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Aikman says Stepnoski missed by Cowboys

November 26, 1997

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ If Troy Aikman had his way, Mark Stepnoski would still be playing center for the Dallas Cowboys.

``He’s a guy who we hated to see leave, quite honestly,″ Aikman said Tuesday. ``He and I came in together here in Dallas back in ’89. ... I think we’ve been trying to look for someone to fill that spot ever since.″

Stepnoski left the Cowboys as a free agent in March 1995 for the Oilers. The 6-foot-2, 263-pound center has gone to the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons for the Oilers.

The former teammates will face each other for the first time Thursday when the Oilers (6-6) visit the Cowboys (6-6).

The Cowboys used Ray Donaldson at center in 1995 and 1996, and are using Clay Shriver this season to replace a man Aikman called one of the NFL’s strongest players.

``He works exceptionally hard at it, and I think that’s what’s made him the player that he is,″ Aikman said. ``I think his work ethic is unmatched for guys up front in the offensive line, and he’s got tremendous leverage. Because he’s not as big as guys he goes up against, leverage is extremely important for him.″

Oilers quarterback Steve McNair likes having Stepnoski in front of him.

``He’s always there in the right place using the right technique. He’s got quick feet, and he gets good position,″ McNair said.

Bookended by a pair of 300-pounders in Bruce Matthews and Kevin Donnalley, Stepnoski looks like the guy who doesn’t belong on the Oilers offensive line. He’s five inches shorter than right tackle Jon Runyan. He’s an inch shorter than left tackle Brad Hopkins, but 30 pounds lighter.

``If you’re just out there doing what you’re supposed to be doing and doing it well, it doesn’t matter how big you are,″ Stepnoski said.

He credits his high school coach Jack Hennig at Cathedral Prep in Pennsylvania with teaching him the techniques used both at the college and pro levels in run blocking and protecting the quarterback.

``I had a head start,″ Stepnoski said. ``A good coach at any level is very important, but that early on was the very best.″

When Stepnoski isn’t in a meeting or at practice, he can usually be found in the weight room where he benches and squat lifts more weight than his 300-pound teammates.

Donnalley, who lines up to Stepnoski’s right, said the center is one of the strongest Oilers and has great hands and feet.

``That’s how he’s able to neutralize and play at 260 pounds. You rarely see him out of position when blocking somebody,″ Donnalley said.

``If he does, he usually gets washed up in some of the bulk out there. But usually he’s ready for stuff and just paves things and really studies film. That’s why he’s one of the best and will be for some time.″

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