Tunch Still Packs Punch With Football, Faith
By Don Leypoldt
“My name is Tunch Ilkin,” the Steeler offensive line great told a chuckling audience at Doylestown Country Club in May. “And even though my parents gave me that name, they still liked me.”
The first native Turk to play in the NFL, Ilkin – who was born in Istanbul but moved to Chicago as a toddler- needed no introduction to Pittsburgh fans. From 1984 to 1992, Ilkin started all but a dozen games at tackle for the Black and Gold. During those years, he helped lead the Steelers to two AFC Central titles. His play helped Steeler rushers average six yards a carry in a thrilling 26-23 overtime Wild Card win at Houston on New Year’s Eve 1989.
Ilkin played more games as a Steeler than team legends James Harrison, Heath Miller and Terry Bradshaw. He has announced even more games from the broadcast booth. Yet Ilkin’s C.V. of being a late round draft pick (sixth) from a basketball school (Indiana State) did not project future greatness. Then coach Chuck Noll cut Ilkin during his 1980 rookie preseason.
“Early in training camp I hurt my knee,” Ilkin recalled. “When I finally played in my first preseason game, which happened to be the third preseason game, I was in for one series. I had a mental error, I gave up a pressure and I was called for holding. I was promptly pulled out.”
The Steelers waived Ilkin after breaking camp. “(Noll) told me, when he cut me, to stay in shape because if someone gets hurt he’ll call me back,” Ilkin said. “I thought he said that so I wouldn’t cry. It made me cry anyhow.
“I called my Dad and asked, ‘What am I going to do?’” Ilkin’s immigrant father thundered advice that cut across all cultural lines. He said, “Tunch, you’ve got your degree. Get a job!”
Ilkin wasn’t ready to give up on his NFL dream. But he did heed Dad’s and Noll’s advice. Ilkin worked at a Chicago health club where he lifted and ran. He remembers watching a Monday Night Football game one evening. “Neither of those offensive lines looks all that great,” Ilkin thought. “Maybe I can’t play for the Steelers’ offensive lines but I could play for one of these teams.”
Ironically, Steeler offensive lineman Steve Courson broke his foot the day before. Noll called his sixth rounder the Tuesday after at 5:30 AM and Ilkin, with a duffel bag full of dirty laundry, boarded the next flight to Pittsburgh. He played special teams for the Steelers’ game against Oakland that week… on Monday night, no less.
“That was the start of my career. I didn’t play a snap at offensive line that year. I was a bubble guy but the fact that I played center, guard and tackle and special teams really helped me,” Ilkin noted. “I got a lot better from my rookie year to my second year. I felt like maybe I could play in this League. The third year, I played a little bit and I started a game. And once I became a starter, that is probably when the light bulb clicked on.”
Ilkin played in all but one game over the 1981 and 1982 seasons. In 1983, he started 10 games for the AFC Central champs. But a more powerful thing happened to Ilkin as he followed men like Jon Kolb and Mike Webster for their professionalism. Both line mates were also devout Christians and in February 1982, Ilkin dedicated his life to Jesus Christ.
“I was a guy who grew up in a Muslin home but I was more of a cultural Muslim. I went off the tracks in high school and college,” Ilkin candidly admits. “I fell for the lies of false manhood. I kept looking to be validated as a man whether it was drinking, drugs, sexual promiscuity or athletics, you name it. I thought Christians were goofy and weak and nerdy. And as a Turk and Muslim, the worst thing you could do was become an infidel and convert to Christianity.”
Ilkin had some faith conversations in college. “Then I went to the Steelers and I met a bunch of guys who loved Jesus and who loved each other, and loved me,” he continued. “And they had something that I didn’t have. I was very attracted to it. Jesus said at the Last Supper, ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples. That you love one another as I have loved you.’ That’s what I felt when I got to the Steelers. There were all of these guys like Jon Kolb and Donnie Shell. John Stallworth and Mike Webster who were godly men and they were men’s men. They were tough guys and strong guys.”
Ilkin’s roommate, fellow lineman Craig Wolfley, was another strong Christian. “Wolf” was in the process of losing his Dad to cancer, but the peace that the entire family felt during that time moved Ilkin.
“Mike Webster was the first guy who asked me what would happen if I died and where would I spend eternity?” Ilkin remembers. “They told me that God loved me and God is loving and merciful but in His holiness, He is a just God and He can’t look on sin. And all men have sinned and fallen short of God’s standard.
“I didn’t need to be told I was a sinner,” Ilkin told the Doylestown audience. “I knew I was a sinner.
“But the good news,” Ilkin continued, “is that God has given us eternal life through Jesus. When I heard that for the first time, it turned my life upside down.”
Ilkin’s personal life did a 180. But on the field, Ilkin did not magically become an All-Pro. Ilkin believes that “the worst game of his career” came in an ugly 38-10 playoff loss to the Raiders on New Year’s Day 1984. The Steelers allowed five sacks. Ilkin resolved to change things.
He started martial arts training, a revolutionary concept in 1984. Another martial artist, Bill “Sarge” Edwards noticed Ilkin and asked what he was trying to do.
“I said I wanted to be a better football player,” Ilkin replied. Sarge responded, “Well, if you do that, you’re just going to be a better martial artist. If you want to be a better football player, come train with me.” Ilkin and Wolfley did so for the next 10 years, sometimes arriving at Edwards’ place at 5:00 AM.
“He wasn’t a football guy so I would explain to him what the defensive line was trying to do,” Ilkin said. “I’d ask him how I could punch better, generate more power or more explosive energy, or be better with my hands, feet and body control.
“We came to a system which really worked. I’d say, ‘Reggie White does this, what would you do?’ And he would show me something. We came up with a system to counter the rip move, the club move, the bull rush, the swim move…all of it,” Ilkin concluded.
Unbeknownst to Ilkin, then offensive line coach Ron Blackledge sent a Steelers’ video person to film a workout. The video went viral, or as much as a video could go viral in the 1980s. Soon, almost everyone in the NFL knew about “Tunch’s Punches.”
Each year since his retirement, Ilkin works with college and NFL teams on the punch, the footwork and hand placement aspect of his system. “The program foundationally was all open palm strikes so that is what made it perfect for offensive line,” Ilkin explained.
Edwards’ training paid dividends. Ilkin started 47 of 48 games in 1984 through 1986. He earned Pro Bowl honors in 1988 and 1989. The year before, in 1987, Ilkin was in the headlines for another reason: serving as the Steelers’ player rep during the NFL lockout.
The role as rep “really stretched me. I took the impact of my position on the labor movement seriously. My responsibility was to keep those guys together and it was a heavy burden,” Ilkin told the Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin in December 2011.
After one season with the Green Bay Packers, Ilkin hung up his cleats in 1994. Now, he is a mainstay in the 412- as the Men’s Pastor at Bible Chapel, which has five locations in suburban Pittsburgh, and in the Steelers’ broadcast booth. Ilkin has broadcast game day radio since 1998.
Ilkin and his wife Sharon started attending St. Clair Bible Chapel when it was a two-room church in 1987. The church, and Ilkin’s role with it, both exploded. Ilkin served as Youth Pastor for six seasons, transitioning to Men’s Pastor in 2000 when Ilkin’s own kids were approaching high school age.
“I love broadcasting and I love to teach, whether it is teaching a Bible Study or teaching Cover 2,” Ilkin exclaimed. “When I do a game- even if the opponent is doing something to beat us, I’ll go ‘Oh man, this is what they’re doing! They’re flooding the one zone and they’re flooding it deep and they’re sending the running back out on a flare, there is nobody in the flat and the guy is still running.’
“The other thing I find fascinating are the coaches and the philosophies, whether it’s the vertical passing game of Sid Gillman or Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense,” Ilkin continued. “I’m fascinated by how they’re doing it and I’m even more fascinated about why they are doing it. I get fascinated with the relational aspect of the game. Like, which coach impacted you and why are running the Cover 2? Mike Tomlin likes the Cover 2 because he ran it with Tony Dungy in Tampa. Tony likes the Cover 2 because we ran it up here.”
Noll, according to Ilkin, was a big proponent of “Why.” Noll instructed what to do, then how to do something and finally why players had to do it that way. The maxims influenced Ilkin.
With his eloquence and passion for teaching, it’s surprising that Ilkin does not coach in the NFL. He has had plenty of opportunities, turning them all down- although he agonized over Bill Cowher’s offer to coach offensive line. Ilkin believes that God had a plan for keeping him off of the sidelines.
“For some reason, I couldn’t do it. I was doing what God asks us to do when we have a tough decision: pray about it, fast about it and seek wise counsel,” Ilkin mused. “And I didn’t get a clear answer.
“It wasn’t until I could look back in retrospect that I understood why. A few years later, Sharon got cancer. For the next eight years, she needed me. Even the last year that she was with us here on Earth, I was there every minute of the way for chemo, surgery and staying in the hospital overnight.”
Ilkin points out that he is every bit of a coach now at Bible Chapel. “I get to coach men. That floats my boat,” he said. “I get up thinking about how we can make our Men’s Ministry better and I go to sleep thinking the same thing. There is nothing that gets me jazzed more than seeing a man get excited about following Jesus, being the leader of his home, loving his wife and teaching his children.”
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