NEW CASTLE —
It’s not hard to believe Steelers legendary middle linebacker Jack Lambert was Todd Atkins’ idol growing up.
Anyone who saw Atkins play for the Laurel High football team in the late 1980s would say he compared quite favorably to the Pittsburgh hall of famer.
Just like Lambert, Atkins was tough, relentless and capable of delivering a heavy hit to opposing players. All the way down to his middle linebacker position, 58 jersey number and 6-foot-2 build, Atkins embodied everything he loved about his hero.
“You can be a nice kid off the field and you can be a good person, but when you put that helmet on, you can flip a little bit of a switch and not be a dirty player, but you can be a different kind of person,” Atkins said. “That’s kind of the approach I took.”
Nearly 22 years later, at the age of 40, Atkins still holds Laurel records for tackles (253), career fumble recoveries (9) and fumble recoveries in a season (6). A multi-sport star, he also played baseball, basketball and ran track and field, holding the pre-2000 javelin record at 207-11.
Now Atkins will have something else in common with Lambert —the distinction of being a member of a hall of fame. Atkins will be inducted into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame on April 28 at the New Englander.
Under coaching legend George Miles, Atkins developed his skills to the point where he was legitimate Division I prospect, pursued by top college football programs. He earned USA Today All-American honors and played in Pennsylvania’s Big 33 game. Atkins also built lifelong relationships with players from the team.
“He ended up being the best man at my wedding,” George’s son Ryan Miles said. “Whatever he decided to focus on, he accomplished. I can remember fishing trips. Even that became competitive between the two of us. Who had the bigger walleye or trout?”
Perhaps Atkins’ greatest accomplishment with the Spartans was when he helped the team to a WPIAL Class A finals appearance in ’89, where eventually they lost to Clairton 27-20 at the place where Lambert played — Three Rivers Stadium.
“The group of guys we had that year, it was just fun to play with them. We had a couple of turnovers that they scored on, but physically we beat them. We just couldn’t get it done. To come up short on that stage, it was a tough loss,” Atkins said. “If you talk to anybody, and I’m still in contact with a lot of those guys, they’ll tell you it’s 20-something years later and it’s still tough to swallow. We should have had it.”