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Steelers Steelers to use rookie kicker

Hartings, Farrior out; team signs linebacker

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Rookie kicker Jeff Reed willingly gave up an honest job of manual labor on a North Carolina farm yesterday to strap himself to the torturous rack they call Heinz Field.

Jeff Reed, a rookie kicker from North Carolina, has been signed to replace the injured Todd Peterson.

It couldn't have been the money.

"It's a new challenge," said Reed, who kicked for the University of North Carolina the past two years and spent the preseason kicking for the New Orleans Saints. "They say it's the toughest place to kick, so I might as well start there. It can only get better."

Todd Peterson and Kris Brown would tell him differently, but Reed voluntarily signed a two-year contract at minimum wage with the Steelers after he and three other kickers strutted their stuff at Heinz Field yesterday with Coach Bill Cowher in attendance.

To make room for him, the team placed Peterson on the injured reserve list with a broken rib. They also have a wave of injuries that forced them to make another roster move and might prompt one more before the week is out.

They signed linebacker Mike Jones, who spent last season with them after signing as a free agent from the St. Louis Rams. Jones, 33, cut by the Steelers June 3, played for Oakland until the Raiders recently cut him. They waived Dan O'Leary, a tight end/long snapper, to make room for Jones.

They had to sign Jones because starting inside linebacker James Farrior is out indefinitely with a sprained MCL in his knee. John Fiala will replace Farrior, and Jones will back up him and Kendrell Bell on the inside because rookie linebacker Larry Foote is listed as doubtful this week with a calf injury.

There is more.

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Starting center Jeff Hartings will have arthroscopic surgery on his injured knee, which caused him to miss two games and forced him out of the second half Sunday against Tennessee. Hartings also is out indefinitely, and Chukky Okobi will replace him.

In addition, safety Mike Logan, who plays in the dime defense, is out this week because of a groin injury. Usually, cornerback Hank Poteat would replace him, but he, too, is out with a knee injury, which is why the Steelers might make another roster move this week.

Their front door and the one to their training room were spinning yesterday.

"I might have been better off telling you who was healthy," Coach Bill Cowher said after listing all the injuries.

By placing Peterson on injured reserve, they freed up a roster spot without having to take a bigger salary-cap hit this year, which they would have done if they had cut him. It also keeps their options open with him for next season, although Cowher seemed at his wits end with his veteran kicker after he missed field goals from 37 and 31 yards Sunday. Apparently, Cowher did not consider kicking with a broken rib an excuse or it was merely the final straw on a poor season for Peterson, whose nine missed field-goal tries are the most in the league. He was 12 of 21.

Reed comes to town with impressive credentials from North Carolina, where he made the team as a walk-on and then had to wait until his junior season in 2000 to kick. He made 28 of 36 field-goal tries and 66 of 67 PATs for the Tar Heels. He made both tries for the Saints this summer from 29 and 28 yards, but they released him.

Since then, he has kicked regularly in the NFL, but not in games. He tried out eight times for seven teams, including Seattle twice.

"He has more air miles than most kickers in the league," said his agent, Don Henderson.

He kicked for Cowher yesterday along with veteran Michael Husted and youngsters Joe O'Donnell and Danny Boyd. They kicked PATs, 10 field goals from various distances at the open end of the field and two kickoffs, one each way.

"It was tough, it was tricky," O'Donnell said of the conditions at Heinz Field. "It was sandy, slippery."

In other words, normal game conditions there.

"It was interesting," Reed said. "I compared it to Giants Stadium, where I tried out. It's real sandy, it was slick. But it's a challenge; nothing you can't overcome."

That's what Peterson said, too, but now it's Reed's job, and, if he's successful, the Steelers will keep him next season as well. If he can't, who knows what they might do.

Their season is on the brink at 5-4-1. They lead the AFC North by half a game over Cleveland and play four of their final six games at Heinz Field.

For the moment at least, the Steelers are placing their hopes at the right foot of Reed, fresh off a North Carolina farm. He didn't live there, but he was running out of money while running all over the country displaying his wares for teams from Seattle to Jacksonville.

Steelers kicker Todd Peterson reacts as his 37-yard field goal attempt sails wide right. It was his second failed field goal of the day, the first was from 31 yards. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

"It was kind of depressing at first," Reed said, feeling like a traveling salesman knocking on doors without success. "I was told by my agent and people like John Carney, Richie Cunningham, older kickers, that you're going to play, it's just a matter of when. I just needed to hang in there."

Last week, he started a job helping a friend on a farm while living out of an apartment in Chapel Hill and helping out the UNC kickers as a volunteer coach.

"I was trying to get a little money to eat and help my girlfriend with the rent," Reed said.

He was playing soccer at East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte when friends convinced him to kick on the football team as a senior. He kicked a 54-yard field goal, the second-longest in North Carolina state history. At UNC, he kicked a 49-yarder.

"I used to represent Todd Peterson," said Henderson, Reed's agent. "I think Jeff's got more leg strength; he's a bigger, stronger kid. We've been looking forward to the right opportunity. Now we'll go to Pittsburgh and see what we can do to help win the division.

"He's not afraid to kick."

At least not yet. The house of kicking horrors that is Heinz Field awaits him, having added another notch to its belt.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.

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