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Stillers fans dream too much, too often

Saturday, August 05, 2000

Besides drinking themselves into a stupor before games, Stillers fans have another strange tradition. It's a tradition that started with Terry Hanratty three decades ago, continued through Jack Deloplaine, peaked with Pete Gonzalez, and lives on with Hank Fraley and Amos Zereoue today.

It's the tradition of rooting for the guy who won't play. Who shouldn't play. It's the tradition of dreaming the impossible dream on behalf of a minimal talent destined for practice squad duty while maligning the skills, integrity, off-the-field life and personal hygiene of those actually on the turf while the clock runs. "Hey, why not give that guy a chance? What do we have to lose?"

Well, more games. Dignity, too. Stillers fans would have thought it was cool if former Pitt quarterback Gonzalez had gotten a chance to play a few games. But those who know football would have laughed. Gonzalez was an undrafted free agent who started just one year in college. He has no pedigree. That's what Coach Bill Cowher thought. That's why he didn't play Gonzalez at all. Heck, the word is that Cowher didn't even want "Pistol Pete" on the team.

That's what the Indianapolis Colts thought, too. That's why Gonzalez lasted about 15 minutes in the Colts' camp this summer before getting cut. Hey, maybe the Steelers could pick him up again. I'm sure that's what the radio talk-show callers will suggest, anyway.

Fraley and Zereoue, meanwhile, are the new heroes of the talk-show denizens. Fraley's move to center for the preseason game against Miami tonight has sparked the belief that he is being groomed to succeed Dermontti Dawson at that position.

Me, I'd like to live in a fantasy world where a guy from Division I-AA Robert Morris College is the choice to take the place of a future Hall-of-Famer just a few weeks into his first training camp. I might yet win that Pulitzer. But the reality is that Fraley is at center tonight because all the regular centers are hurt and so Rich Tylski can get some repetitions at his usual position, guard, instead of subbing in the middle.

Fraley has given an excellent effort in camp. He might make the roster -- if the Steelers keep Fraley and cut, say, Chris Conrad, they save considerable money -- although the practice squad seems more likely. At any rate, Fraley's snaps will be few and far between, and his NFL career will be brief. Guys from I-AA college ball usually don't last long in the pros

But Stillers fans believe. They really think Fraley could be something special. If he makes the team but never plays, that belief will continue. He'll never prove that he isn't something special. Stillers fans will clamor for Fraley's insertion into the lineup.

Zereoue, meanwhile, had a good showing in the Steelers' preseason opener against Dallas. Fans immediately started heralding him as worthy of more playing time: "Amos can be half of a 1-2 outside-inside running punch, just like Erric Pegram was with Bam Morris! Amos can turn the corner! Amos is small, but he can run people over! Amos can fly! Amos can run way faster than Jerome!"

What Amos can't do, however, is practice. His effort on the practice field has been called into question.

But Stillers fans don't see that. Ergo, they don't know that. All they know is that Zereoue is fast, built like a minitank and runs well in the exhibitions. Throw in his vague local connection -- he played college ball at West Virginia -- and he's a logical darling of the Terrible Towel types.

Unlike Fraley, however, Zereoue has considerable skills and a long-term future if he ever decides to make football a 24-7 job mentally as well as physically. For now, though, he's buried on the depth chart behind Jerome Bettis and Richard Huntley. Barring injury, Zereoue won't see the field outside of special teams. He got one carry over the last 15 games of the 1999 season and might not top that this year.

Stillers fans don't understand that you practice your way into a starting job, that earning one based solely on how you play in exhibitions is next to impossible. They don't understand that stats racked up in the second half of early preseason games are meaningless because they're compiled against other team's bums. They don't understand that NFL teams have scouting down to a science, which means undrafted free agents are passed by every team because they aren't very good.

And they don't understand that Bill Cowher uses the players that, in his studied opinion, give the Steelers the best chance to win. Nothing else enters into it -- unless his son, Kordell, is involved.

I'm ready for a long season. I'm ready to hear the demands of the Stillers fans. "Hey, why not give that kid from Robert Morris a shot?" "The Bus is fat, put Amos in!" "Hey, the Stillers gotta get Pistol Pete back!" "What's Terry Hanratty doing these days?"

It's all good. It's part of the fun. In that vein, I'd like to wish Hank Fraley and Amos Zereoue the best of luck. For their sake, I'm hoping they never play. As long as they don't, they'll be popular.


Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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