Small-college players know the odds, but that doesn't diminish the dream
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It was the helmet.
For Andre Freeman, a kid from Penn Hills who grew up worshiping the Steelers, who toiled his way to a standout career in the small-school ranks of NCAA Division II football at Slippery Rock, who got a last-minute call last month for a tryout for his hometown NFL team -- on his birthday no less -- it wasn't until he actually held the black helmet in his hands that he knew he had a one-shot opportunity that might change the course of his life.
"They called me and asked, 'Are you in shape?' I said 'Yes.' They said 'Come in tomorrow. If we like you, we're gonna sign you. If not, we're gonna let you go.' I came in the next day, determined to give it everything I got. When I walked into the facility and went into the equipment room, I was like wow ...
"I customized my own helmet. Like it was a video game. They gave me a brand-new helmet. I picked the inside. I picked the facemask -- then I got my Steeler logo. I thought, 'I really got it on here' -- I'm here."
The Steelers liked what they saw during Freeman's tryout, signing him as an undrafted rookie free agent.
But he faces the decidedly uphill -- though not impossible -- task to actually make the team.
Consider that the Steelers have made 162 picks since the NFL moved to its current seven-round draft format in 1994.
Only two of them -- Ricardo Colclough from Tusculum in 2004 and Israel Raybon from North Alabama in 1996 -- have come from Division II. In 2012, only six were drafted league-wide.
Some Steelers greats have emerged from Division II. Linebacker Greg Lloyd was a fifth-round pick in 1987 from Fort Valley State in Georgia.
Hall of Famer John Stallworth and Donnie Shell played in the 1970s at historically black southern colleges that have since been promoted to college football's FCS classification (formerly Division I-AA).
There have been occasional others through the years, but running back Isaac Redman was the only player on the Steelers' 2011 roster from a Division II school -- Bowie State in Maryland.
An undrafted free agent in 2009, Redman famously turned heads with a battering ram performance during goal-line drills in his rookie training camp.
Coach Mike Tomlin recently asked Redman to relay his long shot experience to the new rookies.
"I just told them when you get here, don't let anybody tell you what you can do as far as this team, and don't do the number game, counting how many people are at your position." Redman said.
"[If] you come in here and work hard and if you're able to play, [this] is one team that's going to play you -- don't matter if you're a free agent, seventh-round draft pick or first-round draft pick. If you can't play, they'll get you out of here, and if you can play, they'll keep you."
Freeman isn't alone. Defensive lineman Ikponwmosa "Ike" Igbinosun of Southern Connecticut State is also trying to crack the roster.
But if Division II players on the Steelers are rare, players from the NCAA's smallest classification, Division III, are hen's teeth.
In 2001, all-time Division III rushing leader R.J. Bowers of Grove City College spent 13 weeks on the Steelers' practice squad before being activated.
He scored a touchdown against Cleveland in the final game of that season.
Pierre Garcon of the Washington Redskins and Fred Jackson of the Buffalo Bills are the only current noteworthy Division III alums of a small handful in the NFL.
Tyler Beiler hopes to be the next. The all-time leading receiver at tiny Bridgewater College, a campus of 1,651 students tucked in the Shenandoah Valley of northwestern Virginia, Beiler made it through the San Francisco 49ers training camp last year only to be cut at the end, then spent a few weeks with the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad.
He signed a reserve/futures contract with Steelers and has been with them during this spring's organized team activities.
Beiler is undeterred by the long odds against him in pursuit of his life's dream.
"I really don't worry about any of the numbers or anything that goes into it besides just focusing on what I've got to do -- cleaning up my routes, manning the techniques, learning the playbook -- just putting all my energy into that," he said.
Freeman and Beiler have routinely put in extra work after practice with Ike Taylor and Antonio Brown, and have made meticulous study of their assignments in hopes of eventually making the team.
"Keep grinding. Keep working your hardest. Nothing but positive thoughts," Beiler said.
Healthy confidence doesn't hurt either.
Freeman was emboldened early on in OTAs after being matched up against rookie Marquis Maze out of Alabama -- "I watched him on TV!" he said -- and found he could run with the national champion.
He made a leaping interception during a drill in Thursday's practice that elicited praise from his teammates, and believes he can hang with NFL-caliber talent.
"The talent's not from like one to 10. I'm not a one and they're not a 10."
Even compared to someone like Troy Polamalu?
"Well, no. He's probably a 10. But I'm not a one," Freeman said, laughing.
Freeman is determined to make it onto the special teams. He envisions himself running out of the Heinz Field tunnel for a preseason game to the big crowds he never saw in small-college football.
"I already thought about it years ago -- what would it be like? Every time I watched them, I thought about that. To run out the tunnels with a Steeler helmet on and look up and see all the fans . . ." he said, his voice trailing off.
"Everyone wants to go to the NFL. No rookie on this team wants to be a Steeler more than me. That's just what I know."
First Published June 10, 2012 12:00 am