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Steven Means journeys from vacant lot in Buffalo to Super Bowl

The scenario was always the same for Steven Means growing up.

Whenever a pick-up football game would begin in the vacant lot next to his house on Northampton Street, Means’ goal was simple: Make the play that would win the Super Bowl.

Maybe that was with the winning catch, or a game-deciding sack. No matter how it happened, the ending was the same, with Means a world champion. On Sunday, when the Philadelphia Eagles meet the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, the Buffalo native will get the opportunity so many young boys dream of, but so few get to actually experience.

“Every week of this year, we’ve taken it one step at a time,” Means, a defensive end with the Eagles, said this week from Minneapolis, where kickoff is scheduled at U.S. Bank Stadium at 6:30 p.m. “We’ve got to face this opponent, stick to what we do, and we’ve got to go out there and execute better than they do. That’s what it comes down to at the end of the day. It’s nothing more than that. We’ve just got to go out there and do what we’re supposed to.”

Good on Means for trying to keep focused, but this is the Super Bowl we’re talking about – the biggest stage in American professional sports.

That’s why Steven Means Sr. isn’t afraid to admit he expects some tears to be shed when he enters the stadium Sunday.

“Honestly, I'll cry,” he said Friday. "I've been trying to take it in a little at a time. I don't want to get overwhelmed.”

Humble beginnings

The elder Means remembers it like it was yesterday: His first-born son and namesake was 4 years old, watching TV with his dad.

“I was a diehard Raiders fan,” Means Sr. said. “We were sitting in the living room, watching the game. Whether or not he knew what he was watching, he must've really gotten into it because he said, ‘Dad, one day I'm going to play in the NFL." And I looked at him and smiled because that was my dream. And I said ‘Well, if that's what you want to do, daddy's going to do whatever he's got to do to help you get there.’ ”

Steven Means Sr. had a 27-year career with the Buffalo Fire Department, but before that, he was a defensive tackle for Buffalo State. His love of football was passed down from his father, Sonny, and he in turn gave it to Steven.

Even though he never saw him play live, Steven Means considers Lawrence Taylor his favorite player. That’s because his father showed him videos of the New York Giants’ terror, along with other pass rushers such as Bruce Smith and Michael Strahan.

“My dad, he’s the one that really showed me the ropes,” Steven Means said. “At the time, my favorite player was Lawrence Taylor. I always aspired to be just as good as him — or even better.”

That meant the vacant lot next to the family home got plenty of use.

“Pretty much every day of my life I grew up playing in that field,” Means said. “I played with my younger brother, Brandon, and my cousins. And whenever they didn’t want to play, I would go outside and throw the ball in the air.

“It’s just crazy to see that those dreams manifested to now.”

Means started playing organized football at 5 years old, with the Fruit Belt Rockets. Once he learned proper practice techniques, there was no turning back.

“After he learned the drills, he’d do them by himself every day,” Means Sr. said. “I’m proud of him. He's come a long way. It's apparent it's in his heart. He loves the game. There's a lot more to it at the NFL level, but he loves the game.”

Grover Cleveland's Steve Means (1) carries the ball for Grover Cleveland in a 2007 high school game (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The Grover Cleveland days

Tony Alessi could see that right away. The Grover Cleveland football coach had never had a player spend all four years on the varsity … until Means came along in 2004.

“In four years, I don't think he ever missed one practice,” Alessi said.

Those Grover Cleveland teams were packed with talent, but it takes more than just that to succeed.

“Steve was probably one of the best, but we had some other guys initially who were just as good, but they didn’t do it academically,” Alessi said. “They never finished high school. Steve knew he had to get it done in the classroom, too.”

Hard work. Perseverance. Those are familiar themes for those who know Means best.

“When he was a freshman you didn't think of him as the athlete he was,” said Earl Schunk, who coached Means in basketball and track and field at Grover Cleveland. “But by the time he was a senior … he was a very intimidating force, as you can imagine. He was probably the same height he is now (6-foot-3), and he was probably like 225 pounds with .5-percent body fat.”

Means played center for the Presidents, specializing in rebounding and blocking shots. Schunk rattles off his career highlights easily.

“Most of the good Steve stories are about him doing freakish athletic things,” he said. “I remember a game again McKinley, where he had like seven blocked shots in the first half. It was a big game, and he had some sort of knick or something and we weren't sure whether he was going to be able to play.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I'm playing. It's McKinley and Grover, it's always a big game.’ Then he goes out and has this dunk off a rebound – everyone went crazy.”

Corey Graham's Super Bowl reality far exceeds childhood dreams in Buffalo

When track season arrived and Schunk needed someone to run the third leg of the 4x100 relay, Means was there.

“To watch him round the turn the way he did, it was incredible,” Schunk said. “He never seemed to lose speed. The one thing that I wish they had in Buffalo schools track was the pentathlon, because he was such a well-rounded athlete. He could throw the shot and he could run the 100.”

Means could have played basketball in college if he wanted, but that was never really in the cards. Football was always his first love. A two-time All-Western New York selection, he finished with 108 tackles, 20 sacks, five forced fumbles and one interception as a senior in 2007, putting him on the radar of the University at Buffalo football team.

“Once he got accepted to UB and he started putting up some numbers for them, then it crossed my mind” that Means might one day have a professional career, Alessi said. “When you're coaching a kid in high school, you never really think, ‘Oh, this kid is going to go to the NFL.' We're just trying to get him into a good Division I football program.”

UB's Steven Means sacks Akron's Patrick Nicely (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News

Running with the Bulls

Means redshirted as a freshman in 2008, but wasted little time establishing himself in 2009, appearing in all 12 games and starting the final seven, leading the team with five sacks.

The next year, with Khalil Mack arriving on the scene, the Bulls had a pair of premier pass rushers.

“Our teams were pretty talented,” said Najja Johnson, a cornerback with the Bulls from 2010-13 who current serves as the UB football team’s director of player personnel. “We had an idea Steven and Khalil were both dynamic pass rushers within the conference. We really knew they had skills that would translate to the NFL level. We would schedule Tennessee and UConn and schools outside the MAC, and those guys were still dominating them, so we had an idea they would be successful at the next level.”

Means, who earned his degree in sociology from UB, appeared in 48 games, with 42 starts. He finished with 185 tackles, including 29.5 for losses, 18.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, along with five blocked kicks. His 18.5 career sacks ranked fourth in UB history when he left the school.

“He was definitely one of our energy guys and it was awesome because it was contagious,” Johnson said. “He always had a smile on his face and you couldn't help but be happy around him. I think that’s kind of what gave our team a spark when we were playing together. It got me fired up playing on the back end, with him rushing the passer.”

Despite a stellar college career, Means didn’t get an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine. No matter, though, as a few weeks later, he put in a dominating performance at UB’s Pro Day.

“He might be a little bit off your radar, but he wasn't off ours," former Tampa Bay General Manager Mark Dominik told the Tampa Bay Times after the Buccaneers selected Means in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. "Any time you can draft a pass rusher, you don't want to pass him up. We think he's got tremendous traits."

Steven Means warms up prior to the start of the Eagles game against the Cincinnati Bengals (John Grieshop/Getty Images)

A rocky road

Means appeared in 10 games with the Bucs as a rookie, finishing with five tackles and two quarterback hurries in playing 77 defensive snaps.

The following year, however, he was cut after playing just one game for Tampa Bay.

“Even when that happened, none of us had ever blinked or thought that he wouldn't find success on another team, just because we've seen his resiliency first-hand,” Johnson said. “It speaks to Steven's character and his ability to handle adversity. He's bounced around and been on several different teams, and the fact that he's in the position he's in now and his spirits have always remained high, I look at is as an example for our players at UB of how to handle adversity when things don't go your way.”

After getting cut by the Bucs, Means hooked on with the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad in October 2014. He was promoted to the 53-man roster in December, but was inactive for the Ravens’ final game of the regular season and two playoff contests.

The following year, Means was cut by the Ravens before the start of the regular season, and signed with Houston’s practice squad. He stayed there until the Eagles came calling in December 2015, adding him to their 53-man roster.

Means has managed to hold down a roster spot since, even if his playing time has been limited. He appeared in eight games in 2016, finishing with four tackles and one sack in 36 defensive snaps. During the 2017 regular season, he played six games, finishing with three tackles and one sack in 53 defensive snaps.

Means has been a healthy inactive for each of Philadelphia’s playoff wins, meaning there’s a chance he won’t be on the field Sunday.

“That’s one of the toughest pills to swallow,” he said during an interview last week on the [BN] Blitz Daily Drive podcast. “I want to be the best in this league and I believe when I get that opportunity, that’ll happen. But for now, I’ve got to keep perfecting my craft, keep continuing to get better every day, and taking that out there to the practice field, not taking those reps for granted, but taking advantage of them.”

Means’ goal in practice is to make the Eagles’ offensive line “strain a little bit.”

“I don’t let those guys take one snap easy or lightly,” he said. “I’m coming off the ball, and they know I’m coming off with a vengeance. It’s translated into them telling me that it makes the game a lot easier for them.”

Steven Means Sr. said there has never been a time that his son has gotten down on himself, even when things weren’t going his way in the NFL.

“I didn't have to pick him up, because this is what he wants to do,” he said. “Because of his determination, he strives at being the best at whatever he’s doing. Mentally, he started at 5 years old, and ever since then, he didn't give up. Regardless of what was going on, he never gave up and he just got better and better.”

“It's great to see how he's persevered, because it hasn't been the easiest road for him in the NFL,” Schunk said. “He’s worked his butt off.”

Throughout it all, those closest to him say Means has remained true to himself.

“I'm extremely excited, because this couldn't happen to a better person,” Alessi said. “He's a class act. The first thing I would've done when I got drafted was change my phone number. He's had the same phone number forever. It just goes to show you how humble he is.”

Means resides in Tampa, but whenever he returns home makes it a point to visit his old teams.

“He'll come to the school and visit and we'll have him talk to the seniors, Alessi said. “He’ll keep it real with them and tell them if you don't hit the books you’re going to be going to a junior college. He's a great mentor. He came from the same place and went through the same stuff that they’re going through.”

“He's always in communication with us,” Johnson added. “Whenever he's in town, he'll stop by the facilities. He's been awesome with connecting with our guys.”

A Buffalo connection

Means isn’t the only Western New Yorker on the roster. Veteran safety Corey Graham, who spent the past three seasons with his hometown Bills, signed with the Eagles in August.

Although they had never met, Means and Graham felt like they had known each other forever given their “716” roots.

“We’re right next to each other in the locker room, always talking about our time in Buffalo,” Means said. “We played on the same football team when we were younger.”

Graham, 32, was with the Rockets a few years before the 27-year-old Means joined the team.

“He broke all the records there, rushing and everything,” Means said of Graham. “So when I got to the 130-pound team, I remember getting a trophy at a banquet. It was called the ‘Corey Graham Trophy.’ I didn’t know who he was at the time. I told him about that and he had a good laugh. I’ve got to take a picture of it and send it to him.”

While the Corey Graham Trophy is nice, a Super Bowl ring is the reward Means is focused on now.

“That would be a beautiful thing, wouldn’t it?” Steven Means Sr. said. “It would be unbelievable.”

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