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Rashard Mendenhall ( 1987 - )  Category ( Athletes ) [suggest a correction]

For exceptional athletes like Rashard Mendenhall, a football career is like climbing stairs, each tread higher than the last.

As a senior at Niles West High School in Skokie,IL, Mendenhall was rated the top college prospect in the state, averaging almost a first down (9.1 yards) every time he was handed the ball. At 5-11 and 205 pounds, he was a man-child among boys.

Then came college, at the University of Illinois. As a freshman, Mendenhall gained just 218 yards and was third on the depth chart. As a sophomore, he nearly tripled his yardage to 540 yards and also showed himself to be a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. As aq junior, he broke the school rushing record with 1,681 yards and scored 17 touchdowns, prompting him to enter the National Football League draft early.

When he first reached that next step, however, Mendenhall stumbled. Picked in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he led the team in rushing during the pre-season with 222 yards in 54 carries. The downside was a case of the disorder most feared by running backs -- fumbleitis.

No matter how fast, powerful or shifty a running back might be, it doesn't matter if he doesn't have the football in his hands at the end of the play. Suddenly, for the first time in his career, Mendehall began losing control, fumbling three times in the last two pre-season games.

"How I carry the ball has always been the same," said a perplexed Mendenhall, who became a pet project for Steeler running backs coach Bruce Arians.

Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh's head coach, said he was thinking of keeping Mendenhall on the bench when the regular season began.

"Wouldn't you?" he asked reporters.

Wide receiver Hines Ward, meanwhile, put a football in Mendenhall's locker with a note attached that read: "Take Mendenhall's ball and get $100 from him."

Fortunately for Mendenhall, the fumbleitis went away, and Tomlin began using him to spell starting running back Willie Parker.

"It reminds me of going from high school to college," Mendenhall told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Journal. "Everybody's big, everybody's fast, everybody's talented."

And some -- like the Baltimore Ravens' All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis -- more so than others. In the third game of the 2008 season, Lewis hit Mendenhall so hard that the rookie's shoulder was fractured. End of season. The Steelers won the Super Bowl, but Mendenhall was watching from the sidelines.

"Anybody who's ever been on IR (injured reserve) and watched the Super Bowl will tell you that it's hard," Mendenhall said.

He was healed in time for 2009, though, and in the Steelers' game with San Diego, the kid from Illinois finally made good on his promise. Against the San Diego Chargers, with Parker on the sidelines with an injury, Mendenhall rushed for 166 yards and two touchdowns.

Another step surmounted.

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