Not even a full three quarters into his first regular-season game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, a knee injury interrupted LaRod Stephens-Howling’s dream of playing on the NFL team he followed during his formative years.
In the 41⁄2 months since he tore his ACL and had surgery on his right knee, Stephens-Howling has worked toward a NFL comeback.
The Greater Johnstown High School and University of Pittsburgh graduate has done his rehabilitation at the Steelers’ facilities. He also follows a program under the guidance of his own personal trainer.
“I’ve been feeling great. The rehabbing is going great,” said Stephens-Howling, who played four NFL seasons with the Arizona Cardinals before signing a one-year deal with the Steelers in April. “I feel like I’m real close to being 100 percent. They’re saying definitely by February.
“My focus is to take this time and not rush it. At the same time I’m excited to be able to get back on the field, get some cleats on and run around like I’ve been doing all of my life.”
When he’s deemed healthy enough to play, Stephens-Howling will enter the free agent market. He hopes to find a spot with the Steelers. If he doesn’t fit in the Steelers’ plans, Stephens-Howling must find a home in another organization.
“I’m with the Steelers until I’m cleared by a doctor to play,” he said. “I’d be a free agent again. I’d look around and see where I’d play next. My main focus, though, is to be 100 percent by the time summer comes.”
The Steelers’ running game struggled early in the 2013 season. The offensive line was plagued by injuries, including the loss of center Maurkice Pouncey, who, like Stephens-Howling, was lost for the season in the opener against the Tennessee Titans. Highly touted second-round draft pick Le’Veon Bell also missed time with a foot injury early in the season.
Stephens-Howling, who established himself as one of the league’s top kickoff return men and a capable back with the Cardinals, moved into a more prominent role after Steelers running back Isaac Redmon fumbled twice in the opening half against Tennessee. Stephens-Howling had six carries for 19 yards, caught two passes for 11 yards and had one kickoff return for 25 yards prior to the injury.
“It was a real exciting time to be playing my first regular season game – the games that count – in the black and gold,” said Stephens-Howling, who was slowed by a MCL strain in the same knee during the preseason. “Things happen.”
After the Sept. 8 game, Stephens-Howling joined family outside the Heinz Field locker room before heading to the hospital for a MRI.
“I didn’t know how bad the injury was when I got home,” Stephens-Howling said. “When I first heard the news it was a torn ACL and I was going to be done for the year, it hurt. It definitely hurt. It was a sad time. I talked to my parents, talked to my fiancee, talked to God. You have to deal with it and make sure you bounce back stronger. That’s been my focus.”
Beating the odds
Stephens-Howling has a reputation as a strong-willed competitor eager to put in the work and time to overcome odds.
At 5-foot-7, 185 pounds, his size frequently is called into question. Stephens-Howling didn’t let the doubters deter him during an all-state career at Johnstown High, four years as a key contributor at Pitt and through the challenges of four-plus NFL seasons.
He’ll be 28 this season. Stephens-Howling knows people will point to his age and also wonder if he’ll be able to cut and move as effectively as he did before the injury.
Bell emerged as a true feature back for the Steelers, rushing for 860 yards and breaking Franco Harris’ Pittsburgh rookie-record with 1,259 yards from scrimmage. The Steelers also relied on veteran Felix Jones and brought back Jonathan Dwyer after releasing him during training camp.
Long road back
Stephens-Howling prefers to focus on what he can control.
“After the surgery, they brought a machine to my house and I had to work my knee the very next day just to get it bending again so it wouldn’t stiffen up on me,” Stephens-Howling said. “There was no time to rest. I was back to work the next day. I (eventually) got rid of the crutches and the brace. The whole time I’ve been ahead of schedule. I feel pretty strong.
“I still do my rehab with the Steelers. I’m there all week. I do some extra things at a gym with my trainer. I feel the combination of the two is helping me get back as fast as I’ve been. One of my trainers told me my strength is back to where it needs to be to start playing football again and it hasn’t even been five months.”
Throughout the rehabilitation process, Stephens-Howling has had the support of his family and friends from Johnstown and Pittsburgh, where he currently resides.
“I’ve had a lot of people call me, text me and come to the house,” Stephens-Howling said. “It’s been great. Having an injury is never a good thing, but for me to be close to home has been a blessing. Just to have my family come out or to be able to drive to Johnstown is good. It was good to be able to be close to home.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.