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Starkey: Forgotten Steeler still watches from afar

| Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011

Larry Zierlein is not a man given to hyperbole. The former Steelers offensive line coach, a Vietnam veteran, values actions above words and loyalty above all.

Maybe that is why Zierlein uncharacteristically opened up when I inquired about a forgotten Steeler named Darnell Stapleton.

Remember him• Stapleton, then 23, was the Steelers' starting right guard in the four-part epic known as Super Bowl XLIII. Which means he was an integral part of one of the great drives in NFL history.

Look hard enough, and you can see Stapleton, No. 72, celebrating in the background after Santonio Holmes' miraculous catch. Stapleton blocked Gabe Watson on the play -- and never played another NFL down, save for the kneel-down to close the game.

Degenerative arthritis in his knees forced Stapleton to retire at the ripe, young age of 24. He never even lined up for a preseason game after the Super Bowl.

This seemed like an appropriate week to track him down, seeing as the Steelers and Cardinals play today for the first time since the night of Feb. 1, 2009.

But first, I wanted to hear from Zierlein. He liked Stapleton when the latter was a brawling center at Rutgers, opening holes for Ray Rice. The Steelers signed Stapleton as an undrafted free agent in 2007. His versatility helped him make the team, and early in 2008 he replaced an injured Kendall Simmons at right guard.

The Steelers ran through a meat-grinder schedule and finally won the Super Bowl on a legendary 78-yard drive.

I emailed Zierlein for a comment about Stapleton, expecting to receive maybe a few sentences in return.

Instead, I got a goose bump-raising, 500-word essay. Here's part of it:

Darnell was great at identifying defenses. He could play both guard positions and center. He made up for a lack of great size and strength by being an outstanding technician. He was highly respected in the OL meeting room. He was physically and mentally tough. The knee problem which ended his career was bothering him in 2008 and in the Super Bowl but he never complained and never missed a snap. ... I will never forget the double-team block he and Willie Colon made on San Diego defensive lineman Jamal Williams on the one-back power play. Jamal was a big strong guy and he was trying to anchor down but Darnell and Willie drove him about 5 yards straight back with Jamal's feet digging a furrow in the turf.

Stapleton misses the thrill of executing a perfect block. He'll sometimes find himself, alone in his basement, watching a Steelers game and calling the plays. Just last week he went on YouTube to watch the Super Bowl drive.

But don't mistake him for a bitter, disillusioned ex-athlete.

To the contrary, Stapleton's life in Hackettstown, N.J. -- home of the M&M -- is pretty sweet. He is an assistant coach at Montclair (N.J.) Academy and head coach of the New York Sharks of the Women's Professional Football Alliance. He put his degree in business management to use by forming a web-design company.

Though his knees were cursed, Stapleton focuses on his blessings. He spent the 2009 season on injured reserve and then became a free agent. He remembers driving home from his last tryout, with the New England Patriots in August 2010. His knees were swollen to the size of softballs.

"In my head, I was like, 'I want to be able to walk, to someday have kids, to run around with them and not be confined,' " Stapleton says. "I experienced things a lot of people haven't and probably won't. I guess I just came to a place where I said, 'I'll take what is given to me and accept it and continue with life.' "

Life stops on Steeler Sundays. Stapleton watches their games in a man cave adorned with yellow walls and a black couch, under a photo of himself and Mean Joe Greene on the White House lawn. His Super Bowl ring sits inside a safe, his game-worn Super Bowl jersey inside a frame.

"It was never washed," Stapleton says, laughing. "You can smell it through the glass."

Last month, Stapleton returned to town to celebrate his 26th birthday with Colon -- the same man he was seated next to when Larry Fitzgerald scored the Cardinals' go-ahead touchdown late in Super Bowl XLIII.

"I remember it like clockwork," Stapleton says. "We just looked at each other like, 'You gotta be (kidding) me.' Then we just went to work. Everybody criticized the line that year, but when times were tough and we needed to get things done, we stood up -- and Ben made a helluva throw at the end."

Stapleton undoubtedly will think of that throw today, as he is watching Steelers-Cardinals in the basement of his New Jersey home.

He helped make it happen.

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