Almost 40 years later, Rocky DiPietro still remembers what he calls the very humble beginnings of his career.
He remembers the speed of the American defensive backs that he was often playing against in his first few years as a Hamilton Tiger-Cat slotback. He remembers struggling to find his place in a league that he desperately wanted to be a part of. He still remembers the trash talk that came with each lost matchup and each dropped ball.
“It took me a few years to adjust to that,” he says, happily taking a break from helping his son with some painting on a late June day. “It was very frustrating and it was tough on my confidence. It was a hard adjustment for me and it took two or three years before I found my legs.”
You know the end of this story; that DiPietro went on to have a 14-year, hall of fame career, all with the Tiger-Cats. He was named the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian twice (1982 and 1989) and was a key part of the Ticats’ 1986 Grey Cup-winning team. He retired in 1992 as the league’s all-time pass reception leader. He went out an all-time great and his style of play became synonymous with the city he played for, but DiPietro’s rise isn’t the typical story of using his opponents’ trash talk as motivation.
He heard the trash talk, saw the results and he wondered if he actually belonged in the CFL.
“I used to doubt myself all the time, unfortunately,” he says, laughing. “I got down on myself and people get down on you, the press. I wasn’t used to that. There’s obviously a lot more coverage in the CFL.
“That all contributed I guess, to my confidence going downhill, but thank God I persevered. I had some good coaches, some good teammates and especially my friends and family helped out.”
The Ticats are on a bye week for Canada Day weekend, but they’ll still pay tribute to DiPietro with a commemorative t-shirt. The shirts provide a chance for fans to reconnect with one of their most beloved players. To make up for that lack of quickness on the field, DiPietro made a career out of throwing himself into the line of fire, going over the middle of the defence to make tough catches, sometimes while absorbing bone-rattling hits.
“I was typically your lunch bucket guy. I wasn’t fancy, I wasn’t pretty, but I like to think I got the job done,” DiPietro says.
“I think as a receiver and a lot of receivers have that attitude, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. It’s not like I looked forward to getting hit, but I looked forward to getting hit and getting up and being able to take somebody’s best shot. I was always proud of that and it was something that I strived for.”
Hamiltonians and fans across the league came to love and respect DiPietro for that.
In time, the confidence came for DiPietro. He went over 1,000 receiving yards three times in his career and averaged 766 yards per season through the final 12 years of his career. And, as you so often hear athletes say, that confidence helped him transition into his life after he retired from football.
“I was a pretty shy, introverted guy and I think that really helped me come out of my shell. I think that confidence translated into other things outside of football,” he says.
“I started my teaching career and I was the last guy that most people would have thought would be a teacher. I think it really helped with that and just dealing with people socially. I think I lacked a lot of confidence when I was growing up and that really helped me.
“Where that came from, I can’t really tell you. It’s one of those things where it just evolved. You turn it on like a light and it just happens over time.”
This June is the first one in 32 years that DiPietro wasn’t watching over his students during final exams. He’s one year into retiring from his second career and loving it.
“I feel good about that, but I also feel good about where I am,” he says.
Photo Courtesy of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats