Kevin Gorman: Pine-Richland’s Kevin Rader again facing long odds with Steelers
Signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers was a “dream come true” for Kevin Rader, a first-year tight end from Pine-Richland and Youngstown State — except for one small detail.
Rader didn’t dare to dream it.
“I never saw it coming,” Rader said Wednesday at training camp at Saint Vincent. “I love the fact that they wanted me. … I come back and I get to play for the team that I’ve been watching all my life. It’s an awesome experience.”
To say the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Rader is the dark horse in the tight end competition is a bit of an understatement. Rader is behind starter Vance McDonald, backup Xavier Grimble and fifth-round draft pick Zach Gentry and competing with fellow undrafted free agent Trevor Wood for a spot on the 53-man roster.
But Rader has overcome long odds before, given he wasn’t even the starting tight end at Pine-Richland. Heck, he wasn’t even a full-blown tight end until college. Rader weighed 200 pounds, so he played wide receiver and defensive end until his senior season.
“He had a very specific role,” said Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz, who was the Rams offensive coordinator when Rader played there. “He had the height, the long arms, big frame. You knew if he developed physically, he’d have a shot.”
Rader is embracing his long-shot status. He isn’t just trying to make the Steelers. He’s trying to become the first Pine-Richland alum to play in the NFL. The school has produced pro athletes in Neil Walker (MLB), Brandon Saad (NHL) and Meghan Klingenberg (NWSL and U.S. women’s soccer national team) but the closest to come to playing pro football was former Virginia and IUP quarterback Kevin McCabe, who signed with the Steelers in April 2009 but was released before training camp and eventually played for the Pittsburgh Power of the Arena Football League.
“It’s cool for the program,” said Kasperowicz, who has asked Rader to speak with his team. “There’s one position in the NFL that’s paramount, and that’s the hybrid tight end. That’s a hot thing right now, so he’s in a really good situation.”
Rader came on the NFL radar as a junior at Youngstown State, after Bo Pelini became head coach and brought Joe Ganz from Nebraska to coach the tight ends. That’s when Rader, a former walk-on, increased his diet to 8,000 calories a day to gain weight by eating protein-laden meals every three hours.
Although Rader only had 17 catches for 285 yards and two touchdowns, one of them was worthy of SportsCenter’s No. 1 play: On the final play of the FCS semifinal against Eastern Washington, he pinned a pass against the back shoulder of a defensive back in the end zone for a touchdown to send the Penguins to the national championship game.
Kevin Rader what a catch!! pic.twitter.com/dcnqxobl3s
— YSU Football (@YoungstownStFB) December 18, 2016
“That definitely helped me,” Rader said. “No one really knew Youngstown State. That win put us on the map.”
Rader went to camp with the Green Bay Packers last summer but didn’t make the cut. Near the end of the 2018 season, he was talking to the Cleveland Browns. But the Steelers asked him to come in for a workout the Wednesday after their season finale against Cincinnati and signed him on the spot.
“When I first got here and got the helmet is when it hit me,” Rader said of playing for the Steelers, “when I actually saw it and saw the uniform and put it on.”
Wearing it for the preseason opener against Tampa Bay at Heinz Field — where he previously played twice against Pitt — was a thrill for Rader. He had a highlight and lowlight on the same play late in the fourth quarter, catching a 10-yard pass from Devlin Hodges to the Tampa Bay 41 before fumbling for a turnover.
What the Steelers like most about Rader is his blocking ability. That’s what sets him apart from Gentry. Rader hopes to show enough consistency and versatility on special teams to make the 53-man roster or, at least, earn a spot on the practice squad. He’s a long shot, but he’s already beaten longer odds.
“The third tight end, you’ve got to be versatile to fill that gap where they need you for that certain play,” Rader said. “Also on special teams, you’ve got to be able to run down the field, making blocks and making tackles. I think the strength for me is my run blocking, my physicality. At that point, it’s executing when you get your chance.”
Rader knows all about making the most of his chances, even if they exceeded his wildest dreams.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .