At 245 pounds of pure muscle, Robert McCune commands respect from the moment he steps onto a football field. The Canadian Football League linebacker has developed one of the most imposing physiques in the game while earning the nickname "Hammer" for his punishing style of play. McCune finished the 2013 CFL regular season with 99 tackles, the most on his team (the Toronto Argonauts) and third most in the league.
McCune, who was selected First-Team All-Conference USA at the University of Louisville and played in the NFL, is having his best season at age 34. We recently got a chance to ask the veteran about his secrets for hitting hard, staying sharp and building good habits.
STACK: Tell us about your nickname, "Hammer."
McCune: It started when I ran track as a kid. When I ran, my head would bobble a bit, so I used to be called, "Hammerhead." Once I got to high school and started delivering big hits on the football field, the nickname went from "Hammerhead" to "Hammer." It's stuck with me ever since.
So many players from youth football to the pros have poor tackling skills. What's the key to good tackling?
McCune: You need to put your head on the side of the football and wrap up, but most of all, you just have to want it. Run to the ball and give 1,000 percent on each play. Once I see the football get handed off, something goes off inside me, and I just have to make a play.
Your team won the CFL Grey Cup last season. Now that you have a target on your back, have you changed your approach?
McCune: Last season was like a roller coaster, with a lot of new coaches and players coming together. Guys got hot at the right time, and we put together some great wins. This season, we've been taking it play-by-play and game-by-game, never getting too high from the wins or too down from the losses. It's all about working hard and staying focused on your goals.
You're 34 and playing at possibly the highest level of your career. What's your secret?
McCune: The older you get, the wiser you get. One thing I try to get better at every year is taking care of my body. I make sure I eat right, get proper rest and stay in the weight room. I do a lot of extra things too, like the hyperbaric chamber, pool workouts and massages.
Any advice for younger athletes who want to do a better job taking care of their bodies?
McCune: The biggest thing is getting proper rest. That's not hard to do; it just takes discipline. Learn to get to bed at the right time, shut off the lights and let your body relax. I got into the habit of getting to bed early from being in the military. When I was in basic training, we'd have the lights off at 10 p.m. because we'd get up at 4:30 in the morning. Today, sometimes I'm tempted to stay up late and hang out with friends, but I'm always thinking that if I want to play another year, I've got to give my body the rest it needs.
Why did you decide to join the military?
McCune: After I graduated from high school in 1997, I didn't get scholarships for the schools I wanted to attend. My sister and dad had military backgrounds, and they told me about how the Army could help pay for school. I enlisted in the Army after high school, then joined the National Guard in 2000 when I went to [the University of] Louisville. The National Guard was great—it paid for college while allowing me to pursue my dream of playing college football at the same time.
How did the National Guard help prepare you for your football career?
McCune: The military was really good for me because I didn't have the discipline I needed before enlisting. In the military, I learned to stay physically fit, eat right and show up on time. I also learned to respect my officers—saying "yes sir, no sir"—which is something that has helped me a lot as a football player.
How can having respect for authority affect an athlete's career?
McCune: In football, attitude is everything. If you respect your coaches, you'll get a lot more chances than someone who's causing problems in the locker room. My last ten years in pro football, I've seen just how important it is to coaches to have a good guy in the locker room.
As a veteran middle linebacker, you're one of the leaders on defense. How do you lead your squad?
McCune: I'm not a talker. I try to lead by example. I'm not going to tell you to go to the weight room. Hopefully you can see from my hard work and take the same path.
You began your college career as a redshirt walk-on before making First-Team All-Conference USA as a senior, and you played for several different NFL and CFL teams before becoming an integral part of the Argonauts' Grey Cup run last year. What advice do you have for athletes trying to earn playing time?
McCune: One thing I've learned is that hard work really does pay off. If you work hard, whether you're in high school or the NFL, someone will recognize it and give you a shot. It may take a while, and it may seem like things are never going to work out, but stay positive and be patient.
McCune and the Toronto Argonauts take the field on Nov. 17 for the CFL East Division Final.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock