The No. One Pick: Rashard Mendenhall
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When he was asked which National Football League running back he most resembled, Rashard Mendenhall compared himself to a player that not most people would consider:
At 225 pounds, Mendenhall has been compared more to Laurence Maroney of the New England Patriots -- a player who runs with toughness and attitude inside the tackles, but has the athleticism and cutback ability to break plays to the outside.
But Joe Galambos, who has coached Mendenhall since fifth grade and closely has monitored his development, tended to agree with his former pupil. Only he went a step further.
"He'll run you over if you get in his way," Galambos was saying last night over the telephone from the House of Blues in Chicago, where he was celebrating Mendenhall's first-round selection by the Steelers. "But he's more of a Gale Sayers, Barry Sanders type of runner. He's a stop-and-go-on-a-dime kind of guy.
"They pumped him up pretty good at Illinois, they made him a tough inside runner, but, by far, it's not the strength of his ability. He's a tremendous, tremendous athlete. And I don't say that because I'm biased, I say that as a football coach."
Galambos has never really left Mendenhall since his childhood. He followed him to Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill., where he was the running backs coach, and he has remained one of his closest confidants.
He said he became convinced of Mendenhall's ability when, as a fifth grader, Mendenhall played on a team of seventh- and eighth-graders and flashed the speed and athleticism that became his trademark at Illinois.
That's why Galambos was thrilled to see him land with the Steelers, who had him rated as the second-best back in the draft behind Darren McFadden of Arkansas, the fourth overall pick of the Oakland Raiders.
"McFadden is a good running back, a good player, but I think Rashard has more to him," Galambos said. "Jonathan Stewart [drafted 13th overall by the Carolina Panthers] is a great player, too, but you'll see. I think Rashard Mendenhall is a way better athlete and you'll see when he gets into town. You'll see what I mean when you watch his footwork, his athleticism."
Illinois coach Ron Zook, a former Steelers assistant, agreed.
"You see the Rose Bowl?" he asked, almost giddy with delight. "He ran away from some of [Southern California's] guys, and, as we all know, they have pretty good speed."
Mendenhall, a junior, spent only one season as a full-time starter for Illinois, but it was a productive one. He rushed for 1,681 yards, averaged 6.4 yards per carry and scored 17 touchdowns. He also caught 34 passes for 318 yards and two touchdowns.
But, in what would be his final appearance in the Rose Bowl, Mendenhall rushed for 168 yards on 17 carries and caught five passes for 59 yards against the Trojans. That performance is what caught the attention of most NFL teams, including the Steelers, even though coach Mike Tomlin and director of football operations Kevin Colbert never thought Mendenhall would be around when they picked 23rd overall. That's one of the reasons they didn't meet with him for one of the 30 pre-draft interviews.
"That's the thing that sets him apart -- he has the speed to go the distance," Zook said. "He's a great back and a smart kid. And the best part of his career is still in front of him."
Mendenhall wasn't just groomed to be a football player.
His mother, Sybil, said he tried everything as a kid -- basketball, soccer, track, golf, even playing the clarinet. But he was so quiet, so unassuming, that he never stood out in the crowd -- until he got on the football field.
When he was in grade school, he played on the same team with his older brother, Walter, whom he followed to the same high school, even to Illinois. Together, they helped their youth-league team win 56 consecutive games. Walter Mendenhall, though, has decided to transfer from Illinois and, according to Galambos, will enroll at Illinois State.
"Rashard was always kind of laid-back," said his mother, a teachers aide in an elementary school in Skokie. Sybil Mendenhall moved back to the Chicago area last year to be closer to her son. "He's a humble homebody. He likes to go to movies, art museums, he likes to go to concerts ... music is a big thing with him."
When Mendenhall was in the third grade, he told his mom he wanted to play the clarinet. So she bought him the instrument -- with one prerequisite.
"I told him, you ask for it, you don't get to put it down," she said. "He played it all the way through high school. But I don't know what happened to that clarinet."
Mendenhall makes the same kind of fluid sounds on the football field, has since the fifth grade. Quiet, polite and reserved, football became his passion. And he never let it go.
Mendenhall carried a football with him everywhere he went in grade school, even his eighth-grade graduation. But when he walked to the stage with a football in his hand, one of the teachers took it from him when he went to accept his grade-school diploma.
"He's very low maintenance," his mother said. "I don't think anyone there has to worry about Rashard. The people there will be really proud of him."
Said Zook: "Pittsburgh is going to be happy with him. He's a good kid, really a classy guy."
First Published April 27, 2008 12:31 am