RB Aaron Stecker hopes fresh legs from a less active offseason will help him get off the ground quicker in 2001
Aaron Stecker, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second-year running back, did not get an opportunity to defend his NFL Europe rushing title, but he is working on protecting something even more important to him: his spot in the National Football League.
With the 2001 World Bowl approaching this Saturday, Stecker can look back fondly at the NFLEL's 2000 championship game without regrets over being stateside this June. Though his breakout 2000 spring season, in which he led the NFLEL with 774 rushing yards and 1050 total yards, helped springboard him onto the Bucs' final roster last fall, Stecker believes an offseason at home will give him an even better shot at the NFL in 2001.
"I think I'm going to have a better season this year," he said. "I think the coaches are expecting a lot out of me, especially in the return game. I think they understood that I played two full seasons last year and my body just got beat up. It wasn't that I was out of shape, it's just that most athletes don't go through two seasons in a row. I carried the ball almost two hundred times (in the NFLEL) and took a beating, so I was just happy that they gave me an opportunity last year."
Stecker lapped the rest of the NFLEL field last fall (the number two man on the league's rushing chart, Pepe Pearson, had 486 rushing yards) by carrying the ball 176 times in 10 games. Like many NFL-allocated players in the Europe circuit, he came back to his home team with renewed confidence but a little extra wear on the tires. His success story continued when he made the Bucs' 53-man roster and won the kickoff return job to start the season, but he was inactive for six of the team's last eight games and finished with a decent but not overwhelming 22.9 yards per runback.
This time around, Stecker has participated in the Bucs' offseason conditioning program and the voluntary and mandatory camps and thinks this more standard approach will yield better results.
"I'm getting myself in shape now and hopefully when the season comes I'll be better rested," he said. "Hopefully, I'll produce better in the return game than I did last year."
Stecker said this on a hot weekday morning, leaving the Bucs' practice field after a running and conditioning session with Strength and Conditioning Coach Mark Asanovich and about 30 of Stecker's Buc teammates. Last year at this time, his mid-week practices were invariably followed by press conferences, as his Scottish Claymores prepared to do battle with the Rhein Fire for the NFLEL championship. Rhein eventually won a close-fought game, 13-10, but Stecker did walk off with league Offensive MVP honors.
This year, the two teams set to face off in the World Bowl are the 8-2 Barcelona Dragons and the 6-4 Berlin Thunder. The game will be televised live on Fox, beginning at noon, U.S. Eastern Time, and Stecker might take the time to tune in. He has kept up on the league this year to see which players would emerge in the manner he did last spring.
"I've watched a few games," he said. "I know a couple of guys over there and I wanted to see how they were doing. After the type of success I had last year, I wanted to see if my friends were doing well. Last year, when I told people I was going over there, some of them asked me why I would do that. Now you find some of those same guys going over there. I pay attention to the league because I just want to see what guys are coming out of there this year. Every year, a guy out there is going to turn into a star in the NFL, so I'm keeping track of what's going on
"I also wanted to see how the league has progressed. I think the league's probably a little better this year because there are more allocated players than in the past. If you get more guys over there from NFL teams, the level of play is probably a little better."
Stecker doesn't necessarily have enough information on hand to predict a winner – though he seems to favor the Dragons – but he does expect a well-played game with the league's best talent on display.
"Barcelona's tough," said Stecker. "I know a couple guys on that team, mainly (wide receiver) Tony Simmons. We played together at Washington. I think he was a second-round pick and after three so-so seasons he went over there and has done some good things. He hasn't had much coming his way the last three games, but I want to see him in the World Bowl because that's the game where everybody really shows their talent. You get hyped up for it and prepare hard for it, and it's a lot of fun."
There's no hype surrounding Stecker's workouts this June, though he obviously doesn't mind. No reporters are on the premises at One Buc Place this morning, only a porch full of workout equipment and palm trees swaying in the slight breeze beyond the fence. Sweat is streaming freely down Stecker's face, and he's tired from the morning session, but not really tired. He's got fresh legs, and that's even better than the brimming confidence with which he came back from Europe last summer.
"I still have the same amount of confidence," he said. "I know I can play and I did it over in the World League. Actually, I think I have more confidence now because last year, even though I was confident I was going to make the team, every day when I woke up it was in the back of my mind: I'm tired. I had to ask myself, 'How bad do you want this? Now go out there and get it done.' Now, I've had an offseason to rest and get in shape, and I should be that much better."