It happened during the offseason after his first year with the Steelers. That’s when Steve McLendon first saw words no one else could see.
An undrafted free agent from Ozark, Ala., he had earned a spot on the 2009 Pittsburgh taxi squad, but longed for a chance to prove he could do much more.
So as he rode down a highway near Dothan, Ala., with his parents in the back seat, McLendon glanced at a passing billboard and saw the word “HOPE” spelled out in huge block letters with this underneath: How Opportunities Progress Eventually.
“That’s what I was thinking I saw,” McLendon told The Post on Thursday. “After we got home, I thought to myself, ‘Did I really see that?’ So I drove back to where the sign was. I looked at the sign and it was blank. None of the words were there. I thought my mind was playing tricks on me.”
The billboard might have been blank, but the acronym stuck in his head “How Opportunities Progress Eventually.” It made perfect sense to him.
“I started believing, ‘You’re going to get an opportunity, so make sure you take advantage of it.’ Once I got my opportunities, they progressed,” McLendon said.
Another time McLendon was struggling with an injured hamstring in training camp and wasn’t sure of his spot on the Steelers roster. That’s when, while reading he saw an acronym for HARD — How Adversity Remembers Destiny — even though the words weren’t really on the pages.
“You’re going to go through adversity,” McLendon reasoned, “so you have to remember your destiny. You’ve got to remember where you want to go and remember things you want to do and things you have to do. I was going through a tough time, but I kept telling myself [to] keep working hard, keep working hard.”
This has become part of his life now, these moments when McLendon sees or hears a word or a phrase. It has helped the undrafted free agent spend six years with the Steelers before signing a three-year $10.5 million contract with the Jets in 2016.
He has emerged a solid replacement for Damon “Snacks” Harrison at nose tackle and a motivating force in the Jets’ locker room.
“He’s good with words,” defensive end Leonard Williams said of McLendon. “I love taking advice from him and hearing his thoughts on certain situations. He has great ideas, great influence and great leadership.”
McLendon’s two favorite acronyms are FOCUS: Follow One Course Until Successful; and DRIVEN: Dreams Remain In Vision Every day and Night. They are words he lives by.
“If I stay focused and I stay driven,” he said, “I know whatever comes is supposed to be part of my life.”
There are other acronyms: LIFE: Live in Faith Every Day; GIFT: God’s Initiative for Faith and Talent; and TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More. They all apply this week as the Jets try to even their record at 2-2 with a win against the Jaguars on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
“We’re following one course until successful,” McLendon said, “and that means doing everything that’s necessary throughout the week. That’s how we stay focused and driven. Just because you won one game doesn’t mean anything. Whatever dreams we have has to remain our vision.”
McLendon, 31, insists he didn’t learn these words from books or listening to coaches. He calls it a gift that he was initially reluctant to acknowledge. Telling people you saw words on a blank billboard can be unsettling.
“I first ran from it because it scared me that I was the only person seeing this stuff,” he said. “Now as I’ve gotten older, it’s a blessing to see these things. It motivates me.”
Married with three boys and the family’s first daughter arriving in November, McLendon shares what he calls a focused driven life with those he mentors and teammates.
“They know I’m always going to try to motivate as much as possible,” he said. “Everybody needs words of encouragement.”
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