Kuhn beat long odds to become 'folk hero'
He entered his first training camp 10 years ago, a nameless rookie from a tiny, local school in central Pennsylvania.
There were no guarantees he'd find a job. Nothing is handed to a backup fullback, not in the Pittsburgh Steelers' crowded backfield. The uncertainty gnawed on him at night.
Long after the bustle of practice stopped, John Kuhn would lie awake in his dorm room, struggling with an uncertain future.
"I remember sitting in my room studying plays," Kuhn said, "just spinning my wheels up top on, 'How can I make this happen? What can I do to separate myself? Because what I'm doing right now just isn't working.'
"I remember telling myself, 'I cannot wait for the first play tomorrow, because I'm just going to crush — crush – the first linebacker I see.' "
Sometimes, the stars aligned, and Kuhn knocked that linebacker on his butt. Mostly, he missed. NFL greatness was not in this rookie's DNA. Kuhn was sent to the practice squad his first year. He was cut again after his second training camp. Cut again after his third.
All he had from two seasons in Pittsburgh were nine games, two carries and 18 yards. He caught a pass once, too.
By his third year, Kuhn felt time running out. His position coach, the legendary Dick Hoak, was retiring before the 2007 season. Hoak, who mentored Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis, remembers the last time he spoke with Kuhn. Defeated, Kuhn told him he wasn't sure the Steelers were keeping him.
Hoak had a premonition.
"I said, 'John, listen, if they don't want you here, somebody is going to pick you up. You're going to have a long career in pro football,' " Hoak told Press-Gazette Media. "That's what happened. Pittsburgh didn't bring him back, Green Bay did. And then he became a folk hero in Green Bay."
'Big man on campus'
He isn't nameless anymore. With a few extra vowels — Kuuuuuuhn!!! — the chants reverberate inside Lambeau Field. He's a two-time Pro Bowler, a first-team All-Pro last season.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Not for a kid with no Division I offers coming out of Dover (Penn.) Area High School, an hour's drive from Shippensburg University.
Jeff Nixon remembers the precise moment he planted Kuhn's dream. Nixon, now the Miami Dolphins running backs coach, was a Shippensburg assistant a little more than a decade ago. He recruited Kuhn to that tiny school in central Pennsylvania.
Each time he flipped on Kuhn's film, Nixon remembers, he was astonished big-time programs weren't lining up with scholarship offers.
Their absence was Shippenburg's gain. Kuhn, missing his first season with an ankle injury, hadn't even played a college game before Nixon saw his potential. The redshirt freshman was stronger, smarter, simply better than anyone else on the field. Good enough, Nixon thought, to make a run at the NFL.
"If you work hard," Nixon told him after a spring practice, "and you keep performing, you're going to have a chance to play at the next level."
Before then, Kuhn said, he'd never given the NFL any thought. Why would he? Shippensburg, a Division II program, doesn't exactly have a pipeline to the league. He enrolled because it was close to home, he said, but not too close. He pursued a chemistry degree — mixing math with science, his favorite high school subjects — and tried to beat the odds off the field.
The freshman chemistry class held about 30 students, Kuhn said. It was down to five by graduation, including him.
Academics were important, but his decision to choose Shippensburg also was about X's and O's. Kuhn liked carrying the football. At Shippensburg, which ran an old-fashioned Wing-T offense, there'd be no shortage of running plays.
"The final straw," Kuhn said, "was the coach was a great guy, Rocky Rees. And he said, 'I'm going to give you the ball a lot.' So I said, 'All right, I'm going to come in.' "
Kuhn was the centerpiece of Rees' run-oriented offense. Shippensburg offered a heavy dose of traps and bellies, pounding its fullback downhill. Kuhn ran the football like nobody the school had seen. He finished with 4,685 yards and 53 touchdowns in four seasons, just two of his 27 school records.
He also was the program's best special teams player, starting on kickoff and punt coverage all four years.
"We were a small school," Nixon said, "and John was really the big man on campus, but he never stopped running down on kickoffs. Even when he rushed for 1,400 yards, 1,500 yards in a season, he'd score a touchdown and then run down and make the tackle on kickoff. That's the type of player he is."
A player that belonged in the NFL. Every Saturday, that's what Nixon left the stadium thinking.
He knew what an NFL fullback looked like on a college field. As a tailback at West Virginia and Penn State, three of Nixon's teammates went on to play fullback in the NFL. At Shippensburg, Nixon said, Kuhn was every bit as good as them.
Kuhn had the size to play in the league, Nixon said. He added 10 pounds after his freshman season, bulking up to 240. He also had rare, quick feet and soft hands, the complete athletic package.
"It's kind of out of the ordinary for a lot of guys his size," Nixon said.
But, Kuhn knew, he wouldn't carry the football 20 times per game at the next level. To stick in the NFL, he needed to learn the most basic part of the position.
The fullback with four straight 1,000-yard seasons never learned how to block.
'Learn how the fullbacks played'
Hoak came from the school of Chuck Noll. He was a running back for the longtime Steelers head coach, then his assistant. The man who led Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl titles in six years was a stickler for details.
Back in 1972, Hoak said, the Steelers started every first practice of training camp the same way. For more than an hour, running backs blocked. Footwork. Hand placement. Pad leverage. Precise angles. Over and over again.
They couldn't touch a football until Noll was satisfied.
"So that's what I tried to do with all my guys when I got them," Hoak said.
It was the perfect environment for Kuhn to tune his craft. The Steelers had a loaded backfield, including Hall of Fame tailback Jerome Bettis and two-time Pro Bowler Willie Parker. They also had 10-year fullback Dan Kreider, who mentored Kuhn.
That backfield laid the foundation for a Super Bowl championship run in 2005. The Steelers finished fifth in rushing that season. Kuhn observed from the practice squad. He jotted notes in the film room.
"I really had to learn how the fullbacks played," Kuhn said. "You play with good pad level, you play with hat in hands, and there's a different way to strike, and there's a way to sustain a block, and it doesn't always have to be a kill shot. There's a way to maneuver, and you can get in and out on guys."
Geographically, the Steelers were a logical place for Kuhn to sign. St. Vincent College, another tiny, local school where the team held training camp, was only a two-hour drive from Shippensburg. In Dover, he grew up surrounded by Steelers fans.
Proximity, matched with perfect timing, gave Kuhn his shot at the league. A Steelers scout sat in the stands when Shippensburg hosted rival Indiana University of Pennsylvania during Kuhn's junior season. He was there to evaluate cornerback Brent Grimes, now a Pro Bowler with the Dolphins. It was Kuhn who shined that Saturday in 2003, rushing for 155 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries.
"He came to my head coach after the game," Kuhn said, "and he said, 'Make sure John has his head on straight, and crosses all his T's and dots all his I's and has everything in tune. He's probably going to get picked up after his senior year.' I took that, and I really used that as motivation."
The Steelers scout knew Kuhn. When Kuhn arrived at his first training camp, Hoak did not. He'd never attended a Shippensburg game. Never studied Kuhn on film.
Right away, Hoak remembers, he saw potential. Physically, Kuhn looked like an NFL player on the practice field. His smarts helped ease the transition from small-college football to the NFL.
It helped, Hoak said, that Kuhn was a willing and skilled special teamer.
"What I liked about him," Hoak said, "he never made many mistakes. You'd tell him something once, and you didn't have to tell him again. He was just what we were looking for."
Then, he wasn't.
With Hoak gone, and first-year coach Mike Tomlin in charge, Kuhn said he saw the end coming in 2007. He was having his best training camp, Kuhn remembers, but he sensed the Steelers were going in another direction anyway. On the camp's final day, he was cut for the third time.
Kuhn thought about dusting off that chemistry degree. In the past, Kuhn said, he considered enrolling for his doctorate at Hershey Medical Center. Dental school was another option.
He never got a chance.
'He's Pennsylvania tough'
Edgar Bennett doesn't remember what was said, but he can't forget the call. There was excitement inside the Packers personnel staff. He needed to get a backup fullback in Pittsburgh on the phone, catch him up to speed.
The Packers couldn't have known what they were getting with this waiver-wire claim. When Kuhn showed up for the first practice, he was still obscure. But, Bennett said, the fullback knew how to block.
"I left Pittsburgh," Kuhn said, "but I got all of the dust and rust off me. I learned a lot of things there on how to be tough, how to hit guys, how to get my hand placement, how to do certain things. Now, my techniques weren't perfect, but I was more refined than a rookie would be."
It's not enough that Kuhn had to take an unconventional path. Look around the NFL, and it's difficult to find true fullbacks. The position is dying, with college football's rash of spread offenses mostly to blame.
Of the nine fullbacks counting at least $1 million against the 2015 salary cap, only three played running back in college. The rest are converted tight ends, linebackers and defensive linemen. In that sense, Shippensburg's old-school system gave Kuhn an advantage.
"Most college teams don't use the fullback," Nixon said. "So it's hard to evaluate fullbacks on tape. You usually have to evaluate linebackers and defensive linemen to kind of see if they can actually play fullback."
Packers running backs coach Sam Gash was a two-time Pro Bowl fullback, but he's unsure how he'd do in today's game. Gash was "one dimensional," he said. Among the best receiving fullbacks of his time, he had only 327 rushing yards in 177 career games (a 2.7-yards-per-carry average).
Gash calls Kuhn a "jack of all trades." He's thrived, Gash said, because he made himself valuable in every aspect of the position. Kuhn has rushed for 573 yards with the Packers, caught 501. He has 13 rushing touchdowns, eight receiving.
"He's a guy that is able to change with the times," Gash said. "He's like a chameleon. He can run the ball, he can be a guy that comes in at running back, he can play fullback. He can move a lot (before the snap). I live vicariously through him at the position. He's great at it."
Running and catching are wonderful. Blocking, always, is the position's lifeblood.
It's fitting one of Kuhn's signature moments came when he wasn't carrying the football. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers thinks of his 48-yard bomb to Randall Cobb in the 2013 finale. That fourth-down, game-winning touchdown in Chicago doesn't happen without Kuhn blocking Julius Peppers, the former Bears defensive end who was rushing hard off the edge.
Over time, Rodgers said, he's grown to rely on Kuhn in the backfield. Gash calls him a "calming voice," a leader when there's chaos on the field. His All-Pro impact doesn't always show up in the stat book, but Rodgers feels it.
"John's a gritty guy," Rodgers said. "He's a tough guy. He's Pennsylvania tough. He has that fortitude, he digs deep. He's extremely intelligent. I've said for years John is the only guy in the locker room that can rival me mentally with the playbook. He's incredibly smart and able to recall things very quickly. That keeps him around."
'Leave a legacy'
There still isn't much certainty. Not for a fullback in today's NFL. Kuhn played his first six seasons under one-year contracts. A "crazy" life, he said.
After the three-year deal he signed in 2011 expired before last season, he's back to a one-year contracts again. Any year, Kuhn knows, could be his last.
"I understand that I'm on the back end now," Kuhn said. "Nothing's ever given. I don't think I've ever come into a training camp with a different mindset other than I have to earn one of these 53 spots."
The Packers drafted a rookie fullback in May. From the outside, the sixth-round pick they spent on Aaron Ripkowski marked the beginning of the end. If not this year, if not next, the Packers appear to have Kuhn's replacement on their roster.
Kuhn isn't done. Far from it, he feels. The reverence teammates have for Kuhn is universal. His impact is still felt.
But, Kuhn said, his career has arrived at the point where it's time to start paying forward the guidance he once received. Gash said he's seen Kuhn share his knowledge with Ripkowski, mentoring like Kreider once did with him.
"John is a great pro," Gash said, "and the one thing about being a great pro is you want to leave a legacy. Part of doing that is taking a guy under your wing and helping him, and then trust that he'll remember that and he'll pay it forward the next time."
All these years later, the memories from Pennsylvania haven't faded. They're revisited every time Kuhn and Nixon find time to chat, like last October when the Packers went down to Miami. They'll bubble to the surface when the Packers travel to Pittsburgh for their second preseason game Sunday.
Hoak remembers, too. From afar, he's closely followed Kuhn's career. It's been a decade since they've spoken, Hoak said. Over the years, he's thought about trying to get his phone number. Maybe he will someday.
He wants Kuhn to know how much he's enjoyed tracking his success. How happy he is to see Kuhn prove him right. When the Packers are on TV, Hoak said, he often finds himself searching for his former fullback. If he can't find him, Hoak can always hear the chants inside Lambeau Field.
"I enjoy when they go, 'Kuuuuuuhn! Kuuuuuuhn!' " Hoak said. "It's great to see what's happened. Because I told him, 'You're going to play in this league for a long time.' To see it come true, I really get a lot of joy out of that, and the pleasure of seeing John have the success he's had."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.