It was a long journey for Andy Studebaker. Starting 2 yards deep in his end zone, the Kansas City Chiefs’ outside linebacker chugged and churned until finally being brought down at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 8-yard line.
Immediately, he was swarmed by teammates following his pivotal interception and return on Nov. 22 at Kansas City.
“You’re going on adrenalin during the run and when you’re down, you realize how winded you are,” Studebaker said. “Everybody is chest bumping me and I’m like, ‘Where’s the sideline? I need to sit down.’ ”
If Studebaker was breathless, even momentarily, who can blame him? It has been a breathtaking three weeks for the second-year pro out of Congerville, population 500.
A knee injury to veteran Mike Vrabel during a Nov. 15 win against Oakland thrust Studebaker into action. Studebaker started the next week, contributing five tackles and two interceptions in a 27-24 upset of Pittsburgh. He also started this past week in a 37-7 loss at San Diego, making five solo tackles.
With Vrabel on the mend and practicing again, Studebaker’s role for Sunday’s game against Denver is uncertain. He could be back to playing only on special teams, where he has seven tackles.
If so, “You will not hear any complaints from this corner,” he said.
That is the beauty of Studebaker’s story. He loves and appreciates every second, whether he’s picking off Ben Roethlisberger passes or bearing down on a punt returner.
The first player from Eureka High School and Division III Wheaton College to make an opening-day NFL roster, he is carrying the torch for the little guy, though at 6-foot-3 and 248 pounds he is so chiseled, Chiefs’ coach Todd Haley calls him “Venice Beach.”
“I’ve been getting calls from guys I played with and coaches I played for,” Studebaker said. “Everybody is excited and I know a lot of people back home are watching.
“I feel blessed to represent our little area and our college team. It’s sunk in a little bit, but you get time to reflect on the season after it’s over. It just keeps moving and moving. You have to show up for work and keep going.”
It is easy to root for Studebaker. Drafted in the sixth round last year by Philadelphia, he was signed by Kansas City off of the Eagles’ practice squad in November 2008.
He played sparingly in six games (two tackles) and had to prove himself this year when Haley took over as head coach.
Studebaker watched and learned from Vrabel, a 13-year veteran who came to the Chiefs from New England in an offseason trade. When Vrabel was injured, Studebaker was ready, even with his first start coming against the Super Bowl champion Steelers.
“I knew there was a lot riding on that game,” he said. “You don’t want to lay an egg in your first start. There were some butterflies going.
“But once the game starts, you realize these are just football players. Plays start happening and you realize, ‘This is the reason we practice. I’ve seen these plays. I’ve watched film and I know what they’re trying to do.’ ”
If any confusion arose, Vrabel was quick to help. He was at every practice and on the sideline during games, going beyond what some veterans do while injured.
Studebacker said Vrabel eagerly “coached me up.”
“He definitely does not have to do that,” Studebaker said. “I was really impressed that a guy who has won three Super Bowl rings would make time for a second-year player and teach him the ropes.”
Studebaker has drawn praise from his coach. He appreciates Haley’s words, but said, “It’s not a license to relax.”
So Studebaker will forge ahead, practicing, preparing and working as hard as he can. That is how they do things where he grew up.
Wearing an NFL uniform (No. 96) hasn’t changed the guy underneath. You get the sense it never will.
“I just try to do my job and do my best,” he said.
Yep. It’s easy to root for him.