January 29, 2011 in Sports

Mendenhall the jokester

Steelers running back keeps the mood light
Rob Maaddi Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Rashard Mendenhall (34), a bruising presence for the Pittsburgh Steelers as they advanced to the Super Bowl, keeps his teammates laughing off the field.
(Full-size photo)

PITTSBURGH – Rashard Mendenhall walks through the locker room singing out loud, stops to poke fun at a teammate, shares a few laughs with a team employee and settles near his locker.

Reporters gather around him, and Mendenhall turns into just another boring athlete. The Steelers running back answers questions in a calm, soft-spoken voice, careful not to say too much or provide any bulletin-board material for opponents.

Once the cameras and recorders are turned off, Mendenhall is back to himself. He’s a prankster, a guy who enjoys making his teammates laugh and helps keep the mood light.

“He’s a very charismatic guy,” right guard Ramon Foster said. “He just does some crazy, stupid stuff. It doesn’t matter when. He’ll do it anywhere. He’s the best movie quoter ever. … My favorite thing is that ‘Plead the fifth’ skit, Rashard does that.”

On the field, Mendenhall is all business. He’s a tough runner and a major part of Pittsburgh’s offense. Mendenhall is coming off an outstanding performance against the New York Jets in the AFC championship game.

Mendenhall scored two touchdowns in a comeback win over the Baltimore Ravens two weeks ago. He had 121 yards rushing and one TD on 27 carries in the 24-19 victory over the Jets and Rex Ryan’s vaunted defense.

Now the Green Bay Packers have to prepare to try and stop him in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6.

“Every game is a different game,” Mendenhall said. “You want to take the positives out of last week and try to maximize your performance.”

A strong running game has long been a staple in Pittsburgh. From Byron “Whizzer” White to Bill Dudley, John Henry Johnson to Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis to Willie Parker, the Steelers traditionally have won with a grind-it-out rushing attack and a menacing defense.

But Ben Roethlisberger’s strong arm and a group of talented receivers made the Steelers more of a passing team the last two years. The days of the Ground Chuck offense seemed long gone as Big Ben threw for more than 4,300 yards in 2009.

Roethlisberger’s four-game suspension to start this season contributed to a renewed emphasis on the run. Mendenhall had two of his three 100-yard games in the regular season during Roethlisberger’s absence as the Steelers started 3-1.

After Roethlisberger returned, Mendenhall’s carries went down from an average of 22.3 per game the first four weeks to 18 over the next five. But the Steelers relied more on Mendenhall in the latter part of the season and he finished with 1,273 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. In two playoff games, he’s carried the ball 47 times for 167 yards and three scores.

While most fans in other cities prefer to see their team pass, the black-and-gold faithful turn it up a notch when Mendenhall gets the ball.

“Running the ball and defense are a tradition here,” Mendenhall said. “You can wear down an opponent with the running game and the fans feel it. It’s one of those things where you can hear the crowd and the towels waving.”

Mendenhall is quite aware of the Steelers’ tradition. He has a lot of respect for Harris and Bettis, who’ve spent time talking to him and sharing advice on everything from playing the game to representing the organization.

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