The world is a lesser place today.
Tunch Ilkin was born in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1957, and two years later he emigrated to the United States with his parents, Mehmet and Ayten Ilkin. After learning football at Highland Park High School and developing his skills further via a scholarship at Indiana State University, Mr. Ilkin became the first Turk to play in the NFL when the Steelers made him a sixth-round choice in the 1980 NFL Draft, and he would take advantage of the opportunity to craft a storied career in professional football.
Mr. Ilkin played for the Steelers for 13 years (1980-92) and for a 14th season with the Green Bay Packers in 1993. A two-time Pro Bowl selection as an offensive tackle (1988-89), Mr. Ilkin also served as vice president of the NFL Players Association from 1989-94 during which time ownership and the union crafted and ratified the Collective Bargaining Agreement that tied free agency to a salary cap, a system still in place today and copied by the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.
Voted to the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team in 2007 as part of the franchise’s 75th Season celebration, and to the Steelers Hall of Honor as part of the Class of 2021, Mr. Ilkin loved football and played it with distinction starting in high school, then in college, and then as a professional.
But over the course of his life, Mr. Ilkin showed himself to be a better man than he was a football player.
Diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in September 2020, Mr. Ilkin died on Saturday, Sept. 4. He was 63.
Mr. Ilkin was the beloved husband of Karen; loving father of Tanner (Jess) Ilkin, Natalie (Danny) Coale; and Clay (Kristin) Ilkin; cherished son of Ayten and the late Mehmet Ilkin; and adored grandfather to Levi, Abbott, Brynn, Althea, and Connor. Mr. Ilkin was preceded in death by his first wife, Sharon.
“We are heartbroken by the passing of Tunch Ilkin,” said Steelers President Art Rooney II. “He was a man of faith who dedicated his entire life to being a devout Christian and family man.
“His passion for the game of football was evident in his everyday life. As a player, he fought his way through tough times of being cut and injured but continued to make an impact as a leader of our offensive line and made two Pro Bowls.
“After his playing career, Tunch continued to make an impact in our community in so many ways. His efforts and dedication to the Light of Life was unparalleled, and his desire to always help others made everyone appreciate him.”
While still a player, Mr. Ilkin found his way to becoming active in the community. During the 1980s, NFL teams were dipping their toes into establishing separate Community Relations Departments. Initially, the Steelers assigned Pat Hanlon, then an assistant in the PR Department, to handle Community Relations.
“From 1987-90, one of my responsibilities as a member of the Steelers PR Department was to coordinate the team’s community relations effort,” said Hanlon, now the Senior Vice President of Communications for the New York Football Giants. “Anybody in that role has to have players you can always count on to make themselves available and then to fulfill the commitment.
“Tunch was that guy. There isn’t a church basement in Western Pennsylvania where Tunch hasn’t enjoyed a pancake breakfast with a group of Cub Scouts. He never said no. In fact, when I called to ask him if he could make an appearance, it was never a matter of yes or no. It was always yes. So much so that when Tunch picked up the phone and I identified myself, Tunch always said: ‘Pat, cut to the chase.’
“In addition to always agreeing to make appearances in the community, Tunch took the initiative to create his own opportunities to make a difference. In 1988, Tunch and Craig Wolfley wanted to feed underprivileged North Siders during the Thanksgiving holiday. We partnered with Giant Eagle and gave approximately 300 meals away. And as you well know, Tunch continued to make that kind of impact.”
Mr. Ilkin was recognized officially for his decades of charitable work on Dec. 21, 2020, when Pittsburgh City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith presented an official city proclamation that deemed that Monday as “Tunch Ilkin Day” in Pittsburgh.
“The Council of the City of Pittsburgh does hereby thank and commend Tunch Ilkin for his unselfish service to those less fortunate residents of the City of Pittsburgh and for being readily available to his local community,” the official Proclamation read.
In addition to his many charitable endeavors, starting in 2005 Mr. Ilkin also was the Men’s Pastor at The Bible Chapel, a non-denominational church in McMurray, Pa.
Following his career as a player, Mr. Ilkin joined the media as a sports reporter on broadcasts in the Pittsburgh market, with his primary area of expertise being the Steelers and the NFL. As the popularity grew of a segment titled, “Lunch with Tunch,” Mr. Ilkin attracted national interest from NBC, and the network hired him as an NFL game analyst where he was paired with either Dan Hicks or Jim Donovan. But 1995 turned out to be Mr. Ilkin’s only season as a national NFL game analyst, because he learned he didn’t have a taste for criticizing players, especially when he was assigned to work a game featuring his beloved Steelers.
So rather than opt for the more lucrative and prestigious future of a national NFL analyst, Mr. Ilkin stayed local, and in 1998 he was added to the Steelers radio team where he worked with play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove and legendary color analyst Myron Cope. It’s a tribute to Mr. Ilkin that he meshed so easily and quickly with Cope, who had bristled at a previous attempt to add a third voice to the radio booth.
“I loved Myron,” Mr. Ilkin once said. “He taught me to not be so complex. He always said to me, ‘Tunch, don’t be so complicated when you’re talking about football.’ When the Steelers got to Super Bowl XL after the 2005 season, Myron had retired, and Bill called him before the game to chat. When I got on the phone I asked Myron, ‘Do you have any advice?’ He said to me, ‘Don’t say something stupid.'”
In addition to his role as the color analyst on the Pittsburgh Steelers Football Network, Mr. Ilkin also co-hosted a talk show with former teammate and sideline reporter Craig Wolfley called “Inside the Locker Room with Tunch and Wolf.” The show aired five days a week from the start of training camp until the Steelers season ended.
“Training camp was always easy (doing the two-hour talk show with Wolf every day),” Mr. Ilkin once said. “Wolf and I would compare training camp today with what training camp was like when we were playing. I had fun doing ‘Inside the Locker Room,’ and if we weren’t doing it together, I never would’ve done a five-days-a-week show. I did it with him, and we did it well together. I also loved it when Wolf joined the broadcast team and would come along on road trips. We continued to be roommates on those trips like we were as players. We would sit on a bench outside and have a cigar when we got to the hotel, and then we’d have another one before we’d get on the bus to go to the stadium for the game the next day.”
He also co-authored two books, titled “In the Locker Room” and “Forged In Steel,” and Mr. Ilkin often joked that the title of the never-written story of his NFL career would be: “Too Late for the Super Bowl Wins, and Too Early for Free Agency.”
On June 3, 2021, Mr. Ilkin announced his retirement from broadcasting to focus on his treatment for ALS.
“I have had 37 years in the NFL, with 14 as a player and the last 23 in broadcasting as the color analyst on the Pittsburgh Steelers Football Network, and I’ve decided to retire,” said Mr. Ilkin on that occasion. “I was diagnosed with ALS in September 2020, and I want to spend this time focusing on my treatment and fighting this disease. I would like to thank Steelers President Art Rooney II, the Steelers organization, and the fans for their continued support and prayers at this time.”
In mid-June, Mr. Ilkin was elected to the Steelers Hall of Honor as part of the Class of 2021, along with former teammates Jon Kolb, Carnell Lake, and Louis Lipps. When the Steelers announced the members of that Class of 2021 on July 31, Mr. Ilkin attended that day’s training camp practice at Heinz Field, where he sat in the first row of the stands and undoubtedly joked about how much tougher a training camp practice was when he was a player.
“I love Art Rooney II, and I love Dan, and I love the coaching staff, especially Mike Tomlin,” said Mr. Ilkin. “I’m friends with Mike, and I’d love to play for him, because he’s so good at coaching up guys. At training camp, I would watch him working with guys, coaching them, and just by standing there and watching him and listening to him, I learned defensive back techniques. One time when I was watching film in the Bill Nunn Draft Room with Ryan Shazier (after his spinal injury), Mike came into the room and said to us, ‘Don’t watch the same play over and over again, let (the game) wash over you.’ Even at that stage of my career in football, after decades and decades of watching film, that taught me something and ended up helping me.
“I just had fun. I had fun, I worked with two legends – Bill Hillgrove and Myron Cope – and I had fun with those guys.”
“He was loved by his family, teammates, and friends,” said Rooney about Mr. Ilkin. “We were fortunate to have Tunch as a player and broadcaster for so many years. Our condolences to his entire family during this difficult time.”
Funeral arrangements by Beinhauers. Friends are welcome at the South Hills Bible Chapel, 300 Gallery Dr., McMurray, Pa. 15317, on Monday from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. A service to celebrate Mr. Ilkin’s life will be held Tuesday at 2 p.m. at the South Hills Bible Chapel. For those who cannot attend, the service will be streamed live on biblechapel.org. Private interment will be in Bethel Cemetery. Memorial donations in Mr. Ilkin’s name may be made to Light of Life Rescue Mission, 913 Western Ave., Pittsburgh, Pa., 15233.