St. Louis — The feelings washed over Robert Steeples when he first pulled the blue and gold football helmet over his braids.
“This just isn’t memorabilia,” he said Friday afternoon. “This is an actual Rams helmet, for me.”
He had tried to avoid this state of awe. When the Memphis cornerback didn’t get drafted, he and his agent ranked fifteen NFL teams that might be a good fit. He tempered expectations when his hometown St. Louis Rams ranked No. 1. But he couldn’t keep his cool when the phone rang, and his hometown Rams were on the line.
“The way stuff has been falling into place for me, it’s kind of like a dream,” Steeples, who admitted to being a lifelong Ram’s fan, said.
He now has a rookie free agent contract with the team he grew up idolizing, a chance to wear the same jersey as his football heroes, guys like Todd Lyght, Torry Holt and Marshall Faulk. In an ideal world, he becomes a London Fletcher, a Rams undrafted free agent who, as Steeples will point out, turned a chance into a lengthy and successful NFL career. The process of trying to make that happen started Friday and continued Saturday, when all Rams’ rookies underwent the minicamp at Ram’s Park.
“I said my last goodbyes to my parents, gave them a hug and kiss, cried a little bit … then drove 20 minutes,” Steeples joked after Friday’s practice came to a close.
The message his father gave him before he left was more serious.
“He told me, ‘This is what you want. Now go get it. You pray for it. Now go get it.'”
It’s a challenge he’s accomplished before.
Steeples spent his first 17 years in Florrisant, a suburb of St. Louis. At DeSmet High School, he became one of the top cornerback recruits in the state. He committed early to Mizzou, where he redshirted the 2008 season. In the three years that followed, Steeples would play in 39 games, but start just once. He had 41 tackles and nine pass breakups to show, numbers that were limited by his role as a slot cornerback that played in specific defensive packages instead of every down.
“I just felt I had more to offer than what Mizzou was trying to utilize,” Steeples said.
Memphis, where Steeples used his final year of eligibility last season, was a natural fit. The school’s defensive coordinator, Barry Odom, had jumped there from an assistant position at Mizzou. Since Steeples had already graduated with a business degree, he could play immediately as long as he pursued a post-graduate program not available at Mizzou.
“My teammates at Mizzou were more happy for me when I transferred than I was,” he said. “They were like, ‘You know your worth. Go prove it.'”
He did. In one season at Memphis, a team that boasted Conference USA’s best defense in 2012, Steeples started nine more times than he had in three seasons at Mizzou. He also had more tackles (42) than his combined three-year total as a Missouri Tiger, and led Memphis in pass breakups (five) and fumble recoveries (three).
Those numbers were enough to earn Steeples a shot in St. Louis. And as exciting and fulfilling as it was to slip that Rams helmet on for the first time Friday, he has bigger plans in mind.
“My goal wasn’t just to get into the NFL,” he said. “I want to play. I want to play for a long time.”
Preferably for his favorite team.
Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred) and contact him at email@example.com