GLENDALE, Ariz. – Rashard Mendenhall doesn’t bat an eye when explaining how he shifts between a no-frills, introspective life without television or high-speed Wi-Fi to the cacophony of the NFL.
“I’m a Gemini, so maybe that has something to do with it,” he said, laughing. “I live in extremes. I can be the life of the party, or you can not notice I’m there.”
It would be easy and convenient to slide Mendenhall neatly into the NFL player stereotype. He has obvious talents that helped him top 900 yards three times with Pittsburgh.
He’s had his tiffs with coaches, like last year when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin suspended him a game for failing to show up at Heinz Field after being told he would not dress for a game against San Diego. And he sparked controversy on Twitter in 2011 by questioning why people were celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death.
But unlike some athletes who don’t think before they Tweet, Mendenhall knew exactly what he was saying and writing. He’s had a lot of practice.
In his “blissfully clear, reposed, stress-free, and almost entirely at peace” new apartment in the Valley, Mendenhall takes great joy in writing. He submits a semi-regular blog to the Huffington Post, he writes poetry that remains mostly private and he devours literature, poetry, history and spiritual writings.
“This controversial statement was something I said in response to the amount of joy I saw in the event of a murder,” he later said in a blog entry of his original bin Laden tweet. “I don’t believe that this is an issue of politics or American pride; but one of religion, morality and human ethics.”
In that reasoned response comes a glimpse of a man who defies simple labels.
“Rashard’s a deep dude,” said Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who coached Mendenhall for four seasons in Pittsburgh. “He gets you thinking about stuff we don’t normally talk about here on the football field.”
Mendenhall’s passion for writing developed imperceptibly while he attended the University of Illinois.
“I’d go places like the performing arts building, which had a really cool balcony, late at night, and I’d sit there and write,” he said. “I didn’t even realize it was happening — that this was the start, or the foundation of my spirituality and peace — but writing in general is a peaceful place for me. I’ll always write.
“In the NFL, everything is fast and there is so much going on. For me, it’s important to keep a balance. I like to slow things down and get away from all of that so I can deal with the pace of the world.”
Mendenhall’s favorite poet is famed African-American writer Langston Hughes and his favorite topic is spirituality, whether it’s Buddhism, Islam or his own faith, Christianity.
While Mendenhall was in Pittsburgh, the Steelers held their training camp at St. Vincent College, where Mendenhall met Paul Taylor, now the executive vice president of the Catholic college.
The two struck up a friendship that endures today. Mendenhall credits Taylor and former teammate Troy Polamalu (who is Greek Orthodox) with teaching him “to live simply and balanced and clear.”
“I’ve learned a lot from different faiths, studied a lot of history and religions, from Buddhist to Islam to learn what people believe,” he said. “Personally, I believe in God and I follow Jesus Christ, but all of these things have their place, and concepts
from different religions carry over.”
In his most recent blog for the Huffington Post, Mendenhall wrote about being able to “breathe in the air of a completely new place and leave all things that are behind me, exactly where they belong.”
That includes whatever baggage others may believe he carries, and whatever trials he has experienced in his life.
“He doesn’t talk about the past,” Cardinals running backs coach Stump Mitchell said. “He’s here in Arizona now, with Bruce, and he feels as if he’s come home. These coaches know him and he knows them.”
Mendenhall is being counted on heavily to revive a long-dormant Cardinal running game — especially with Ryan Williams nursing a sore right knee and three inexperienced backs behind him. Playing on a one-year contract, Mendenhall knows this chapter in his life could be short, but so far, he’s embracing that challenge — on every level.
“I appreciate being here. I appreciate this opportunity. I think this is a peaceful place,” he said. “Pittsburgh was great and cool for that time, but that time was kind of over in my life.
“Being here, it feels like there’s a freedom and a lightness in my life again.”