Kuglers catching recruiters' attention
PITTSBURGH -- Rob Kugler was living his dream.
The high school tight end and Purdue University commit was catching warm-up passes from NFL quarterback Byron Leftwich while working as a ball boy at the Pittsburgh Steelers' training camp this past summer.
Kugler went home that night with a souvenir -- but not the kind you can buy.
"My hands were swollen from catching his passes," said Kugler, not complaining at all. "He knew I could catch, so he was gunning 'em at me."
Leftwich had heard about Kugler from the kid's father, new Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler, who was hired in January to plug the line leaks that allowed opponents to sack Ben Roethlisberger 50 times in 15 games last season.
Kugler and his wife, Patsy, moved the family to Pittsburgh in April, immediately enrolling Rob and younger brother Pat at North Allegheny High School.
The beneficiary of the talented transfers was Tigers coach Art Walker Jr., who was impressed with the boys' work ethic.
"They didn't expect anything to be handed to them," Walker said. "They wanted to earn their spots."
They have done exactly that.
Rob Kugler, who helped Buffalo's Orchard Park High to a 31-3 record the past three years, including New York's 2008 Class AA state title, is now starting at tight end and defensive end for North Allegheny. The 6-foot-3½, 245-pound senior with 4.9 speed made an immediate impression, catching a pair of touchdown passes and intercepting a pass in his first two Tigers games, both wins.
"He's a very good blocking tight end who has the ability to run routes," Walker said. "And he does a solid job on defense."
Pat Kugler, who started as a freshman at Orchard Park, is now the Tigers' starting right tackle on offense and a backup tackle on defense. Just a sophomore, he is already bigger than his brother, at 6-4 and 270 pounds. Walker believes he has major-college potential.
"He has good feet and good size," said Walker of Pat, who loves Boise State but wouldn't be surprised if he eventually joins his brother at Purdue. "He is going to get stronger. He has good technique, he listens when you coach him, and he does not shy away from contact."
Pat said an example of his fearlessness came six years ago, when he had one of many just-for-fun wrestling matches with Rob. This one, though, got out of hand.
"He put my head through a wall," Pat said fondly. "Brotherly love."
As tough as the brothers are physically, both said they have struggled at times with all the moves they have made as a family for the sake of their father's coaching career.
Kugler was the Detroit Lions' offensive line and tight ends coach from 2001-2005. In 2006, he served as assistant head coach/offensive line at Boise State, helping the Broncos to a 13-0 record and a memorable 43-42 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma. And for the past three years, he coached the Buffalo Bills' blockers.
Kugler's sons agreed it was difficult leaving Buffalo, especially for Rob, who had been looking forward to graduating at Orchard Park.
"I still have good friends in Buffalo, but it's only three hours away, so it's not that far," Rob said. "Having my brother with me helped. And football helped. You get to know kids through football."
His father offered some advice about the move.
"He said it was good because we wouldn't get complacent," Rob said. "Me and my brother would have to prove ourselves all over again."
The proving grounds were the summer practice fields, where the Kuglers said they worked twice as hard as they did at Orchard Park.
"It was my first experience with three-a-days," said Rob, who plans to attend all Steelers home games this season with his mother, brother and little sister. "Not knocking Orchard Park, but this was way more intense. Maybe it's a Western Pennsylvania thing."
Another Western Pennsylvania tradition is Steelers training camp in Latrobe, where the Kugler family was well represented this past summer. Aside from their duties as ball boys -- which included doing laundry and setting up equipment -- Rob and Pat listened intently as their father worked with Steelers offensive linemen.
Rob also watched Steelers tight end Heath Miller as much as possible.
"I don't think I ever saw him drop a ball that was near him," Rob said. "He was catching without gloves. Then he would put gloves on, and he could have caught everything with one hand if he wanted to. He's a freak.
"And as a blocker, my dad says he is one of the best on the team. Most tight ends these days are glorified wide receivers. But not [Miller]. My dad loves him."
Sean Kugler also loves having his sons around.
"They are pretty observant," Sean Kugler said this past summer. "I think they see this as a great opportunity to learn, and they enjoy watching the drills to see how things are done on the pro level.
"I like to think they understand football pretty well because they have been around the game so long and have learned the proper techniques."
Walker is also the son of a coach, and he understands the dynamics involved.
"I have a fondness for players who are the sons of coaches," Walker said. "Because they have grown up around the game, they know how to practice, how to deal with adversity. When a coach tells them something, they understand why it must be done exactly that way.
"And it's not always easy for the son of a coach. There is a lot of critiquing when you get home."
Rob Kugler can vouch for that. He said his father is a "pretty intimidating" guy and isn't shy about telling his sons what they need to do to improve.
But the boys say they appreciate the advice.
"I try to listen to everything my dad tells me," Pat said. "He knows what he is talking about, obviously."
Asked what words of wisdom his father has shared with him, Pat said: "Be nasty. Don't let up until you hear the whistle."
Pat paused and added more sage advice he's picked up having spent his whole life around football:
"Maybe give 'em a little after the whistle. Kill 'em, basically."
Walter Villa is the deputy sports editor for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and covered high school sports for five years at the Miami Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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