ARLINGTON, Texas. -- It's fair to say Chicago's strongest individual link to Super Bowl XLV is the Pittsburgh Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall, who was born in Skokie, Ill., graduated from Niles West high school and arrived in the NFL via the University of Illinois, is expected to be a central figure when the Steelers battle the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.
Perhaps the only thing that might have made Super Bowl week more enjoyable for the running back was if the Chicago Bears were representing the NFC instead of Green Bay. "You know, I really thought that would have been cool," Mendenhall said Tuesday at media day. "With Chicago being my hometown, for us to be playing Chicago and seeing the city excited, I think that would have been cool." Taken by the Steelers with the 23rd overall pick in the 2008 draft, Mendenhall suffered through an injury-plagued rookie year, before posting back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Mendenhall ranked No. 5 in the AFC and No. 7 in the NFL with 1,273 yards rushing in 2010 and led the team with a career-high 13 rushing touchdowns. In the AFC Championship Game, Mendenhall ignited Pittsburgh's offense with a game-high 121 yards and a touchdown. The former Illini standout carried the ball 27 times versus the New York Jets, tied for the third-most attempts in Steelers postseason history with Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker. Not bad company. And neither is the player Mendenhall grew up trying to model his game after. "Someone I compared to when I was younger was Walter Payton," Mendenhall said. "He was before my time, but just in Chicago, you see film on him and see the way he worked. It's not an accident that he's one of the greatest players."