Ron Cook: Mendenhall closes book on career


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The strange story broke Sunday. It involved former Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall. How could it be anything but strange?

Mendenhall's agent Mike McCartney said via Twitter that Mendenhall is retiring at 26 after six NFL seasons. Apparently, though healthy, he no longer wants to play. He is walking away from millions.

No one who knows or has spent any time with Mendenhall is surprised. He has told people he plans on writing a book. I have to admit I will read it. The guy fascinates me.

OK, so it's a fascination with the bizarre.

Mendenhall wasn't the Steelers' best No. 1 draft choice of the past 25 years. That would be Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu or Alan Faneca. All seem headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Mendenhall wasn't the Steelers' biggest bust at No. 1 during that time, either. That would be Jamain Stephens or Huey Richardson. Remember those two? Of course you don't.

But Mendenhall is a different kind of guy, to say the least. Many people would say he is aloof. Odd seems like a much better description.

Mendenhall is not remembered well here. He made a lot of enemies with his sympathetic tweets about Osama bin Laden after bin Laden's death in May 2011 and his questions about the events of 9/11. He had made even more enemies a few months earlier when he fumbled early in the fourth quarter of the Steelers' loss to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV. You know the priorities of many Steelers fans. Supporting a terrorist is one thing. Losing a turnover in a big game is unforgivable.

Mendenhall always gave the impression that he didn't care about the fumble, that he didn't care about football, period. What a shame. He had such awesome ability. You couldn't help but feel that he wasted most of it.

It's not that Mendenhall was a bust. His NFL career had a rough start; Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis broke his shoulder with a vicious, but clean hit in the fourth game of 2008, Mendenhall's rookie season. Mendenhall came back in 2009 to rush for 1,108 yards and seven touchdowns and, in 2010, the Super Bowl year, went for 1,273 yards and a staggering 13 touchdowns. Jerome Bettis always said a running back's primary job is to score touchdowns. Mendenhall scored 'em in bunches.

Mendenhall had a wonderful combination of speed and power. We saw the speed when he went 50 yards for a touchdown in overtime to beat the Atlanta Falcons in the opening game of the 2010 season. We saw the power when he bulled for the winning 2-yard touchdown in a playoff win against the Ravens after the 2010 season and then another 1-yard touchdown the next week against the New York Jets in the AFC championship game.

Go ahead, blame the Super Bowl XLV loss on him if you like. The Steelers wouldn't have made it there without him. It's no wonder former coordinator Bruce Arians often called him the team's "horse" and "The Man."

But Mendenhall wasn't the same player after tearing up his right knee in the final game of the 2011 season. He was lousy in 2012. He lost two fumbles on his four carries in a November loss against the Cleveland Browns and so angered coach Mike Tomlin that he didn't dress for the next two games. He made things much worse by failing to report for that second game against the San Diego Chargers, a poor decision that led to him being suspended for the next game by Tomlin.

It's unthinkable to bail out on your teammates, one of the worst things a professional athlete can do. But Mendenhall acted as if he did nothing wrong. Teammates couldn't believe the carefree way he strolled back into the locker room after his suspension. Different? You bet he was different. It's hard to remember another player like him.

The Arizona Cardinals -- coached by Arians -- signed Mendenhall to a one-year, $2.5 million contract last season. Despite a turf toe injury, he led the 10-6, playoff-contending Cardinals with 217 carries, 687 yards and 8 touchdowns. Another club surely would have signed him for next season and paid him well.

No, thank you, Mendenhall said.

"I am fully at peace," he wrote in a Feb. 25 column for the Huffington Post, hinting at his retirement. "Eagerly looking to a new way, which lies ahead."

A new career.

A writing career.

Meanwhile, a story already is just about finished on the Steelers' 2008 draft class. It was one of the worst drafts in franchise history. After Mendenhall, the team took Limas Sweed, Bruce Davis, Tony Hills, Dennis Dixon, Mike Humpal and Ryan Mundy.

Make no mistake about that story. It is strictly of the horror genre.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published March 9, 2014 11:00 PM

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