Here's a recent scene that might turn a few heads among NFL
nosetackles: Houston center Mark Stepnoski sitting on a stool in
a Dallas bookstore, kids crawling all over him, while he reads
aloud from the popular children's book Slombo the Gross. "Right
over by the dump, just behind the dirty part of the highway,
lives a truly disgusting guy named Slombo the Gross," recites
Stepnoski, who leans in for effect, the book all but hidden by
his giant hands. "Even though he is totally gross, nearly
everyone likes him. Slombo's pet cockroaches always have a great
time when he is around." Can this really be the three-time Pro
Bowl blocker widely regarded as the toughest offensive lineman
in the league?
You bet. Since August, Stepnoski has been involved with the
literacy program Just Read. Through the use of videotapes,
posters and coupons, as well as personal appearances by several
pro athletes, the Texas-based organization hopes to get one
million people to make a pledge to read for at least 15 minutes
a day. The scene in the bookstore may seem strange, but it's a
natural fit for Stepnoski. The 6'2", 270-pound center was a
member of the National Honor Society in high school and a
two-time academic All-America at Pittsburgh in the late '80s. If
the Erie, Pa., native isn't busy pancaking defenders, then he's
probably flipping through the latest best-seller by Tom Clancy
or John Grisham. It was an advertisement on the inside back
cover of Larry Bond's thriller Cauldron that spurred Stepnoski
to get involved in the fight against illiteracy.
According to the ad, by the turn of the century one in four
adults in the U.S. will be functionally illiterate. That fact
shocked Stepnoski more than the denouement of Bond's thriller.
"I read that, sat up and said out loud, 'That can't be true.
That's a lie,'" says Stepnoski, 28, who was reading by the time
he reached kindergarten. "But it is, in fact, 100-percent true.
That's motivation enough for me to try to get other people to
Stepnoski and Dallas Cowboy fullback Daryl Johnston were the
first two athletes to join Just Read's Reading Team. In August
the two posed reading in the bleachers, dressed in their team
uniforms and surrounded by their favorite books, for a poster on
behalf of a national literacy project. Not exactly the bad-boy,
bulging-biceps image most NFL players put out. "I've really
learned to despise the stereotype that linemen are just stupid
brutes," Stepnoski says. "The linemen are the brightest guys on
Selected to the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons,
Stepnoski signed a four-year, $9.2 million free-agent contract
with the Oilers this summer after six years and two Super Bowl
victories with Dallas. Despite tearing the anterior cruciate
ligament in his right knee in 1993, Stepnoski still possesses
the quickness and brute strength to make nosetackles whimper.
Today, though, he's all charm. The kids in the bookstore have
forgotten about autographs or stories from the Super Bowl.
Instead, they're engrossed in Stepnoski's rendition of Slombo
the Gross. "When the kids see him reading with such enthusiasm,
it changes everything they know about NFL players," says Kathy
Doyle Thomas, vice president of marketing for Half Price Books,
a chain that participates in the Just Read program. "And then
they go home thinking, 'Hey, Mark Stepnoski reads so that makes
it a cool thing to do. I think I'll try it.'"
COLOR PHOTO: PAM FRANCIS The Oilers' All-Pro center wants to put a stop to illiteracy as well as onrushing defensive linemen. [Mark Stepnoski reading to children]