Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Hoping to Catch on Small-College Players Know the Odds, but That Doesn't Diminish the Dream

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Hoping to Catch on Small-College Players Know the Odds, but That Doesn't Diminish the Dream

Article excerpt

It was the helmet.

For Andre Freeman, a kid from Penn Hills who grew up worshiping the Steelers, who toiled his way to a standout career in the small- school ranks of NCAA Division II football at Slippery Rock, who got a last-minute call last month for a tryout for his hometown NFL team -- on his birthday no less -- it wasn't until he actually held the black helmet in his hands that he knew he had a one-shot opportunity that might change the course of his life.

"They called me and asked, 'Are you in shape?' I said 'Yes.' They said 'Come in tomorrow. If we like you, we're gonna sign you. If not, we're gonna let you go.' I came in the next day, determined to give it everything I got. When I walked into the facility and went into the equipment room, I was like wow ...

"I customized my own helmet. Like it was a video game. They gave me a brand-new helmet. I picked the inside. I picked the facemask -- then I got my Steeler logo. I thought, 'I really got it on here' -- I'm here."

The Steelers liked what they saw during Freeman's tryout, signing him as an undrafted rookie free agent.

But he faces the decidedly uphill -- though not impossible -- task to actually make the team.

Consider that the Steelers have made 162 picks since the NFL moved to its current seven-round draft format in 1994.

Only two of them -- Ricardo Colclough from Tusculum in 2004 and Israel Raybon from North Alabama in 1996 -- have come from Division II. In 2012, only six were drafted league-wide.

Some Steelers greats have emerged from Division II. Linebacker Greg Lloyd was a fifth-round pick in 1987 from Fort Valley State in Georgia.

Hall of Famer John Stallworth and Donnie Shell played in the 1970s at historically black southern colleges that have since been promoted to college football's FCS classification (formerly Division I-AA).

There have been occasional others through the years, but running back Isaac Redman was the only player on the Steelers' 2011 roster from a Division II school -- Bowie State in Maryland.

An undrafted free agent in 2009, Redman famously turned heads with a battering ram performance during goal-line drills in his rookie training camp.

Coach Mike Tomlin recently asked Redman to relay his long shot experience to the new rookies.

"I just told them when you get here, don't let anybody tell you what you can do as far as this team, and don't do the number game, counting how many people are at your position." Redman said.

"[If] you come in here and work hard and if you're able to play, [this] is one team that's going to play you -- don't matter if you're a free agent, seventh-round draft pick or first-round draft pick. If you can't play, they'll get you out of here, and if you can play, they'll keep you."

Freeman isn't alone. Defensive lineman Ikponwmosa "Ike" Igbinosun of Southern Connecticut State is also trying to crack the roster. …

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