April 26 is a big day for Johnstown’s LaRod Stephens-Howling.
Of course, that date is his birthday.
Four years ago on his birthday, the Arizona Cardinals selected Stephens-Howling in the seventh round of the NFL draft after his career at Pitt.
On Friday, the Johnstown High graduate had another milestone birthday as the running back/kick returner agreed to terms on a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers – the team he cheered for during his formative years. Stephens-Howling said he signed the contract Friday evening and shipped it from Arizona to Pittsburgh.
“Definitely, it’s a great birthday present,” said Stephens-Howling, 26, who became an unrestricted free agent last month after four seasons with the Cardinals. “I got drafted on my birthday when I was 22. Four years later, I’m signing a new contract. It’s a blessing. Keep the faith in God. It’s in God’s hands.”
The Steelers began Friday as a team in search of depth at running back after free agent Rashard Mendenhall left for Arizona.
Shortly after signing Stephens-Howling, the Steelers used their second-round draft pick to take 6-foot-1, 230-pound running back Le’Veon Bell of Michigan State.
Pittsburgh’s roster also includes halfbacks Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Baron Batch.
“I’m really excited to be back home for one, but also to be a part of a great organization,” Stephens-Howling said. “Growing up, you just knew the Pittsburgh Steelers were a class organization and a winning program. I’m blessed to be a part of it.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin impressed Stephens-Howling.
“I’ve always had the utmost respect for Tomlin and what he has done for the program,” he said. “He’s a straight-up guy. He’s not going to beat around the bush. I respect that in a coach.”
Stephens-Howling rushed for 652 yards, 3.6 per carry, during four seasons with the Cardinals. He appeared in 57 games with 10 starts.
The 5-7, 185-pound Stephens-Howling had an expanded role last season after Arizona feature backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams each were injured. He finished with 357 yards, an average of 3.2 a carry, and four rushing touchdowns.
Among his career highlights during his time with the Cardinals are kickoff returns for touchdowns of 99 yards at Tennessee, 102 yards against Oakland and 96 yards against Minnesota. One of his kickoff returns for a TD enabled a Surprise, Ariz., couple to win a new home as part of a game promotion.
In October 2011, Stephens-Howling had a 73-yard touchdown reception in a 32-20 loss to the Steelers in Phoenix.
He became a fan favorite nicknamed “The Hyphen” partly because of his big-play capabilities on special teams and as a receiver out of the backfield, but also because Stephens-Howling overcame a height disadvantage to play in the NFL.
But in the business side of football, Stephens-Howling and the Cardinals couldn’t reach a deal during the offseason.
He tested the free agent market, including a visit with the Steelers on April 3.
“We made our one-on-one visit a few weeks ago,” Stephens-Howling said. “At that time, we couldn’t come to the right terms in our contract. They kept a lot of interest and were consistent. It’s a blessing to be able to come back home and be able to play. We were able to come to an agreement.”
Once word began to circulate on the Internet and through social media, Stephens-Howling attracted plenty of interest from his hometown.
“My family and friends are really excited. My phone blew up whenever it went online for the first time,” Stephens-Howling said. “I’ve always had the support from them. It will be good that I’ll be closer to home. I’ll be on TV. It will be nice.”
The former Johnstown Trojan next must earn a roster spot in training camp. But for now, Stephens-Howling is just happy that his first brush with the free agent market is in the past.
“It’s definitely hectic,” Stephens-Howling said. “It's the first time I’ve gone through the free agency period.
“It’s rough but I have a strong faith in God. I’m just happy that this is over now and I can get back to playing football.”