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Stephens released

Out-of-shape lineman angers Cowher when he fails to complete running test

Saturday, July 31, 1999

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Tackle Jamain Stephens' performance never matched his talent level, but it was his inability to finish a simple camp-opening running test that finally caused the Steelers to lose patience with him.

 
Steelers offensive tackle Jamain Stephens, middle, struggles through the traditional running drills Bill Cowher uses to open camp each summer. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette) 

The Steelers last night released their first-round draft choice from 1996, hours after he quit from exhaustion during a set of 40-yard dashes.

"While there were several factors involved in Jamain's release," Cowher said in the statement released by the club, "it was obvious he lacked the commitment to compete in this camp. I had no choice but to release him.

"Our expectations are to win a championship, and we will be committed to achieving that goal."

Cowher was unavailable for comment last night.

The huge offensive tackle, who started 10 games last season because of injuries and was listed as the starting right tackle entering camp, was so out of shape that he nearly collapsed on the 11th of 14 scheduled 40-yard runs. He was the only player who failed to complete them in an individual performance one scout called embarrassing.

Stephens, who paced his group in similar drills to open camp last summer, sat down after the 11th run. After his teammates gathered around him and urged him to continue, he got up and barely walked through two other 40-yarders with their encouragement, all the while ignoring Cowher's shouts of "everyone up," signaling the end of practice.

"He certainly isn't anywhere near where he was a year ago," Cowher said after practice. "So, that was very disappointing."

Stephens is listed on the roster as 6-5, 330 pounds but looks much heavier.

 
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Cowher and Donahoe met last evening and decided to cut their losses with Stephens, who was schedueld to make a salary of $801,500.

He had underperformed so much in his previous three seasons that they thought seriously about cutting him in June. But, with an opening at right tackle, they decided to give him one more chance to see if he could win the job he could not land in training camp last season.

They were not happy with his reporting condition, and he confirmed their fears with his pathetic peformance in 92-degree heat. Afterward, he was complaining about a sore back.

It was particularly disturbing to Cowher because Stephens had a chance to win the starting job at right tackle and because the team is trying to bounce back from a 7-9 season. Stephens had also proved last season that he would come to camp in shape.

With many players vowing to prove last season was a fluke, Cowher was pleased with most of their runs in a test that traditionally has opened training camp since he became coach in 1992. But Stephens' performance -- played out in front of a group of fans and media at St. Vincent -- stole the show.

Stephens also had trouble completing the runs in 1997, collapsing on the field, which provoked linebacker Greg Lloyd to waive a white towel over him.

But Stephens, involved in a training camp duel for the right tackle job last year, ran well last summer.

Yesterday, he cheated in the early runs by leaving early and Cowher called him on it. Near the end, it appeared he might pass out.

As he sat on a water cooler, his teammates gathered around him and urged him to finish. Cowher shouted "everyone up," the signal for players to gather around the coach to hear some final words before practice ends. But a handful of teammates crowded around Stephens to urge him to finish.

Jerome Bettis ran over to remind them "let's go, everyone up," but they stayed with Stephens, who eventually walked through one more "run" before he called it an afternoon.

"You know what, that's our football team," Cowher said after the players ignored his orders.

"It's a very close football team. It's a team where guys pull for one another. I had no problem with that whatsoever. That's what you want in a team is that type of camaraderie and that type of leadership. We're in this thing together and our players understand that and they're out to prove something this year and I think you saw a little of that today the way they competed."

The only thing Stephens proved was that he no longer would have a spot here.

The Steelers drafted him with the 29th pick in the first round in 1996 from North Carolina A&T, where he played defense until midway through his junior year. At the time, team officials said he likely would play little his first year. He started just one game in 1997.

With the starting job at right tackle wide open last summer, he could not nail it down and Cowher made wholesale changes in the offensive line just before the season because of it. Eventually, he started 10 games at right tackle because of injuries to Justin Strzelczyk but his play did not impress team officials, although he did play well in one game against Green Bay legend Reggie White.

In the spring, they signed Anthony Brown as a free agent to play right tackle and to compete with Stephens and Chris Conrad for the job.

A debate ensued whether to cut Stephens in June and save his $801,500 salary this season. They decided to bring him to training camp instead.

Yesterday, they regretted that decision after his aborted run.

"To me, it's a great indicator," Cowher said immediately afterward. "It's an indicator of where people are. It's an indicator of the preparation that's been done prior to getting here, and it's an indicator of where you need to be."

Safety Lee Flowers said Stephens' teammates urged him on because "we're going to run as a team, we're going to die as a team.

"We were just trying to help a guy out. He made it. The whole thing is it's not what times you make as long as you finish and he finished, and that's the most important thing."

Linebacker Levon Kirkland looked at reporters and said, "You guys are down on him; he's got to know his teammates are behind him."

Others -- including big linemen, rookies and 37-year-old lineman Jim Sweeney -- had few problems finishing the scheduled run. Rookie Scott Shields, the No. 2 pick, did not get to training camp until 3 a.m. yesterday because of a late contract agreement and a flight from San Diego, but led his group in the running drills 11 hours later.

"Everybody except for one person actually finished the running," Cowher noted. "Considering the conditions I was very pleased overall with everybody."



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