PITTSBURGH -- After the long, roundabout and often interrupted trip he took to the NFL, rookie Willie Sydnor may have to pinch himself a few times Sunday to make sure he's not dreaming.
It took three different colleges, a brief fling with the thought of giving up football to train as an Olympic runner, and one painful roster cut, but he finally made it.
Come Sunday, the 23-year-old former Villanova runner is expected to be the chief punt returner for the Pittsburgh Steelers in their first-round AFC playoff game with the San Diego Chargers at Three Rivers Stadium.
'It's exciting,' Sydnor said. 'I know these games are so much more important. I get butterflies before and after anyway. But I think I'll be okay in the game.'
The Steelers hope so, too.
Coach Chuck Noll has been pleased with the play of Sydnor, a wide receiver released during the final roster cuts in early September but re-signed a couple weeks later after Frank Wilson was injured.
Sydnor labored in relative obscurity until fellow rookie Rick Woods, the Steelers' original punt returner, was injured. Since then, Sydnor has returned 22 punts for an average of 7.8 yards. He broke one for 21 yards, and the coaches have said they wouldn't be surprised to see him go all the way with one.
Woods was to be activated this week, but Noll said he'd probably stick with Sydnor as the main punt returner Sunday.
'He's done a good job for us,' Noll said. 'He'd have had even better numbers in the Cleveland game, but some bad thigh and leg bruises slowed him down.'
But even slowed down, Sydnor is faster than most NFL players. As a track man, he was clocked running the 60 meters in 6.2 seconds and the 100 in 10.69. The latter translates to a time of about 9.6 seconds in the 100-yard dash.
Sydnor's speed is what forced him to spread his football career among three colleges.
A Rosemont, Pa., native, Sydnor started college at Northwestern with hopes of playing football and running track. 'But the coaching was changing after my first season, and they wanted me to play spring football instead of going out for track,' he said.
Sydnor transferred to Villanova, where he knew he would be allowed to do both. For two school years, he was a 'handyman' on various relay teams coached by the late Jumbo Elliott and a receiver and return man for football coach Wayne Hardin.
He had the thrill of running a relay against a Maryland group that included the great Renaldo Nehemiah in the IC4As and the equally enjoyable experience of leading the 1980 football Owls in receiving with 24 catches good for 385 yards.
'I thought about participating in track only, but I didn't think I had the capabilities of being an Olympic sprinter,' he said. He decided to stick with football and a chance at the pros.
Unfortunately, Villanova dropped football after Sydnor's 1980 season, and he transferred to Syracuse, where he caught 29 passes for 418 yards and two touchdowns his senior year.
Those statistics were not good enough to get him drafted, but the Steelers eventually signed him as a free agent. After they cut him in early September, he began talking with teams in both the Canadian Football League and the new United States Football League.
But when the Steelers called to re-sign him, Sydnor didn't hesitate to return to the NFL.
'I like it a lot -- especially punt returns,' Sydnor said. 'I'm content right now though I'd like to get to play receiver. But I do have a lot to learn as a receiver. We missed a lot of learning during the strike.'
At that point, veteran receiver Lynn Swann walked into the room, and the two began debating who was the fastest man on the team without making a decision.
A bystander noted that Swann, John Stallworth and Jim Smith had raced at training camp and finished in a dead heat.
'I'd like to get in on that next year,' Sydnor said.