Steelers rookie Mendenhall reacquainted with team

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TAMPA, Fla. -- There has been no trouble finding Rashard Mendenhall the past week. He has worn his white No. 34 jersey every day for each Steelers media interview session and hung out with his teammates, at last.

Some of those players had said privately they wanted Mendenhall to come around more often during the season, even though the rookie running back could not play. He went on injured reserve after a big hit by Ray Lewis broke his shoulder in the fourth game of the season.

His teammates wondered, where in the world was Rashard Mendenhall? Turns out, he did not feel comfortable just hanging around them every day when he could not practice or play.

"It's hard, it's frustrating to be around and not be able to play," the Steelers' 2008 first-round draft choice said. "That's part of it, you know what I mean? Just being on IR, you have time to be as strong as you were but at the same time you're not as part of it as you want to be."

The same holds true this week. He has enjoyed the Super Bowl experience but feels detached from it.

"It's cool, it's just hard. Anybody who's been on IR and watched the Super Bowl will tell you how hard it is to not be able to be out there. I'm so proud of these guys, to be part of this team and everything. It's just hard to be a competitor and not be able to compete."

His shoulder healed without surgery, and he has been following his rehabilitation schedule, slowly adding weight in his lifting routine, which he has done at the Steelers' training facility.

"I spend time there and I also take time to take care of family things and stuff at home," Mendenhall explained. "I went to the inauguration in D.C. It was cool. I take advantage of stuff like that. I was among the mass of millions. I went down with a friend of mine in college."

Bruce Arians, the team's offensive coordinator, said Mendenhall has been around the team enough and that he has followed the routine laid out for him.

"I saw him plenty enough. It's hard on a young kid when all of this is thrown at you and then, boom, you're out of it. One of the reasons I wanted to see him more was to make sure he was OK."

Mendenhall also made some trips, and he has followed Willie Parker a little more often the past week.

"Down the stretch, traveling with the team, he needed to see Baltimore," Arians said. "He doesn't need to go to Baltimore for the first time next year. And let him learn and watch Willie, and Willie's had his arm around him a bunch this week because the kid's going to be a great player."

That is why the Steelers drafted Mendenhall with the 23rd choice. He ran for 1,681 yards at Illinois in 2007 with a 6.4-yard average. Although his stats were modest in his brief play with the Steelers -- 58 yards, a 3.1-yard average -- Mendenhall showed the players and coaches enough through training camp until his injury in his first start, Arians said.

"When he played, he flashed what we thought we had. He looks like a beast now when he's dressed out. Watching him run out there a month ago, I looked out the window and I said, 'Who the heck is that? Oh, it's Rashard.' He was looking at full speed."

Tomorrow will end Mendenhall's bittersweet rookie season. He'll watch the Super Bowl with his teammates from the sideline. Come about March, he hopes to be back on equal footing with them.

"I'll be up and back full in the spring," Mendenhall said. "It's another chance to get on the grass. I'm looking forward to it. My plans haven't changed at all, just put on hold."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at .


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