Running back James Starks has become the Green Bay Packers' most unlikely hero for a team that has battled injuries and inconsistency and really has never been whole the entire season.
There were several people suggested to replace Ryan Grant, and James Starks found himself very far down that list.
Yet, here he is, the starting running back for the NFC champions.
Starks has become the Green Bay Packers' most unlikely hero for a team that has battled injuries and inconsistency and really has never been whole the entire season.
In the NFC wild card victory over Philadelphia, Starks rushed for 123 yards, and he had a touchdown in the conference championship game against Chicago. After running for only 101 yards in three games during the regular season, Starks has rushed for 263 yards in three playoff victories for the Packers.
Since Grant went down with a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1, the Packers have been rumored to be in the market for trades, pulling unemployed running backs off the scrap heap, or simply relying on whoever they had on the roster.
The Packers have been stuck with the latter and although the running game has been a weakness for the offense all season, Starks has provided a lift and made the offense more versatile.
"If I see a hole, I'll hit it," Starks said. "If I can make a person miss, I will try my hardest to do what I can.
"I'm just running. The first hole I see, I'm gone."
What has made Starks such an improbable impact player is how his NFL career got started.
After leading the University of Buffalo to the school's first Mid-American Conference Championship in his junior year, Starks suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the spring before his senior year. Starks needed surgery and even saw his draft stock plummet.
"I started practicing again and it was painful," Starks recalled. "I tried to go through a couple of weeks of practice like that, but it was just too painful."
In the MAC Championship game, Starks won it with a 25-yard touchdown run on the first play of overtime. The win also clinched a berth in the International Bowl, which they lost to Connecticut in Toronto.
Starks was teammates at Buffalo with current Bills wide receiver Naaman Roosevelt.
Green Bay took a chance on Starks in the 6th round despite him missing an entire year of football.
"Basically, that is why I went (to Buffalo)," Starks said. "Everybody doubted and said, 'If you go there, you aren't going to do this, you aren't going to do that.' All right, thats what pushed me to go there, and I am happy to be a part of the University of Buffalo."
Starks said he received many calls from his friends and former classmates from back home, and he is proud to represent his hometown of Niagara Falls in the Super Bowl.
"It is an excellent feeling," said Starks. "I am happy to be here and I am enjoying the moment."
Starks did not get his first NFL carry until Week 13 against San Francisco, rushing for 73 yards on 18 carries in a 34-16 win.
"I just had the will to come back, no matter what," Starks said. "That was my goal, to have another opportunity.
"It seemed like a century sitting there. I was there as much as I could be. It was frustrating sometimes."
Starks' patience paid off as he found himself making a difference in a close playoff win in Philadelphia that has helped catapult the Packers into the Super Bowl.
"All you can do is be ready," said Starks. "That is what I am doing and that is what I did, just wait for my opportunity and when it arrives, I try to make the best of it."
Now, the biggest challenge of his young career awaits, trying to run against the stingiest run defense in the NFL. Pittsburgh allowed only 62.8 yards rushing per game this season, nearly 28 less than the second-best run defense (Chicago).
"It's going to be a war out there," Starks said. "It's going to be fun to watch."
With Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and receivers like Greg Jennings and Donald Drive, the Packers, as currently constructed, are a passing team and that is how they will try to beat the Steelers.
"He's given us a little more balance," said Rodgers. "Dramatically is too big of a word, but he's given us a little more balance. The last two games his average has been lower, but he gives us a little more of a threat to run the football because he has had a little success."
During the regular season, the Packers were the fifth-best passing team but averaged barely more than 100 yards per game (24th in the NFL).
Brandon Jackson led the team in rushing with only 703 yards, but has seen a reduced role in the postseason due to emergence of Starks. However, being a blocker has suited Jackson pretty well.
"My job is the dirty work," said Jackson. "Most of it doesn't go down in the stat book. Sometimes it gets overlooked.
"I take pride in what I do. Every opportunity I get to protect (Rodgers), I do it with heart and passion."
Whether it's Jackson or Starks, the Packers hope their new found versatility on offense will mean a Super Bowl championship.
Paul Jannace writes for the Wellsvile (N.Y.) Daily Reporter.