PITTSBURGH (AP) — 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 keeps 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. Any type of Dave Chapelle skit, he knows it. 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. Similar success against the Green Bay Packers would help the Steelers secure their seventh Super Bowl title.
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.
“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, helping the Steelers to a 3-1 start.
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.
“From talking to Franco and talking to Jerome, there’s things you learn off the field on how to be a professional, how to carry yourself in the organization, things like that,” Mendenhall said. “And, you learn about preparing yourself with the spotlight being on you, and taking care of your body in the offseason.”
The 23-year-old Mendenhall grew up in Illinois and played for the Illini, but he paid more attention to the Los Angeles Rams than the Chicago Bears because of the Bus.
“Jerome was my favorite player when he was on the Rams,” Mendenhall said. “I remember him for being a big guy, his feet and his movement, a lot of people don’t see him being so quick.”
The Steelers drafted Mendenhall in the first round in 2008, even though Willie Parker had just run for over 1,300 yards. However, Mendenhall’s rookie season was a disappointment. He sustained a season-ending shoulder injury after four games and watched from the sideline when the Steelers beat Arizona to win the Super Bowl.
Mendenhall couldn’t play because he was hurt. It doesn’t mean he didn’t learn from the experience.
“I saw everything it takes to prepare to win,” he said. “It means a lot to be there and be a part of it this time.”
Mendenhall credits the offensive line and coaches for his success running the ball. Against New York, tight end Heath Miller was a dominant blocker. Guard Chris Kemoeatu also was a factor with strong play on the line of scrimmage.
“He’s a unique animal at the tight end position,” Mendenhall said of Miller. “A lot of people look at tight ends and look at how many catches they have. He’s a guy that blocks well week in and week out and makes a big impact.”
The Steelers had their linemen do some pulling and combination blocking to keep the Jets off-balance and open holes for Mendenhall.
“He’s a hard runner and you know he’s gonna try hard to get that extra yard,” Foster said. “You know if you give him a hole, he can break it. It’s fun blocking for him.”
For teammates, it’s fun being around him, too.
Copyright Associated Press