Steelers' Omar Khan dreams big
The sheet of pictures has been preserved in a rectangular frame, which sits on a desk in one of the spacious offices that overlooks the practice fields at Pittsburgh Steelers headquarters.
The photos show Terry Bradshaw from the glorious era that transformed a downtrodden organization into an institution whose fans now extend far beyond the rolling hills and rivers of western Pennsylvania.
You have to look closely at the picture on the left to see the autograph, but sure enough there it is: "To Omar, Terry Bradshaw."
Omar Khan may not enjoy Bradshaw's level of fame, but he also has helped the Steelers win more Lombardi trophies than any other organization in the NFL.
Just 36, Khan has risen to the upper echelons of the Steelers' front office -- as well as the short list of potential NFL general managers.
Khan, Pittsburgh's point man on contract negotiations, is respected by agents as tough but fair. The Steelers' director of football administration is also widely regarded as a nothing less than a wizard when it comes to the dynamics of the NFL.
That is one reason why the Steelers have been able to strike a balance between fiscal responsibility and spending the kind of money that allowed them to play in three Super Bowls from the 2005 to 2010 seasons, winning two of them.
"In dealing with Omar you always know what you are getting," said agent Joel Segal, who represents four Steelers players, including Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. "He's going to be prepared, he's going to be forward, he's going to be tough. He's always going to be willing to listen to you even if he doesn't agree with you. You better be prepared because he's on top of his business."
A Saints fan first
Khan is the son of an Indian father and Honduran mother, and he was born and raised in New Orleans. How a first-generation American got to Pittsburgh, well, that faded autograph from Bradshaw is as good a place as any to start.
A.R. Khan, an engineer who also dabbled in real estate, became a passionate NFL fan while working and raising a family in New Orleans. The Saints were the team he followed the most, but he also admired how the Steelers owned the 1970s, winning four Super Bowls with players such as "Mean Joe" and "Franco" and a cigar-chomping owner affectionately known as "The Chief."
A.R. Khan encountered Bradshaw when he attended a promotional event while working on a petroleum plant for Texaco in Calgary, Alberta. He had the charismatic quarterback sign one of the pictures on the sheet he received at the function, and later he gave it to his first-born son.
Omar Khan wasn't old enough at the time for receiving the gift to be more than a hazy memory now, but the picture symbolizes the love of the NFL that his father also passed on to him.
"To this day I am very passionate about the game and love the game and love the league that I am blessed to be a part of," Khan said.
Khan knew from an early age that he wanted work in the NFL. He played sports growing up but realized that he didn't have the kind of athletic ability to play in the league. He set his sights on one day running an NFL team as a general manager or president.
While at Tulane University, Khan wrote more than 70 letters to team executives asking their advice about breaking into the business.
A handful of people called or wrote him back. Those replies led Khan to Buddy Teevens, then the Tulane football coach.
Khan told Teevens he wanted to work for the football team as a student volunteer.
Teevens, impressed by Khan's sincerity, cleared out an old copy room in the football facility and somehow wedged a desk into it.
"He was the happiest guy on the planet," Teevens recalled.
Indeed, that start was all Khan needed.
His first NFL job
Khan received a call in 1997 from the Saints that he recalls as "out of the blue," but it really wasn't.
He had so impressed the Tulane coaches with his ability to handle anything -- from taping practice to helping break down tape of opposing teams -- that Teevens called Bill Kuharich, the Saints' general manager at the time, without telling Khan.
A glowing review turned into Khan interviewing for an internship with the Saints in their scouting department.
He got the position but had to figure out how to complete the two semesters he needed to earn a degree in sports management. Sleep became expendable over the next year as Khan took night classes so he could work during the day for the Saints.
"I lived the Saints and school," Khan said. "That's all I knew."
Khan graduated in 3½ years from Tulane, also earning a minor in business administration.
The Saints created a position for him after his internship ended. Khan worked as a player personnel/scouting assistant in 1998-99.
After the Saints went 3-13 in 1999, owner Tom Benson cleaned house.
New coach Jim Haslett created a coaching/football operations position that intrigued Khan, whom Benson had retained, because it would give him a chance to work with the coaching staff on a daily basis. Khan believed it would provide him greater insight into that part of the business, something he would need to be successful.
He approached Benson about the job, and, as Khan recalls, Benson all but tried to talk him out of it because he didn't want him to take a step back.
Khan persisted, and he learned more about football than he could have imagined while spending day and night with Haslett and his staff.
He worked closely with a rising assistant coach named Mike McCarthy. He also helped the offensive quality control coach break down tape of opposing teams. That stint helped fill in the one blank remaining in his NFL education.
"Many times coaches approach things differently than personnel people and personnel people approach things differently than coaches, and it gave me their perspective, which was invaluable," Khan said. "In hindsight, it was one of the best decisions I ever made."
The same can also be said of his decision to leave home -- and the team that had been his first love as well as the one that gave him his start in the NFL.
If Khan had any reservations after the Steelers called and offered him a job, they evaporated after he talked with Benson.
"If I have to lose you to somebody, there's not a better person than Dan Rooney and the Rooney family," Benson told Khan.
Khan joined the Steelers in 2000, and his primary responsibilities were contract negotiations and managing the salary cap. But he also gleaned as much as he could from team president Art Rooney II, former head coach Bill Cowher and general manager Kevin Colbert, who became mentors, continuing his growth in the different aspects of football.
Khan works behind the scenes with the Steelers, but his stature has increasingly grown in NFL circles. He has interviewed for two general manager positions thus far.
"I'm so happy for him and so proud of him," said Teevens, who stays in touch with Khan. "He has not changed since the day he walked into my office. He's a wonderful human being and it's nice to see that in this business."
Just getting started
Six Lombardi trophies line the front of the library that Khan walks past countless times during workdays, and they have not become just part of his scenery at Steelers headquarters.
"It's a constant reminder of what the expectations are around here," Khan said. "You can't hide from it."
He couldn't try even if he wanted to.
Khan's cellphone rings constantly and he sorts through a barrage of texts and emails every day. Ten-hour workdays are the norm -- and that is just the time he puts in at Steelers headquarters. There are no off days during the season.
Such is the life of an NFL team executive, and it is all that Khan imagined it would be when his reality was nothing more than an amorphous dream.
"I wake up every morning and go do something I love," Khan said.
And the long hours and never leaving work at the office?
"I've never had a problem with it," Khan said, "and I think that comes with watching my parents growing up. They never stopped working hard. They're the two hardest-working people I've ever met in my life. To this day they're still the same."
Khan's mother, Carmen, works with the family's real estate interests. She and the oldest of her three children still talk almost every day on the phone, and they speak exclusively Spanish to each other.
That is not the only way that Khan has stayed connected to his roots.
He is active in the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and an example for the organization that Khan has helped try to grow.
"Omar Khan has been very helpful with the Latino community here in Pittsburgh," said executive director Alberto Benzaquen.
Khan sent a variety of Steelers paraphernalia to the First Latino Day at Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh last month, and he also takes pride in the link he provides between the Steelers and their many fans in Mexico.
He has already accomplished much at such a young age, including helping to negotiate the only $100 million contract in Steelers history (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's in 2009) and twice hoisting the Lombardi trophy.
And Khan hopes he is just getting started.
"Call me greedy, but I'm not satisfied with just two Super Bowl rings," he said. "I want more."
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