New Castle News
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.”
PENN STATE BOUND
With schools like Penn State, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Pitt and Ohio State recruiting Atkins, it took a personal visit and guarantee of another coaching legend to convince him where he wanted to play football at the next level.
“It’s funny, Joe Paterno came to Laurel High School and we sat in the school and he wanted me to come to Penn State,” Atkins said. “Because Penn State had a habit of recruiting kids with bigger frames and then switching them and putting some weight on them, I said right to Joe’s face that I want a shot to play inside linebacker. If I can’t cut it there, I’d go wherever he wanted me to go, but I want a shot. He told me that they were recruiting me as an inside linebacker, and that’s where they wanted me to play.”
When Atkins got to Happy Valley, lack of playing time to start his career made him antsy when he redshirted his first season at the university. As more players were recruited and position battles increased, Atkins had the option of being a starter on the defensive line his junior year or trying his luck at the position he wanted to play all along, inside linebacker.
“With a program like that, a lot of kids can play ball. In the last two years, it (defensive end) was kind of my position to lose. I just kind of went with the flow, but in the back of my mind, I knew middle linebacker was where I wanted to play.”
ROSE BOWL BOUND
The 1994 season was a magical, yet frustrating season for the Nittany Lions. The team went 13-0, culminating in a 38-20 Rose Bowl victory over Oregon. Penn State fielded three players who were selected in the first 10 picks of the NFL Draft the following year —quarterback Kerry Collins, tight end Kyle Brady and running back Ki-Jana Carter. However, it missed out on a national championship to Nebraska in one of the most controversial polling decisions in college football.
“It was a tough break. Nobody beat us all year. I would have liked a shot to play for it,” Atkins said. “It’d be hard to convince anybody who was on that team that we didn’t deserve at least a share of the title.”
Atkins had one of his best seasons statistically his senior year, but injuries and a bout with mononucleosis limited his opportunities, and a lack of college experience at linebacker hurt his potential draft stock. Despite that, Atkins still ranks sixth all-time for the Nittany Lions with 21 sacks and is 14th in tackles for loss with 32.
Not rattled, Atkins trained hard and got himself back into shape in time for pro days and the NFL Scouting Combine, but the injury bug returned.
“Two days before the scouting pro day, I was doing the shuttle run. I went left and I went right and my ankle just kept going. I just popped my right ankle. I taped it up and still ran a 4.7 40 on a bum ankle, but teams like the New York Giants wanted to see my lateral movement. If I was going to make the switch to linebacker, that’s what they wanted to see. I told them I couldn’t do it at the moment.”
The injury effectively ended his football career.
“For me, it was kind of the NFL or nothing. At that point, I loved playing football, but I probably didn’t love playing it that much. It was either I’m going to the big show, or I’m calling it quits. After the first year didn’t work out, it gets to be near impossible to break in after you sit out.”
Atkins was quick to move on from the game, marrying high school sweetheart Theresa McCosby, who was a volleyball standout at Laurel and earned a scholarship to play at Edinboro University. He moved back to New Castle and eventually landed his current job at Praxair Surface Technologies in 1998. The couple has three daughters — Brooke, 11, Regan, 8 and Tori, 6.
Although his playing days are over, Laurel’s version of Lambert has left his legacy on the school.
“He was probably one of the best hitters I ever saw. I can remember when I came back and was coaching varsity football at Laurel,” Ryan Miles said. “I was making a highlight film to show the kids how to play each position. I opened up the 1990 game against Aliquippa. He made the first seven plays of the football game. The first one was a lead right at him, the next was a toss sweep away. Then, there was a fade route down the field he made the play on. He would amaze you with the things he did on the field just because of his physical gifts and desire to compete and be the best.”
TOMORROW: Rosemarie Perrotta.