RB Aaron Stecker was back in Buccaneer colors on Wednesday after 11 weeks as a Claymore
Running back Aaron Stecker was virtually the last player off the field on Wednesday.
Tampa Bay celebrated one of the hottest days of the Florida summer so far with the first of three pre-camp workouts for the team's rookies and first-year players. After the formal part of the practice ended, most of the individual units split off for extra work specific to their positions. One by one, they broke up and trudged back into the team's mercifully air-conditioned locker room. As the running backs left the field, Stecker stayed back for a few minutes of post-practice stretching.
Perhaps he was savoring a few extra moments back on the Bucs' practice field. For most of 2000, Stecker has been not just out of state but out of the country, starring for the Scottish Claymores in the NFL Europe League. An undrafted free agent out of Western Illinois who was basically limited to a few weeks of practice work in 1999, Stecker was sent to Europe to get his feet wet again before his first full season in Tampa.
And, boy, did he. Stecker was named the NFLEL's Offensive Player of the Year after leading the league in rushing (774 yards) and also pacing the Claymores in receptions (36 catches). To say that Stecker made the most of an opportunity to play regularly would be an understatement. What he did, without lining up for a single practice snap with the Buccaneers all spring, was force himself into serious consideration for a roster spot. The flip side, of course, is that he has missed weeks of instruction in the team's new offense.
Does that make him feel like he's playing catch-up to his teammates? "Yeah, a little bit," said Stecker, "because these guys have been here for a long time putting the new system in place. I had to go over there and play, but I see it as a give-and-take. If I would have been here, I would have learned the system, yes, but I probably would have been just a practice guy in camp. I might not have gotten a real good look. With the opportunity they gave me over there, I tried to represent the Bucs and do the things I know I can do. Now I'm in a position where I'm coming in and people are going to look at me and let me compete for a job."
Stecker would probably be pleased to know that Tampa Bay Head Coach echoed those sentiments just a few minutes later.
"He has worked very hard," said Dungy. "From what we saw at the end of the season last year on the developmental squad, I think he has taken it up another notch. The fact that he's gone over there and achieved will make people look at him in a different light, so it's good. The negative is that he didn't have 10 weeks to work on the offense and know what's going on, but I think we'll be able to overcome that."
Stecker's first order of business upon returning to the states a few weeks ago was to schedule a little rest. The NFLEL season runs 10 games, and Stecker's Claymores added an 11th week by playing in the league's championship game. The NFL preseason that is just around the corner will feel more like the regular-season stretch drive to Stecker.
"I just got back into Tampa yesterday," he said. "My home is in Wisconsin, and I've just been there trying to rest. I'm going right back into another season. When we get through these four pre-season games, I'm already going to have 15 games under my belt, and that's almost a regular season. So I was just trying to rest and do a little bit of working out."
Of course, another way to put that is to say that he is already in midseason form, which could actually work to his advantage. "I'm in game shape – I played 11 games," he said. "The other guys here are going to be more in 'running' shape. When there legs start to die down, I'm going to know how they feel. Now it's just a mind thing – I just have to understand the system and try to learn as quickly as possible and get in there and make some things happen. It's just like cramming for a final exam. That's how I'm taking it. I wish I would have been here to study, but something good came up. I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world, but now I've got to take care of business here. I've always stepped up to the plate when I was called upon, so I have no doubt in my ability to do it here.
"They gave me an opportunity (in Europe) to showcase everything I'm capable of doing. I know here I'm going to have to do some special teams work and that's going to help me make the team. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get out here and perform and make this roster."
Playing in the NFLEL also gave Stecker the opportunity to see things that he might not have otherwise encountered. "I went to Loch Ness and went up into the Highlands," said Stecker, of his off-day excursions in Scotland. "You take a ride through these narrow roads…mountains and grass. It was just beautiful, untouched land. It was something I haven't seen in the United States."
He certainly won't find any highlands in Tampa, but that's not what has brought him to Florida's West Coast. Of all that Stecker found in Scotland, the only thing he wants to match in Tampa is the opportunity.