In the mid-1980s, Kevin Colbert was in search of a clear answer to an obvious question.
A 20-something working at the Pittsburgh-based BLESTO scouting organization, Colbert had just gotten off the phone with legendary Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, who offered him a job as a college scout with the franchise. After hanging up with Shula, almost instinctively, Colbert reached for the phone and called his older brother, Bob. He relayed the potentially life-changing news. “What should I do?” Kevin asked.
His brother, after asking what the salary was, had just one piece of advice. “Pick up the damn phone and call him back before he changes his mind,” Bob said. “You know the answer.”
The decision that jumpstarted Colbert’s career, and eventually led him on a path to become the Steelers general manager, was one that could have easily been made without the help of one of his four older brothers. Whether real or imagined, though, Colbert felt he needed to do so. Without the people who helped raise him amidst personal tragedy, it’s quite possible he would have never received such an offer.
Over the past 15 years, Colbert has grown to become of the most accomplished and respected front-office executives in the NFL, but the group of faces often associated with the Steelers’ successful run in that time — Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher and, of course, the Rooney family — too frequently excludes his own.
Colbert, though, has never felt overlooked or underappreciated. Throughout his career, he has been guided by the lessons and values he was taught by those close to him, particularly his brothers, after both of his parents died when he was a child. It’s those very things — decency, humility, respect and a dogged determination — that have shaped him into who he is today.
“As you moved on through life, it was just something we had to deal with,” Colbert said. “I think it made us as close as we could possibly be, but it made us stronger in our faith, our work ethic and in our family values.”
Colbert’s upbringing, in many respects, was a normal one. The youngest of five boys, who were each spaced about three years apart in age, he played any kind of sport he could with his brothers and friends growing up on Pittsburgh’s North Side, whether it was basketball on a hoop with no backboard attached to a telephone pole or hockey inside the family’s house with the door to the kitchen serving as a goal.
That immediate world around him, however, quickly began to change. When Colbert was 5, his mother, Evabell, died of cancer. While the family grieved, its hierarchy naturally shifted. Colbert’s father, John, continued to work at the post office and provide for the family, but aunts and uncles became increasingly visible figures in the boys’ lives, from helping cook to driving them to sporting events.
“He had to work, and we had to provide for each other, be it a meal or cleaning up or taking care of the house or taking care of each other,” Colbert said. “We learned to work together because there was no way around the situation.”
Then, of course, there were his brothers. As their father worked, Colbert’s four brothers — Bud, Bob, Bruce and Bernie — each did whatever they could to help raise their youngest brother. They largely led by example, and the ideals remained the same.
When their father died from a stroke when Kevin was 15, that education continued. For the Colberts, there was a proper way to conduct yourself, a proper way to behave, both personally and professionally. The importance of honesty, pride, decency and humility were consistently stressed to Kevin, just as their parents had done for the older brothers.
“Those were all very, very important things,” Bernie Colbert said. “It wasn’t necessarily something where somebody would sit you down and say ‘Hey, be humble.’ It was just as we grew, those lessons were taught. I’ve been in education. We call them teachable moments. If one of those teachable moments came up, you learned a lesson that way.”
Once Kevin reached the professional world, that guidance never waned. After experiences working in the Detroit Pistons’ ticket office, on Robert Morris’ basketball staff and in the Pirates’ scouting department, Bob got his younger brother his first football job as an offensive backfield coach at Ohio Wesleyan, where he later became the baseball coach, too.
From that point, Colbert would never leave football, rising from BLESTO to the pro scouting director for the Lions with a span of six years. By 2000, he was the Steelers’ director of football operations, and 10 years later, he became the first general manager in franchise history.
Along the way, the list of people who profoundly influenced him grew, from Ron Hughes (his former football coach at North Catholic) in Detroit to the Rooney family in Pittsburgh. Those experiences have turned him into the general manager those who know him well admire, the kind of person who’s composed in almost any instance and can remember the name of even the most obscure players he scouted years ago.
Colbert and his brothers, all of whom live in the Pittsburgh area, remain close. He has come a long way from where he once was — presiding over his hometown franchise — but the men who shaped him have never left his side.
“You hear so many stories, and I’ve coached for a long time, about single parents and parents missing their kids get in trouble,” Bob Colbert said. “Kevin has never been any of that for us. Not a minute. That speaks well of some foundation my mom was able to lay before she passed away and, of course, my father and my older brother, they laid a good foundation for him. And they laid a good foundation for all of us.”
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