RB Aaron Stecker's big performance against Minnesota may lead to more playing time in Green Bay, his hometown
Last year's trip to Green Bay made Aaron Stecker feel like a kid again.
Yes, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back was returning to his boyhood home, and the warm memories of childhood would make almost anyone feel young again. In this case, however, what Stecker was reliving was the longing he used to feel, when he could stare out of the bathroom window of his home and see the lights of Lambeau Field a mile and a half away.
Last year – as it was in that bathroom years ago – all Stecker could do was dream of playing in Lambeau.
This year's promises to be so much better.
Stecker's round trip to Green Bay has been a circuitous one. Though he started with just a quick hope over to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin, he then continued on to Western Illinois University, Chicago, Scotland and finally Tampa Bay. Though he originally dreamed of dashing out onto the Lambeau turf in green and gold, his Green Bay debut in pewter and red will be just as sweet.
"For me personally, last year I didn't get to go up there and play," said Stecker. "Now, I've got an opportunity. I get to play at Lambeau Field, the field I looked out of my window and saw and envisioned myself playing in one day. Hopefully, I can go out there and continue what I did last week. That would be a great accomplishment."
Indeed, the team's trip to Green Bay is perfectly timed for Stecker, who is coming off the biggest game of his brief NFL career. Last winter, when the Bucs finished their regular season with a Christmas Eve day game in Lambeau, Stecker was on the inactive list, having lost his kickoff return job to Karl Williams and the backup tailback job to Rabih Abdullah. His window of opportunity to be active on Sundays was a small one last year, just like his view of Lambeau as a kid was limited to that one room in the house.
After he piled up 81 combined rushing and receiving yards and one enormous touchdown last Sunday, however, Stecker's foothold on the 45-man active list seems much stronger. He may also get another shot at the kickoff return duties with rookie CB Dwight Smith likely to cede the job due to his ball-handling troubles. The only thing that would make Stecker's timing better would be if he could combine his trip home with the first kickoff return for a touchdown in Buccaneers history.
"It would be a dream come true," he said. "It would be a historical thing. It's something somebody would right in a story. Not a lot of people make it to the NFL coming from Green Bay, Wisconsin. A lot of times when I'm talking to people they really don't believe that I'm from up there. If I got an opportunity to go up there and get my first time (this season) returning the ball, that would be great. I'm looking forward to the challenge."
While it his work in the backfield that has Stecker back in the Bucs' immediate plans, it was a fine preseason returning kickoffs that first won him a job in the NFL in 2000. A few months into that first year, however, Stecker's return numbers began to drop, perhaps due to the fatigue of following a season in the NFL Europe League, with the Scottish Claymores, with another full football campaign. Given that he stayed in Florida this season to train and develop with the Buccaneers, he would love another opportunity back on kickoffs.
"I feel comfortable back there," said Stecker. "Last year, I had success early then later on in the season, I didn't have that much success. Like I've been saying, and I think the coaches have seen this year, my legs are fresher and I'm not as beat up as I was last year. I have a lot of confidence back there. I know if I get an opportunity to go back there I can make some things happen."
He has previously said the same thing about getting a shot at running back, and he backed up that notion against the Vikings with eight carries for 30 yards and two receptions for 51 yards, including a winding, 35-yard touchdown on a screen pass in the second quarter. Stecker's work as a runner came late in the game, with Mike Alstott done for the day in the Bucs' blowout, but he spent the entire game as the team's third-down back. That spot had opened up with the absence of Pro Bowler Warrick Dunn, who was recovering from a hamstring strain. Though Dunn is expected to play against Green Bay, his hamstring is probably not fully recovered, so Stecker will be standing by if necessary.
And, as long as past feelings are being relived, he'd love to recreate the emotion of that first NFL touchdown last week.
"It felt good," said Stecker. "I finally got an opportunity to go out there and it felt like what I thought I could do all along – just get an opportunity, go out there with confidence, have fun and produce a little bit. When I broke the first tackle, I saw the receivers in front of me and they did a heck of a job of blocking downfield. After I broke that first tackle, I just felt in my body that I was going to score and nothing was going to stop me from getting in."
Soft-spoken and quick to smile, Stecker is nonetheless a driven man. Though the Bears and Buccaneers first saw him as a practice squad back, he has pursued his dreams of playing in the NFL with fervor. Perhaps his biggest accomplishment on that path was making the active roster in 2000, or perhaps it was breaking out in a big way last Sunday. Still, it's likely that nothing will feel quite so much like the dreams of his youth as suiting up this coming weekend in Lambeau Field.
"It's just one of those things growing up," he said. "You envision yourself in that green-and-gold uniform, with everybody knowing who you are and knowing you're from that area, and scoring and stuff. I'm here in pewter, but it would be great to go up there and score a touchdown."