Another in a series of sample articles from Steelers Digest looking back on the 2008 season.
Steelers Digest has been the official publication of the Pittsburgh Steelers since its inception in 1988. For 21 seasons, Steelers Digest has offered the most comprehensive coverage of the Pittsburgh Steelers with its unmatched complement of news, insight and opinion. The following appeared in the Nov. 29, 2008 edition of Steelers Digest, one month after Rashard Mendenhall was placed on the injured reserve list.
*"Mendenhall looking forward"
By Teresa Varley
He had dreams about it. He fantasized about it as a young boy. He used it as motivation during the thousands of workouts that helped him get here in the first place.
But every single time Rashard Mendenhall envisioned his rookie season in the NFL, it never was anything like this.
It began with high hopes, only natural for a player who was a first-round draft pick, and while there never was any thought given to him replacing Willie Parker, there was the expectation that he would be a significant contributor to the offense as Parker's complement as well as insurance against injury. Remember the impact to the Steelers running attack for the 2007 playoffs when Parker broke his leg in the regular season's penultimate game?
Mendenhall had high hopes as this season began, and he was acclimating himself to the speed of NFL regular season football when what was unthinkable for Steelers fans became a reality.
Parker injured a knee in the third game, against the Philadelphia Eagles, and all of a sudden Rashard Mendenhall was a starter. And not only a starter, but a starter on Monday Night Football against the Baltimore Ravens.
Through a half of football Mendenhall did his best to carry the load, and if nine carries for 30 yards doesn't sound like much, well, there have been Pro Bowl running backs who didn't gain that many yards in an entire game against the Ravens. But then, in the third quarter, it all came to a violent end.
Mendenhall took a handoff from Ben Roethlisberger and slammed into the middle of the line of scrimmage where he was met head-on by Ray Lewis.
"I just remember I ran into the hole, and there was a big collision. I knew right away something was wrong," said Mendenhall. "I wanted to lay out on the field, but I didn't want anybody to see me like that. I just ran off."
The pain was intolerable. Mendenhall knew right away it wasn't good. It was serious.
"I can't say that I have ever felt pain like that," said Mendenhall. "It was bad. Going in to take X-rays it really hurt a lot.
"Normally you have so much adrenaline going you don't really feel anything. But even with all of the adrenaline I couldn't move it at all. I couldn't pick my arm up at all so I knew something was wrong. I knew it was done."
He was right. Lewis broke Mendenhall's shoulder with the hit, fractured his scapula to be precise, and the Steelers had lost their No. 1 pick for the rest of the season. Surgery was performed to facilitate the healing of an injury more common to a car wreck than a football game, and Mendenhall was placed on the injured reserve list.
"I never missed a game to injury in high school or college," said Mendenhall, shaking his head. "I was supposed to be there in the event something happened to Willie. Then something happened to him, and I wasn't there. It's frustrating, but it's part of the game. What can you do? To be out injured for a whole season is something new for me."
And it's not the only new thing for Mendenhall experienced this year. It didn't take long at all to learn about the hatred that exists between the Steelers and Ravens. Heck, it barely took half of one football game.
"You could definitely feel the animosity between the two teams," said Mendenhall. "There was a little extra added to it."
And it's very likely Mendenhall added to that without actually doing anything. In the days before the game, there were reports coming from Baltimore about a text message allegedly sent by Mendenhall to Ravens rookie running back Ray Rice, someone he considers a friend. According to those reports, Mendenhall boasted about how he was going to run all over the Baltimore defense.
After the game, Terrell Suggs admitted on a radio show that the Ravens had a bounty on Hines Ward and Mendenhall, and the reasons the Steelers rookie was included stemmed from Mendenhall's comments in the alleged text message.
"There was a lot of talk, even with the text message, and I had nothing to do with any of it," said Mendenhall. "But with all of that stuff out there, I'm sure the Ravens were upset and looking forward to going against me."
And when he says he had nothing to do with the text message, he means it. Mendenhall has been steadfast in denying any involvement, and it doesn't make a whole lot of sense because he's not the trash-talking type.
"I don't want to get into what he said, but the text, I had nothing to do with it," said Mendenhall. "I had to find out about it like everybody else. Somebody told me about it, and I read it in the paper. All of that had nothing to do with me. Anybody who knows me knows that's not my style. For that to be the basis for a lot of animosity towards me, for what reason?
"I didn't send anything. It was crazy. I guess somebody wanted a story and they got a real big story."
The only story Mendenhall wants to focus on right now is his recovery and getting ready for the 2009 season. He has gotten over the initial shock of the injury, the doubts that came along with it, and even the pain has subsided somewhat.
"At first it was like, wow, how did that happen?" said Mendenhall. "My initial worry was whether I'm built for the NFL because in my first game as a starter my shoulder breaks. Outside of that you can't really do anything about it. You have to look forward and be optimistic about it."
And returning to some normalcy is helping Mendenhall move forward. After a few weeks of complete inactivity and then spending time at home with family, Mendenhall is back at the team's complex slowly starting rehab and getting back into the flow of things. He spends a few hours a day there, where he works on strengthening the shoulder and doing some cardio in the weight room. He watches film, sometimes with his fellow running backs in a meeting, sometimes on his own.
"I'm on my own schedule. I do like it," said Mendenhall. "I can do things I need to get done. But it's hard and frustrating not being around teammates, especially on Sunday when you see them playing. That's tough, but I can't do anything about it so I try to enjoy what I can."
Mendenhall has been on the sidelines at Heinz Field and watches the away games from home. It's been a real challenge for him.
"Being a competitor, it is frustrating," said Mendenhall. "You want to be out there. That's what you are here for, to be out there on Sunday and when you can't it hurts.
"It's rough. It is really rough. There is nothing you can do about it. You aren't able to experience the same kind of camaraderie and go to battle with these guys. You can't practice and you aren't out there on Sunday playing, so you do feel kind of isolated."
And while he sits alone in the training room and wishes he was with his teammates in meetings, he still manages to stay upbeat.
"I know next year, I'll be 22 and still have a long career ahead of me," Mendenhall said. "I try to look at the positives. I believe everything happens for a reason. I can't go back and change it now. I have to look forward."