Vince Wilfork: “You come in as teammates but you leave as brothers.’’
Most pint-sized football players dream of making it to the NFL.
Anthony Chickillo dreamed of being a University of Miami All-American and getting into the UM Sports Hall of Fame.
On each first day of school as a little guy, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Chickillo would answer “a Miami Hurricanes football player.’’
The NFL career, which Chickillo now savors as an outside linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers after recently signing his second contract worth $8 million, did come. But the collegiate All-American status? Forget it. And that phone call from a UM Sports Hall of Fame representative delivering the precious news? He doesn’t expect it.
“My biggest dream turned into a nightmare,’’ said Chickillo, a five-star prospect from Tampa whose draft stock plummeted after former coaches had him gain 40 pounds and turned him into a lumbering defensive tackle instead of the explosive, speedy, 6-3, 245-pound All-American pass-rushing defensive end he became at Tampa Alonso High.
Chickillo, the Hurricanes’ first third-generation player whose father Tony and grandfather Nick both played in the NFL, and whose grandfather achieved that All-American and UM Hall of Fame status, reflected to the Miami Herald on Monday that for years he has sought emotional closure for his rocky collegiate career that ended in 2014.
So, he began by calling the Herald and apologizing for being what he believes was disrespectful to the media in the past (he really wasn’t), and said he was as mentally and emotionally satisfied as a football player as he’s ever been and wants to “get rid of the boy and be a man.”
“I’ve dropped my ego,’’ Chickillo, 26, always an emotional, outspoken leader, said. “When I came to Miami I was a five-star high school prospect and third-generation star. The fan base loved me. As a young kid having success you think you know it all. But you don’t.
“I stopped talking to [former head coach] Al Golden and [former defensive coordinator] Mark D’Onofrio week 8 or 9 of my senior season. It was tough. I kind of just cut them off and then cut off the Miami media. I took it out on the wrong people. The Miami fan base is passionate and I was looked at as the guy who would help bring us back and it didn’t turn out that way. When people are saying you suck all the time, as a young kid it was easy to be affected.
“That chapter of my life hasn’t really closed and I wanted to close it. For so long I’ve carried hate inside and I don’t like the feeling.’’
Then, Chickillo, affectionately known as Chick to his friends and former teammates, reminisced.
Chickillo’s life had always revolved around UM. His mom, Joan, married Tony on May 24, 1980, at St. Augustine Catholic Church on campus and had their reception at the UM Faculty Club. His grandfather, who is now deceased, was a two-way, first-team UM All-American lineman in 1952. His dad was a nose tackle from 1979 to ‘82 before being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His oldest sister Christina was born while Tony was still a Hurricane and would toddle around the married-students dormitory wearing a T-shirt with the words “I’m a mean Gator Hater.’’ And baby Anthony sucked on a pacifer with the U on it, his mother Joan once told the Herald, and later slept under a green-and-orange comforter with a giant U in the middle.
Beginning at age 7 after Chickillo’s morning games in the Tampa Youth Football League, he said he’d jump in his dad’s car — “no shower beforehand” — and they’d “drive straight to the Orange Bowl for tailgating with my dad’s buddies and former teammates. I grew up watching Ed Reed, Willis McGahee, Clinton Portis, D.J. Williams, Jonathan Vilma, Sean Taylor. They were all my heroes and that was my favorite part of my childhood... I was around the campus in 2001 when the Hurricanes were on top of the football world.”
But news of the scandal surrounding former UM booster Nevin Shapiro broke during Chickillo and Golden’s first UM season in 2011, and the college football world’s attention focused on the Canes for all the wrong reasons. UM continued its mediocrity that began in 2006 during coach Larry Coker’s final season and continued under Randy Shannon. UM finished 6-6 Chick’s first year, then 7-5, 9-4 and 6-7 in 2014. Golden was fired in 2015 after UM fell 58-0 to Clemson in the program’s worst loss in history.
By then, Chickillo, who said he had gotten as heavy as 285 pounds at UM, was in his rookie season with the Steelers after being chosen among the compensatory picks — 212th overall — in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He tried to reason with UM coaches to reconsider playing him as an edge rusher in their new 3-4 scheme when they fully transitioned his last two seasons. But coaches wouldn’t have it. Golden is now the tight ends coach with the Detroit Lions and D’Onofrio was fired as the defensive coordinator of the NCAA’s Houston Cougars last November.
“I was in the process of losing weight because I knew I was playing out of position,’’ said Chickillo, who said he weighed 267 at UM’s Pro Day before the draft but is back to 245. “I’ll never forget as long as I live, Steelers coach [Mike] Tomlin telling me after my pro day, “Chick, I’m going to draft you as an outside linebacker.’ But that draft day was horrible until I got picked. My grandfather was picked 181st overall by the Chicago Cardinals, my dad went 131st to the Bucs — and I thought I wasn’t going to be drafted by the end.
“I was crushed, until the Steelers picked me. Every day I come to work I love it here.’’
Chickillo started his last 47 of 50 games as a Hurricane and had a far better career than for which he gives himself credit. He finished with 170 total tackles, 25 tackles for loss, 15 1/2 sacks, two forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries.
Tony Chickillo was so disillusioned by his son’s college experience that Anthony said Tony hasn’t been back to a UM game since he finished playing.
Anthony still keeps in touch regularly with UM teammates such as Buffalo Bills’ offensive lineman Jon Feliciano, former center Shane McDermott and former linebacker Sean Spence, now a free agent who was drafted in the third round by the Steelers in 2012.
“We just always gravitated toward each other,’’ said Spence, 28, a Miami Northwestern graduate who was a senior Chickillo’s first season and mentored him the entire way. “I know a lot of guys were upset because they went to a 3-4 defense and Chickillo had to put on so much weight. He’s a guy who is very skilled and works very hard in everything he does. He’s a guy you want on your side, a great teammate, always did the right things.
“But it was super tough because of the expectations. The Chickillo name is huge at Miami and he stepped into that realm. Nobody likes to be criticized, especially when you’re 18, 19, 20 and you’ve got the pressure of the Miami legacy — your father’s and your grandfather’s name on your jersey.’’
McDermott, 27, now married and a medical sales representative in San Antonio for Arthrex, retired from football after ending his NFL career on the New York Giants practice squad in 2017. He said he considers Chickillo his brother.
“I don’t want to be controversial,’’ McDermott said, “but Chickillo worked his tail off at Miami and did anything he could to help the team out. There was some head-butting between Anthony and the coaching staff on what was best for him and best for the team, but he was always a team player and did what he was told.
“Obviously, it was tough because of the amount of talent our team had and not having the results we expected. It’s frustrating looking back and thinking what we could have done differently.”
Chickillo said he met new UM coach Manny Diaz and toured the indoor practice facility in February on his way to McDermott’s bachelor party. “It was incredible and I’m really happy for the players,’’ he said. “We’ve come such a long way. Manny said he wishes he could have had me. His scheme is incredible and I wish I could have played in it.’’
These days, Chickillo is working out daily in Pittsburgh and devoted to his longtime girlfriend Alysha Newman, a former UM All-American pole vaulter and Canadian Olympian. He has seven NFL career sacks, mostly as a backup edge rusher, and scored a touchdown the first game of 2017 when he jumped on a blocked punt in the end zone against Cleveland.
He’s healthy after bone spurs were removed from his right ankle, and said he’s “really excited’’ for 2019.
He figures that his girlfriend, not him, will eventually get that coveted call from the UM Sports Hall of Fame. But he can deal with that.
Now, he has a new dream.
“I want to win the Super Bowl.’’