Pittsburgh Steelers' running back Merril Hoge doesn't say a whole lot, but his attitude and actions speak volumes.
As a Latter-day Saint playing in the rough-and-tumble National Football League, the 24-year-old native of Pocatello, Idaho, is known for his work ethic, quiet confidence, hard, punishing running and adherence to gospel principles in an environment not often condusive to such living.Hoge recently completed his third year with the Steelers – a surprise team that rebounded from a poor start last September to make the playoffs in December. And that was only the beginning.
In Pittsburgh's first playoff game, against the favored Houston Oilers Dec. 31, Hoge rushed for 100 yards and the game-tying touchdown with 46 seconds remaining in regulation, helping the Steelers to a surprise 26-23 overtime win.
The next week Hoge had the biggest game of his pro career, rushing for 120 yards and one touchdown, and catching eight passes for another 60 yards in a difficult 24-23 loss to the heavily favored Denver Broncos. Though Denver rallied in the last quarter for the win, Hoge was selected as the game's Most Valuable Player in a losing cause.
Though Hoge had a solid season, his extraordinary play in two playoff games was a surprise to coaches and fans alike. But he felt confident going into the Houston game because of his intense preparation and a priesthood blessing he received from full-time missionaries in Pittsburgh to help him perform his best.
"I put a lot of faith in my Heavenly Father," said Hoge. "I try to work hard and to live worthy so I can receive the blessings I need.
"I felt we would be thrust into the national limelight, and I realize I don't play football just for myself, but that I should be a positive role model as a player and Church member. As I looked back on the things that transpired the last two games, there was no question that I was blessed."
Hoge pays a tremendous price to prepare physically and mentally to play. And he pays dearly every game, absorbing crunching, bruising tackles from opposing linemen and linebackers.
He can dish out his share of bruises, as well.
A sports writer summed it up, saying "Hoge, whose name rhymes with `Dodge,' runs like a 4-wheel-drive truck."
He lives life the same way, going all out in whatever he does.
"I have never seen a young man who is more dedicated to absolute physical conditioning and proper eating habits," noted Eugene L. Hancock, president of the Pocatello Idaho Tyhee Stake and a long-time friend and priesthood leader of Hoge's. "In short, he fully keeps the Word of Wisdom. He has always had a commitment to gospel principles, and his challenges have made him stronger to his Church commitment. Merril is concerned about his example as a football player and a Latter-day Saint."
His father, George M. Hoge, said that his son is kind of a "loner" before a game so he can properly prepare mentally: "He likes to concentrate before a game, and he has always been that way. He likes to play a lot of mental games with himself. Merril's not the quickest guy in the world, but he's probably the most determined. He is very goal-oriented, and has been for years and years. He puts his goals on his wall and feels that if you work toward them, you will obtain them."
During the Denver game, the television announcers mentioned Hoge's Church membership several times, noting he doesn't drink, smoke and has high dating standards.
Counting on priesthood strength is not something new for Hoge, an elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood who understands the importance of faith and works. He would ask his father to give him a priesthood blessing at the beginning of each football season in high school and college. He especially received strength from a blessing his father gave him as a college senior when his mother, Sharon, unexpectedly passed away.
"There was no better mother in the whole world," remembers Merril. "There was not a night that I didn't come home late from practice that I didn't have a hot meal. The same was true of my brothers and Dad, who often had late meetings. I miss her greatly, but I'm comforted to know that I can be with her again. She's still teaching me, even though she's gone. Often things will hit me today that she taught me as a child. She often bore her testimony when I was young. Today I really appreciate that."
In his early high school days at Highland High School in Pocatello, Idaho, Hoge admitted, he had a "terrible attitude." He was kicked off the football team and quit the basketball team as a sophomore.
"That was an important turning point," Hoge recalled. "I watched my friends play and realized I had to work and get my act together to be successful."
He turned himself around and went on to star in football, basketball and track.
Hoge now is frequently the earliest to show up for workouts and the last to leave. When he's visiting home in Pocatello, he takes his dad to a nearby weight room for early-morning workouts.
His father remembered, "He was at the point then that most young people go through. As a parent, you do all you can. Merril, however, was able to overcome it. He had to work twice as hard, but he did it."
Hoge has great respect for his father.
"My dad has worked tremendously hard," he praised. "Former Chicago Bears' greatT Walter Payton is my hero on the field, but my dad is my overall hero. There's nobody I look up to more. He's struggled through a lot of adversity. He was a bishop when we lost Mom suddenly. To see how he handled that was a great strength. He continued to magnify his calling until he was released. I seek his counsel a great deal."
The elder Hoge has since remarried.
Merril's work habits on the field carry over into his approach toward living the gospel. "The gospel is a lot like football," Hoge noted. "You have to put effort into it."
He reads the Book of Mormon every night for at least half an hour and puts in many hours tracting and teaching with the full-time missionaries.
"In the off-season, I do a lot of firesides," he said. "Being able to talk with the youth is something I really enjoy. I go through the same things they do, and maybe tougher. There's not one person on my team who's a member of the Church, but they have respect for my beliefs. They tease me sometimes, but they are good-natured about it. I'm not much of the preaching type, but I try and lead by example and live the way I'm supposed to. Then when I get an opportunity, I do discuss it."
Kind of like when Hoge takes the ball and slides along the line looking for an opening. And once he gets up a head of steam. . . .