Rashard Mendenhall Thinks He Can Dance
Move over, Lynn Swann. There’s a new Lord of the Dance in town. In fact, he’s throwing down such a mean moonwalk to Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" that you can almost hear Bengals wide-receiver-turned-failed "Dancing With the Stars" contestant Chad Ochocinco crying all the way from Cincinnati.
While Swann famously took ballet lessons in the 1970s to improve his signature balance and body control, current Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall spends the off-season cutting rugs.
Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I do salsa and Chicago stepping, which is a form of ballroom dancing," says Mendenhall. "I started taking classes when I got hurt during my rookie season."
In 2008, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis delivered a ferocious hit on Mendenhall that fractured his shoulder, ending his season in his first NFL start. It was a worst-case scenario-the kind of hit that can submarine a career before it really begins. Mendenhall watched the team’s Super Bowl XLIII celebration in street clothes, an afterthought.
"I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason," Mendenhall says. "I learned a lot being hurt, and now I’m fully healthy and ready to rock and roll."
Without the ability to lift weights, Mendenhall signed up for a dance class at Vella Dance Studio in Bridgeville to stay in shape. He was surrounded mostly by teenage girls, who proved to be formidable competition.
"It’s tough being 220 pounds and trying to keep up with dancers who are stick-thin," Mendenhall laughs. "I feel like it helps a lot with your body control-strengthening areas you wouldn’t normally strengthen. As a running back, you have to be limber."
In a profession beset by runaway machismo and outsized egos, Mendenhall cuts a distinctive figure. He doesn’t drink alcohol-never even had a drop. He spends his downtime reading poetry, mostly Langston Hughes.
For a first-round pick with unlimited potential, Mendenhall is inexplicably humble. Perhaps it’s because he knows how quickly life can change. Growing up in a single-parent family in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, life came at him fast.
"I remember Rashard stopped showing up to practice out of the blue," recalls Joe Galambos, Mendenhall’s fifth-grade coach. "I was worried, but then I found out he and his brother had to baby-sit his younger sister because his mother had to work. He had a lot of responsibility for a young man."
Despite commitments at home, Mendenhall grew to become one of the top football prospects in the state. He found a mentor in Galambos, who coached him through high school. "Financially we struggled, and coach would have us sell candy and stuff like that to afford equipment," Mendenhall recalls.
But after the highly touted running back’s sophomore year at Niles West High School, his mother, Sibyl, a youth minister and teacher’s aide, was unable to afford a new lease in Skokie. She planned to move the family to Chicago’s troubled South Side, but Rashard and his older brother, Walter, protested. They didn’t want to leave their friends and teammates. Fortunately, Galambos had a solution.
"My family decided that we had plenty of room in our home, so Rashard and his brother were able to come live with us," he says. "They were treated just the same as I treated my own two boys. There was never, ever one issue with anything-in school or after school."
"Without coach Joe, I may not be where I am today," Mendenhall says. "He helped me with things on and off the field."
When Mendenhall isn’t busy teaching dance workshops in his hometown in the off-season, he often visits Galambos. "Rashard’s just a regular guy who keeps the same old friends around him," says Galambos. "He’s just a very simple, unselfish, wonderful person to be around. I think his attitude rubs off on everyone he’s around."
For the sake of the Steelers’ locker room, let’s hope so.