Steeler training camp opened in Latrobe this weekend. Besides the returning familiar faces such as quarterback Ben Rothlisberger and safety Troy Polamalu, there was also another familiar face on the field at St. Vincent College, especially to Pitt fans, as LaRod Stephens-Howling, a Johnstown, Pa. native, was on the field for the practice drills.
“I’m from this area. grew up not too far away from camp,” Stephens-Howling said. “I can remember as a kid coming down here for practice.”
After playing at Pitt from 2005-2008, LaRod Stephens-Howling was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals the following year. His first game as a professional football player was on August 13, 2009, coincidentally, at Heinz Field, when the Cardinals played a pre-season game against the Steelers.
Before the game, Stephens-Howling was warming up and thought he would take in the experience the best way he knew how. He sat in the endzone for a few minutes while the Steeler fans filed in and he reminisced about playing in the same stadium as a Panther the previous four years.
“It was crazy, my first game as a rookie and we were playing at Heinz Field. I was sitting in the endzone and thinking about all the good times I had at Pitt. My favorite memory, definitely, had to be the West Virginia game where we were like 35 point underdogs and we won down there (2007),” Stephens-Howling said. “Off the field, just all the friends I met and all the good times I had spending time with my teammates. It was a great four years there.”
He also thought about how all the hard work he put in over the years was worth it, as he had made it to the professional football ranks.
“I thought about what it took for me to get to the next level. It was a lot of hard work and staying the course,” Stephens-Howling said. “I could have given up, but I just kept working and kept my dreams alive.”
He credited Dave Wannstedt, his head coach at Pitt, in helping him get to the NFL by allowing starters and upper classmen play on special teams.
“The thing at Pitt that helped me the most to get to the next level was Coach [Dave] Wannstedt allowing seniors and juniors play on special teams units. A lot of universities, you play special teams freshmen or sophomore year, and some starters are never allowed to touch special teams,” Stephens-Howling said. “I feel very comfortable playing special teams since I played it at Pitt. Special teams has been my niche. It’s what’s been able to keep me on the NFL 53-man roster.”
Stephens-Howling played in 44 games at Pitt including 13 in which he started. He gained 1959 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns on 429 attempts. He also caught 52 passes for 453 yards and a touchdown.
As a freshmen in 2005, he led the team in rushing with 434 yards on 96 carries (4.5 avg.)
And had 5 returns for 151 yards (30.2 avg.) and a 95 yard touchdown. In his sophomore season in 2006, he started 11 games and rushed for 893 yards on 178 attempts (5 yd. avg.) to lead the team and finish fourth in the Big East in rushing.
His role changed in 2007 as LeSean McCoy arrived at Pitt to take over the starting running back position. In 2007, he only started two games as a junior but appeared in 11 games. He rushed for 320 yards on 78 carries and 1 touchdown. He also had 100 return yards on 5 attempts.
In his senior year, he played in all 13 games as a reserve running back and ran for 312 yards on 77 carries, (4.1 avg.) and scored five touchdowns. He also gained 493 yards on 23 kick returns and had 109 receiving yards on 11 catches. He also had nine special teams tackles.
“I had a lot of ups and downs like when I wasn’t the starter and wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to,” Stephens–Howling said. “I found a way on special teams and that’s what helped me get to the NFL.”
The Cardinals picked Stephens-Howling in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL draft with the 240 overall pick.
In 2009, he played in all 16 games as a rookie, predominantly on special teams and started two games. In 2010, he led the NFL in return yardage with 1,548. He played in 14 games in 2011 and again in 2012.
“It was great playing in Arizona. I had a good four years there,” Stephens-Howling said. “I loved all my teammates. It was a nice stay.”
He had instant rapport with one teammate in particular, former Panther great, Larry Fitzgerald.
“Larry [Fitzgerald] is a great guy. When I got [to Arizona] we had a Pitt connection already. He welcomed all the rookies with open arms. He did whatever he could to help us,” Stephens-Howling said. “It’s great when a guy of his caliber is that friendly to rookies. He was a great teammate.”
Now, LaRod’s NFL career has come full circle and he will be returning to Heinz Field, but this time as a hometown player once again.
“Four years later, I’m coming back,” Stephens-Howling said. “It’s a real exciting feeling.”
The Steelers signed him to a one year, unrestricted free agent contract in April, and, according to Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert, Stephens-Howling can help the Steelers not only on special teams, but possibly on offense as well.
“Obviously, we’ve known LaRod for along time, having watching him at Pitt. He brings another veteran running back to our group and he has a different skill set as the other guys in the group. He’s a smaller, quicker, elusive type guy that also has kick-return abilities. We think he’ll be a nice addition to the bigger guys we already have on the roster. We’re excited to see what he can do,” Colbert said. “It’s obviously a strongpoint that he can play special teams and has an ability to return kicks. What I think his capabilities and production could potentially be for us is a [running back] as well.”
Besides continuing his NFL career, Stephens-Howling is also happy to be back in Pittsburgh because it brings him closer to his college alma-mater.
“I still keep in touch with a lot of the guys I played with at Pitt. Any time I was able to catch a game, I was always watching, rooting for Pitt and screaming at the tv in my living room,” Stephens-Howling said. “Hopefully, I can get to a game or two this year. It will be a lot of fun being much closer to the action.”
He also has a chance to be close to the action for the Steelers this year. He will be working hard to possibly play in the backfield and probably on special teams.
“I’m still a big fan of whatever I need to do to help the team,” Stephens-Howling said. “It’s great to return and play at Heinz Field again. I’m very familiar with the area. It’s going to be a real homey feeling.”
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