Prolific Persian: Shar Pourdanesh – Q & A with the first Iranian player in NFL history

shar

Can you elaborate on the early memories during your college run at Nevada?

Right off, I would say my many memories with friends. In football sense, we were coached by the creator of the “Pistol” offense, Chris Ault.  I redshirted my freshman year and by my junior year I had made first team All American. We lost two games my sophomore year. And only one game my junior year. We were 32-8 out of 40 games. A memory that sticks out is having the record for the biggest comeback, which we had against against Boise State. We had a collection of big comebacks each year from my sophomore year to my senior year.

Can you discuss some of your best individual game memories at Nevada ?

Playing against Michael Strahan and beating them by 30 points, when I had a bad ankle, my senior year. And I just dominated Strahan that game. He was the best player on their team. I was the best player on our team. And not too often do you get the best player on team being the left tackle the best player on the other team being the right defensive end.

What were some of the main factors for your success at Nevada?

The culture that the coaches had developed. The never lose attitude. The fighter attitude. To never give up or surrender. I know it may be cliche. But that’s what you take with you. Lot of the credit goes to the coaching staff. We never gave up and that’s where that nastiness comes from. I remember in the NFL, Coach Bill Cowher would always say, “Everyone gets knocked down. But the sign of the man is how you respond when you get knocked down.” That resonated with me. Everyone gets beat. It’s how you get back up after you get beat.

 

Can you talk about your CFL career and some memories?

The defensive coordinator for Boise State who we played against became the offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Stallions in the CFL. He recruited me to play left tackle. We won a Gray Cup my second year, and lost it my first year. Never before has a pro sports team gone to a championship game during their inaugural year. But we accomplished that feat my rookie year.

Was that when Doug Flutie was there in the CFL also ?

Yes. When we won the Gray Cup we beat Doug Flutie’s team. The year I won Offensive Lineman of the Year, Flutie was the MVP that year, and I got a chance to meet him at the Awards Ceremony. I was MVP of the offensive lineman of the league and was there for the award.

How did the transition to the NFL come about after the CFL?

I had wrapped up the 1995 season in the CFL. I was on my way to go to play in NFL Europe in London. I was invited to the Redskins for a tryout in early 1996 in the winter. The O-Line coach for the Redskins, Russ Grimm, insisted that I don’t go to Europe. That the Redskins could use me right away. Grimm and the Redskins wanted me to try out for them in the spring. So they negated my NFL Europe contract with the London Monarchs, who had drafted me high out of the CFL. Initially I wanted to go to NFL Europe to have a chance to go to the NFL. It was a blessing because I got a chance to participate in OTA’s and be around the playbook. In the offseason with the Redskins I was working out intending to be with the second unit. I would have been way behind had I came to them after playing in NFL Europe.

 

Did starting come about right away with the Redskins ?

Not in the offseason because they ended up drafting an offensive tackle in the first round. They wanted me because they needed a left tackle. At OTAs they put me behind the back up left tackle. In training camp I was fighting for a chance to possibly start. I got in a scuffle with a defensive player on our team, and really beat him badly in front of the coaches. They were impressed by that, and put me in the starting lineup immediately after.  In the opener I was the starting left tackle.

Where did the motivation to play in the NFL come from?

For me I just wanted to make it to the NFL and play professional football. That was my sole motivation. It wasn’t about proving anybody wrong. You have dreams and aspirations. I think a lot of that comes from certain challenges. I went through a lot of them. As I had mentioned, the many come from behind victories at Nevada. Also the high school varsity coach at the time when I was wrestling was influential. He said with my body type that I can have a successful career playing professional football.

 

What’s a typical NFL day schedule like ?

In the NFL you start at 7 in the morning and you go till 6 at night. You’re there eleven hours straight. You’re on the field for only two hours. It’s meetings. Film. Study. Playbook. Games on Sundays.

 

Can you talk about the pro football playbook?

They give you a sheet of plays you’re going to run. And a sheet of plays where you have to anticipate that will be run. You have to know percentages of plays that will be run. For example, 93 % of the time they are going to run this play and 6 % of the time they will run that play. Etc.

What are some of your favorite memories as a Redskin?

In 1996 with the Redskins it was great, because you realize that you have finally made it.  And in 1997, also in Washington, well that was my best year in terms of individual stats. But as far specific games, the game I played against Warren Sapp and Tampa Bay in 98. I had a little history with Warren Sapp starting in 1996, I didn’t get a chance to see him again until 1998. That game in 98’ was very personal.  When the game started I let him (Sapp) know that I was coming for him. I absolutely dominated him that game. After the game, to his credit he came up to me and said, “OK Shar, you got me big fella.”

Can you talk about some of your fondest NFL memories with the Steelers?  One game that comes to my mind with Pittsburgh is when I finally broke into the starting lineup. We were playing the Chiefs and I wasn’t supposed to play the entire game. I was only supposed to be put in for ten plays. So I had been taking out all of my anger against our defense. The defense on my team was clamoring to the coaches for me to start. I was put against Derrick Thomas. We were losing by 13 and on that initial drive after I was put in we did great, we had ten plays and scored a touchdown. I ended up playing the entire game and it helped transform the team after that. Jerome Bettis gave some me some nice compliments after the game.

Then in 1999 also with the Steelers, I got a game ball the last game of the season. It was against the Carolina Panthers. I was going up against one of my idols, Kevin Greene who had played for the Rams earlier in his career. Greene told me after the game that going up against me was one of the hardest things he had to do in his 15 year career. And that stuck with me. It was a huge compliment coming from him.

 

Talk about the 1997 season. Was that your best season as a Pro would say?

Yes, definitely the 1997 season. In 1996 with the Redskins it was great, because you realize that you have finally made it.  And in 1997, also in Washington, well that was my best year in terms of individual stats.

What are some of your memories with Bill Belichick?

He was my first coach in the NFL. In 1993 I started out with the Cleveland Browns in the offseason. He was the Brown’s coach at the time. I remember being in his office and talking one on one. He allowed me the freedom to go develop my talents. Cleveland was stacked with veteran O-Line guys, I had just come from Nevada.

Did you model your pro game after anybody?

No, not really. I wasn’t a prototypical right tackle or a prototypical left tackle. I was a (hybrid) in that I could play both positions.

Which of your teammates early on could you rely on ?

Dan Turk, who’s brother was Matt Turk, the punter came to our team in 1997. He was long snapper in his mid 30’s. He helped me early on.

Did you have some favorite teammates that you played with?

I loved Jerome Bettis. I loved Darrel Green.

 

 Can you talk about the positions of left tackle and right tackle?

People think left and right tackle are the same position. They are not. There are certain left tackles that can’t play right tackle. There are some right tackles that are too slow to play right tackle. There are some that are too weak to switch. I could switch on a dime. I was able to play both positions. I am proud of that.

Did you ever play defense?

In the Canadian league I was put in as an Emergency Defensive tackle. I had a sack and a tackle for a loss.That’s only time I played defense. Offense is more cerebral, but it some defense is as well.  Middle linebackers have to be very smart. Outside linebackers  need to be reactionary. Safeties have to be pretty smart. And cornerbacks can be more reactionary.

Have you gotten a chance to watch David Bakhtiari ?

I have watched him play. I think he is phenomenal. His foot work and technique is outstanding. If you look at his foot work, you can see it. He is very athletic and I think he is a tremendous player. I am a big fan of his.

What are the keys to longevity in the NFL?

You want to avoid having excess weight. Having good nutrition. Correct diagnoses of injuries. And injury prevention.

Do you have a favorite team now?

I do root for the Redskins if I had to pick. I’d like to see them do well.

How would you analyze your position’s draft class your first year in the league?

To be an un-drafted free agent, compared to all of the other tackles that got drafted, I think I had a better career. The only other imposing player of that draft class was Willie Rose.

Can you talk about the some of the injuries and/or surgeries in your career?

Up until 2001, I did not need any surgery. I had a hernia injury and a moderate left knee injury. With the Raiders during training camp, I suffered a severe right knee injury which was career ending and needed surgery right away.

Did you wear a mouthguard on the field?

I did early on, but I couldn’t wear one after awhile. It interfered with my communication on the field.

Can you talk about the race relations in the NFL and how you were perceived being an Iranian?

You know it was there.  In every locker room I was in I was the enforcer. I was the alpha dog. At the end of the day if you were the lead dog you don’t get challenged.

Did you face any prejudices early on at all?

Yeah in high school. I got in a fight every day. Freshman and sophomore year.

In Nevada I was on the defensive every year. When I went to Reno I had a certain mentality. Prior to that I had experienced being bullied and was the focus of hate. I was on the defensive, especially my freshman and sophomore years. By the junior year I had established myself.

What have you been up to post – NFL ?

I started investing. Now I do business development and have helped several companies go public. I opened up a real estate investing company in 1999. I started developing land. I bought and sold properties. I opened up a restaurant. I became a public speaker. These days I am considered a business startup expert. Holding boot camps, teaching people how to start businesses, how to do marketing. How to do effective marketing without spending too much.

What are your ties to football these days?

I am coaching my kids, Alex who plays running back and Julian who is an O-Line. They are playing high school football at my alma mater, Uni High (University High) in Irvine. After my kids graduate I would consider continuing to coach. I like the college level. I have a good affect on those kids. I connect with them and would have an influence on kids at that level beyond football and can help them into becoming men.

Do you like to be a head coach or a position coach?

I could see myself as a head coach. But also being the position coach for the O-line, as well. I’ve always been a leader. I think one reason why I am good at business is with some of the businesses that I lead I was able to inspire them to do their job better as if they were doing it on their own.

 

Do you have any aspirations for where you want your kids to play college football?

UCLA or Stanford would be great on college scholarships. Or Nevada, if they were to follow in my legacy.

How would you define your legacy as an Iranian American in the NFL?

To be the first Iranian born professional in America. It means a lot. Even if there will be 20 different Iranians playing in the NFL, there will always be the first one. I am proud of it. I am huge into our heritage. And always talk about what a wonderful culture we have. I was never one of those guys that hid. The Iranian culture has always been at the forefront. I hope that I could be an inspiration for the generations now and for the future that, we can do it. We have it within ourselves to do it. To not just watch football, but make it in the NFL.

In addition to the cultural legacy that you leave behind, what else about your NFL career are you proud of?

I was proud that I could play both left tackle and right tackle. That I was known as a tough guy. And that I was known as an enforcer. I was known as a nasty-mean guy. And known as a fighter. That was important to me. If I had to choose between being the most naturally gifted and the hardest working, I would choose the latter. To be known as a fighter, and someone who doesn’t quit. People have told me, such as Kevin Greene (third amongst all-time sack leaders in the NFL), that I was one of the toughest offensive tackles that he played against in 15 years. Which was huge for me. I pride myself on guys not wanting to play me again. I used to take pride that defensive ends would pull themselves out after the third quarter while playing against me. Guys could beat me, but they would never want to play against me again. This was a testament to will and tenacity. Being tenacious is huge.

 Conclusion

 Among the Iranian diaspora of North America, NFL football is a much consumed product. It is fitting then that the first Iranian born player in NFL history resides in a locale with the greatest population of Iranians. Shar Pourdanesh may have worn numbers 67 or 68 in his pro career, but he’s number 1 when it comes to Iranians in the NFL.


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