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Stephens-Howling still defying odds

| Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012, 10:30 p.m.
Minnesota Vikings outside linebacker Chad Greenway, right, tackles Arizona Cardinals running back LaRod Stephens-Howling (36) in the second half in Minneapolis on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012.

TEMPE, Ariz. — LaRod Stephens-Howling doesn't mind if fans call him “The Hyphen.” He realizes his real name is a bit cumbersome. He has trouble with it himself.

There's never enough room on documents, he says, to sign his name. The back of his jersey is a bit crowded with letters, too.

He was for most his life LaRod Stephens, but when his parents eventually got married, he decided to add his father's last name but keep his mother's maiden name, too.

Whatever they call him, fans of the Arizona Cardinals, and now the Minnesota Vikings, know this guy is no pint-sized pushover. Against the Vikings on Sunday, he was a power back in miniature, scampering and sometimes plowing his way to a career-best 104 yards in 20 carries and catching five passes for another 45 yards in the Cardinals' 21-14 loss.

It's another triumph for the former Pitt running back in a life of overcoming all those who told him he was just too small for football.

“The first thing you have to do is believe, you have to believe in yourself,” he said after the team practiced Tuesday.

He has been overachieving so long that the term probably no longer applies.

At Greater Johnstown High School, he rushed for a school-record 4,597 yards, averaging 8.9 yards per carry. Off the field, he was a member of the National Honor Society, Who's Who Among American High School Students and the Minority Scholars Club.

At Pitt, he started as a freshman and sophomore only to lose that job when LeSean McCoy, now a star with the Philadelphia Eagles, arrived on campus.

“It wasn't an easy time,” Stephens-Howling said, “but I had the right people, the right support system, making sure I stayed on track and stayed on course.”

A backup running back at Pitt, especially one who stands 5-foot-7, didn't get a lot of attention from the pros. But Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt and his scouts knew about him and made him the team's seventh-round pick in the 2009 draft, the 240th player chosen overall.

From the beginning, he was impossible to keep off the roster. As a rookie, Stephens-Howling appeared in all 16 games, catching a TD pass from Kurt Warner and returning a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. His role grew over the next two seasons.

Entering this year, he was a goal-line back and Whisenhunt planned to use him in certain offensive sets to take advantage of his skills while minimizing the impact of his size. He also was to return kickoffs.

But when running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams both went down with injuries, the job fell to Stephens-Howling. There was widespread panic among the Cardinals faithful, but not within the team, quarterback John Skelton said.

“I have so much respect for him and what he does,” Skelton said. “He has probably stepped up the most with some of the injuries that we've had and all the outside critics saying ‘Who's the running back, who are you going to start?' I think, in house, we never had any doubt in LaRod and his abilities.”

Strangely, Arizona's running game was stuck in the mud with Wells and Williams but got in gear first with William Powell getting most of the carries against Buffalo two weeks ago, then last week with Stephens-Howling, who has finally recovered from a nagging hip injury.

He appreciates getting to where he is the hard way, with so many doubting a small man could make it in this big man's game.

“I'm actually just that much more gratifying that it's working out this way,” Stephens-Howling said. “Nothing was handed to me. I've definitely worked hard work and it means a lot more when it's paying off.”

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