PITTSBURGH -- R. J. Bowers can consider himself a real NFL player now. If the hard-hitting tackles he has taken the last three weekends as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't do it, then the media crush following the Steelers' victory over the Cleveland Browns Sunday surely did.
Bowers, the rookie running back from West Middlesex and Grove City College, entered the game after starter Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala suffered a groin injury, rushing for 67 yards on 11 carries and scoring a touchdown, all in the second half.
Afterwards, he had as large a contingent of reporters around his locker as any player in the Steelers' dressing room.
"All I thought was, 'Just run and don't let 'em catch you from behind,' " he laughed about his scoring run, a 21-yard dash in the fourth quarter. "I saw the goal like getting closer, but the faster I tried to go the slower I went because I kept sticking my feet deeper in the turf."
Learning process: Bowers explained that the TD run was another example of his continual learning process as a professional football player.
"The more experience you get the easier it's going to get, the more calm you're going to be," he said. "The first game I got in there against Detroit [on Dec. 23] everything just was going so fast and [Sunday] I was able to slow it down a little bit and just see the holes a lot better and read things a lot better."
Bowers said on the play in which he scored his touchdown he is to follow the lineman's blocking scheme against the linebackers, but noticed as he ran laterally to the line of scrimmage a cutback lane opened.
"I felt I was very prepared, obviously I studied all my assignments very well," he said. "The more you get in there the more you learn, the more patience you show.
"It's a great thrill, just nice to get in there and mix it up a little bit."
Bowers, of course, is not a typical NFL rookie, regardless of what parameters one might go by.
Old rookie: He is 27-years old, having played minor league baseball for six years after graduating from West Middlesex High in 1992. He spurned a Division I football scholarship offer to do so, but entered Grove City, where in four years (1997-2000) he established eight NCAA all-divisions rushing and scoring records and 11 Div. III marks.
His 7,353 career yards and 562 career points are among those all-division standards.
Bowers signed a free agent contract with the Carolina Panthers following the NFL Draft, but was released near the end of training camp. He signed with the Steelers on Sept. 3 and was assigned to the practice squad until being activated Dec. 21. He played two days later against the Lions, rushing seven times for 17 yards.
He talks daily with Jerome Bettis, the acknowledged leader of the Steelers' backfield corps, Amos Zereoue and Fuamatu-Ma'afala.
"They've been great all year," he said. "From day one I got here they've been very, very helpful. We're a close-knit group, and as a team we're a close-knit team and that's what's going to help us down the stretch."
He noted that West Middlesex has a lot of Browns fans but he won't make a point to return home to crow.
"[Sunday's win is] very big, not, I won't say [for] bragging rights, but for the Cleveland fans, they really won't have anything to say," he said. "If we were to lose to them then I would never hear the end of it. I just do my business, keep my mouth shut, because you never know, it could always come back and haunt you sometime."
Future uncertain: And that's the way Bowers is approaching his playing career. He just works hard, listens as much as he can to the veterans and lets the chips fall where they may. He hasn't been told if he'll remain activated for the postseason.
"I've done everything I can do and hopefully I'll stay, but there's nothing I can do about it. I'll just continue to give them a good look."
XRob Todor is sports editor of The Vindicator. Write to him at email@example.com.