After four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, LaRod Stephens-Howling is no newcomer to the NFL.
The Hyphen is accustomed to putting in the long hours and hard work to prove himself at the game’s highest level.
Still, when Stephens-Howling officially made the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 53-man roster on Saturday, the implications extended well beyond the black and gold’s locker room and to his hometown.
“LaRod has always been a big inspiration to us,” said Greater Johnstown High School sophomore running back Terrell Jones, who is part of the backfield in the same program where Stephens-Howling twice earned Tribune-Democrat Offensive Player of the Year honors. “For him to go to the Steelers, we’re happy that he’s back in his hometown.
“It’s great that somebody like him, who played at our school, went somewhere big,” Jones continued. “It’s great to see that he came from Johnstown and played for my school. He’s an example for us. We look up to him. Our coaches are always using him as an example.”
Stephens-Howling had a solid training camp and exhibition season with the Steelers, despite a minor injury that kept him out of two preseason games.
The 5-foot-7, 185-pound Stephens-Howling is expected to see time as a third-down back with the ability to catch passes out of the backfield. Just as he did in Arizona, Stephens-Howling will return kickoffs.
“LaRod Stephens-Howling has proven that he’s a capable back for us situationally. He did some third-down things in the Carolina game,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday.
“LaRod Stephens-Howling has some really consistent hands and showed some third-down capabilities,” Tomlin added.
Tomlin named Isaac Redman as the starting running back for Sunday’s home opener against the Tennessee Titans
(1 p.m., CBS). Stephens-Howling and recently-acquired veteran Felix Jones, a former first-round draft pick, also are expected to receive carries and return kickoffs. Highly-regarded rookie running back Le’Veon Bell remains out with an injury.
In one of the most talked-about moves, the Steelers cut last season’s leading rusher, Jonathan Dwyer, on Saturday.
“LaRod is amazing. He works so hard all through his life as an athlete and in the classroom,” said former Johnstown High coach Bob Arcurio, Stephens-Howling’s high school coach. “He was up against the odds. They cut an individual (Dwyer) from the team that was a starter last year.
“When that whistle blows, LaRod is ready to play. From what I’ve read in the paper, it looks like his teammates respect him.”
Arcurio often marvels at how Stephens-Howling overcame doubts about his size and durability first to star at Johnstown, where he gained 4,597 yards, then playing four seasons at Pitt and eventually being drafted by the NFL’s Cardinals. He established himself as one of the league’s premier return men in Arizona.
“He has great vision. That’s what makes him so great,” Arcurio said. “You can’t teach that. It comes naturally.”
Arcurio recalled how Stephens-Howling made an impression on former Pitt coach Walt Harris. After the Johnstown player committed to Pitt, Harris was replaced by coach Dave Wannstedt.
“We worked hard to get him into college because of his size,” Arcurio said. “There was a transition when Harris left and LaRod was coming in. There was a lot of concern about whether Pitt would keep him. But when Wannstedt saw his film, there was no question he wanted LaRod in his backfield.”
Stephens-Howling started at running back his first two seasons at Pitt and played behind LeSean McCoy his final two years.
“With his size, he has to prove he’s a great athlete,” Arcurio said. “When he gets on the field, he proves it. It seems like every year he has to accomplish that. Look at what he did in Arizona. He was an All-Pro. The fans took to him.”
Current Trojans coach Tony Penna Jr. and his staff frequently speak about Stephens-Howling to the Trojans players. Penna talks about more than football during those conversations. Stephens-Howling concentrated on academics and was active in the community during his high school days. He still quietly helps sponsor Johnstown’s Trojan Family Christmas dinner for students and their families each December.
“He’s such an inspiration to everybody,” Penna said. “It’s exciting to see him playing for the Steelers. It’s a tribute to how hard he works. He’s already outlived the shelf life of running backs in the NFL. That’s all a result of him and his mind-set.
“It wasn’t set in stone, and he went out and made a football team. This year he came into a new situation, a new place. Guys were in and out of the lineup. They cut a veteran to keep him. That’s a testament to his character.”
Rich Vetock said he and his brother, Jim, partners at the Steeler Gift Shop at Specialty Promotions on Route 22 in Ebensburg, have had multiple requests for official LaRod Stephens-Howling Steelers jerseys. The Vetocks are hoping Nike eventually will distribute the No. 34 jersey.
“We’ve been trying to get the jerseys ordered. Nike has not made them available to vendors at this point – neither jerseys or T-shirts,” Rich Vetock said, noting Nike is the official supplier of the NFL jerseys. “We have had inquiries. At this point, we can’t get them.
“Probably part of it was the fact that they were waiting for the final rosters to be set. We’ve been trying to get them and t-shirts, which Nike also makes.”
Until the NFL gear arrives, LaRod’s fans will settle for watching No. 34 on TV or perhaps at Heinz Field.