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Stecker's trek may end at NFL

The Bucs' developmental squad player is the leading rusher in NFL Europe.

When Robert Frost wrote about the road less traveled, he might have had the route from Madison, Wis., to Macomb, Ill., in mind.

That's the path Bucs running back Aaron Stecker took to get to the NFL. How else do you get around the magnificent talents of Ron Dayne?

There are more miles to travel for the 5-foot-10, 205-pound, 24-year-old workhorse.

Stecker's quest for NFL job security has taken him to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he has become the leading rusher in NFL Europe as a starter for the Scottish Claymores.

"It's been a long road for me," Stecker said. "I'm not a guy who's very fast or very big on paper. I'm not like some of the guys who come into the league and have all this speed and size and don't have to work for it.

"I've worked hard for everything I've gotten and it feels better to work so hard because once you obtain it, no one can take it. I'm doing well right now."

Stecker's journey began in the shadows of Lambeau Field. Dreaming of being a Packer, he starred at Ashwaubenon High in Green Bay and earned a scholarship to Wisconsin after being named the Associated Press state player of the year in 1993.

By 1996, he was a Badger seemingly ticketed for stardom. He had bided his time behind Terrell Fletcher and Brent Mossuntil it was his chance to shine. He didn't disappoint, rushing for 135 yards and two touchdowns against Nevada-Las Vegas in the second game of the season.

Dayne began to emerge, however. A 129-yard Dayne effort against Penn State in Week 4 wasn't enough to prompt Stecker to transfer, but in subsequent weeks, the future Heisman Trophy winner ground out five 200-yard games, including 339 against Hawaii.

Dayne finished his freshman season with 2,109 yards.

"Ron was special, being that big with speed and quickness," Stecker said. "It's not a knock on Wisconsin, it's not a knock on Ron. I was just being realistic. It was obvious he was going to be a great player. I just realized I had the opportunity to go down a level and play. If you're good enough to be in the NFL, they'll find you anywhere."

Anywhere for Stecker was Western Illinois. After the '96 season, Stecker turned south and drove through 265 miles of cornfields and farmland to get to Macomb. In two seasons, he became the all-time leading rusher for the Division I-AA Leathernecks with 3,081 yards. As a junior, he led I-AA in scoring with 150 points, and as a senior, he helped Western to the I-AA semifinals.

That was enough to get NFL attention. After going through training camp with Chicago, he landed on the Tampa Bay practice squad. Stecker said it wasn't exactly a treat getting beaten up by one of the NFL's best defenses every day, but emulating the likes of Robert Smith, Dorsey Levens and Napoleon Kaufman has its benefits.

"He ran very well for us in practice," coach Tony Dungy said. "He had to simulate a lot of different backs and did a good job, and we could see the desire and quickness that he had.

"Aaron's doing a great job in Europe and we kind of felt he would."

Stecker's allocation to NFL Europe is a clear sign the Bucs believe he has potential. In five games, he has rushed for a league-best 480 yards on 103 carries. He also has 26 receptions for 198 yards, and his 678 yards from scrimmage is a league best.

"I saw Aaron in training camp at Chicago and I knew at that time he was a guy we wanted in our offense," Claymores coach Jim Criner said. "I started working on trying to get him allocated to us as soon as I saw him. We knew what we were getting in terms of his ability. He's an outstanding cutback runner, and he has enough juice and explosion to get the ball to the corner. "He has good vision, real good power, the ability to break tackles and make people miss in the open field. He also has the acceleration to make the long run, too."

Making Tampa Bay will be difficult. Counting Warrick Dunn and hybrid Mike Alstott, the Bucs carried only three running backs last season. If that stays the same, Stecker will compete with Rabih Abdullah and Jerry Ellison for a single spot, and those players won't bring the bumps and bruises of NFL Europe to camp.

But Stecker likes the challenge and his chances.

"Being on the football field is something I love," he said. "There's not too many people who can say they're doing something they love. I'm just along for the ride and hopefully at the end I'm in the NFL some day. I just want to make the most of my opportunities."

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