CB Deshone Mallard is making the most of a chance to start with the Rhein Fire
In 1997, Aaron Stecker rushed for almost 2,000 yards. In 1998, another 1,100. In 1999: zero.
Of course, Stecker spent most of the 1999 football season on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice squad after starting the year in the Chicago Bears' training camp. The 5-11, 205-pound running back had impressed at least those two teams with his prolific junior and senior seasons at Western Illinois, but never fully had the opportunity to show what he could do on the professional level in his first NFL campaign. Now he's back on the field and running wild again.
Stecker, and many other young NFL players in the same situation, are getting the chance to play in the NFL Europe League's spring season. One of six currently-rostered Buccaneers playing overseas, Stecker has been one of the NFLEL's top performers in the early going. TE Jason Freeman, LB Bobbie Howard, CB Deshone Mallard and LB Shawn Stuckey are also getting significant playing time while QB Scott Milanovich is vying for the starting spot under center with the Berlin Thunder.
And though these six are performing thousands of miles away from their NFL employers, they should know that Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy has taken notice. Dungy says that their fine collective showing in the early going comes as no surprise.
"We had some guys that we thought could play well if they got the chance," said Dungy. "Now we are getting to see them play and they are indeed doing well. That's what we wanted to see. They are getting a lot of playing time, and that's why they went over there. The negative is that they're not here, working in our program, but we feel that the pluses outweigh the minuses."
The Scottish Claymores, who have jumped out to a 2-0 start, feel the same way, as Stecker has provided a lot of plus yardage. After racking up 113 yards and two touchdowns, mostly on receptions, in the Claymores' opener, Stecker followed up last week with 72 rushing yards and six catches, including an eight-yard TD grab. The Claymores needed all of that to slip last the Frankfurt Galaxy, 17-14.
Freeman also contributed to a victory for his team, Berlin, snaring three passes for 29 yards as the Thunder overcame the Barcelona Dragons, 28-21. Stuckey posted four tackles to help the Amsterdam Admirals put out the Rhein Fire, 23-20 in overtime, despite six tackles and a pass defensed by Mallard, who started for Rhein.
Though reigning NFL MVP QB Kurt Warner's amazing breakout season in 1999 instantly made him the most famous NFLEL alum, the ranks of former Europe players who are going on to make a mark in the NFL continues to grow. That's partially because the NFLEL is attracting more and more talented NFL hopefuls.
"We definitely think it's a good sign when a player can go over there and succeed," said Dungy. "Sometimes, these are guys that have played and practiced well for you but just have had other good players in front of them. In some cases, they just haven't had an opportunity; in other cases, they just need experience or a change of position. The level of competition over there is getting better all the time, but we're not surprised that Aaron and the others are doing well."