end keep coming back again and again to one subject.
Not the 102 receptions or nine touchdowns he has totaled in his six-year NFL career, and not his appearance in the 2009 Super Bowl. Not even his nickname “Champ” — or the fact he saved a 6-year-old boy from drowning in a swimming pool during an outing in his hometown last summer.
All anyone wants to talk to Pope about is his familiarity with Todd Haley’s offense. Haley was hired in February as the Steelers’ first new offensive coordinator in five years. No surprise, Pope arrived in Pittsburgh weeks later.
Wherever Haley has been the past six years — from Arizona to Kansas City and now Pittsburgh — he’s taken Pope with him.
With the Steelers feverishly studying to master the new offense, Pope is a man everybody wants to speak with about it.
“Every day — all day, every day,” Pope said with a chuckle. “And I give the same answer: I’m here learning the new playbook just like the rest of the players are. So my story ain’t gonna change.”
A story Pope is much more eager to tell is how he potentially saved the life of the young child of a friend at a party in Americus last June.
The only person at the party who knew how to swim, a fully-clothed Pope — with his cell phone and wallet in his pants — jumped into the pool, grabbed the boy, Bryson Moore, by the waist and pulled him out of the water to safety.
“It was an act born out of the fact of me being a father and having kids,” said Pope, a staunch supporter of his community who recently threw a pizza party for the boy’s class. “Like I told people, I would want someone doing the same for my child.”
That story, along with the fact Pope returns several times a year to help fundraise for Americus’ local hospital, Phoebe Sumter Medical Center, has made the rounds among his new teammates.
“I guess you can check the ‘Performs Under Pressure’ box for that,” fellow tight end Heath Miller said.
Providing depth to Pittsburgh’s tight end corps isn’t a life-or-death issue. But with David Johnson having been moved to fullback and Weslye Saunders suspended for the season’s first four games due to a violation of the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy, the 272-pound Pope will likely see plenty of reps this season for the Steelers.
“He’s a big boy,” tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “He’s aggressive, he’s bright-eyed, he just loves to come in and stick his hand in the pile and try to help us win.”
A third-round pick by the Cardinals in 2006 out of Georgia, Pope clearly has the size to help in the blocking game — a trait the Steelers have sought in their tight ends in recent years.
He also has shown an ability to be a weapon in the passing game, evidenced by the five touchdown receptions he had during his second year with Arizona or the career-high 24 catches he had last season with Kansas City.
“I try to tell people, ‘Please don’t sleep on me. When you sleep on me, that’s when I get you,’ ” Pope said. “You think I’m going to block all day, then I’ll run a route past you. You think I’m going to catch all day, I’ll block.”
Pope said his grandfathers and father used to argue about who deserves credit for bestowing the nickname “Champ,” given to him as an overly active and rambunctious boy.
Pope even dubbed his foundation aimed at disadvantaged families that emphasizes physical fitness, C.H.A.M.P. (Creating Hope And Making Progress).
But one thing Pope is not yet is a Super Bowl champ. He was with the Cardinals when they lost to Pittsburgh in the 2009 Super Bowl.
“I want to be on the other side to not have that feeling again,” Pope said.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin cited the hunger Pope has after being “on the wrong side of the confetti” that February night in Tampa three years ago. Tomlin mentioned that when asked about Pope before he mentioned the player’s history with Haley.
And that’s the way Pope would prefer it.
Contrary to conventional opinion, Pope did not sign with the Steelers just because of Haley.
“I came here because I had a job opportunity,” he said.
Haley was the offensive coordinator in Arizona for Pope’s final two years there, including the NFC Championship season. When Haley was hired as head coach of the Chiefs, Pope was signed soon thereafter.
Haley was fired by Kansas City late last season, and the Steelers hired him to replace Bruce Arians less than three months later. Pope was signed in April.
Haley’s fiery sideline demeanor, combined with the fact the affable Arians had a warm relationship with most of his players, have led to much discussion in Pittsburgh about Haley and the offense.
Pope might not be willing to speak too much on Haley’s Xs and Os, but he will endorse Haley the person.
“I love Todd,” Pope said. “He’s a great coach, and hopefully the guys are starting to see that right now.
“I know a lot of people see the negative picture of him yelling on the sidelines and all that kind of stuff, but he’s a real humble person and has a great passion for what he does.”