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Small, Slow but Very Successful : Colorado State’s Bartalo Proves His Critics Wrong

Times Staff Writer

While working out at a fitness center last winter, Steve Bartalo was approached by an inquisitive man.

“Son, do you play football?” the man asked.

“Yes,” Bartalo replied.

“What position do you play?”

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“Running back,” Bartalo replied.

“You’re too small to play running back,” the man said.

It wasn’t the first time that Bartalo, whose Colorado State team plays San Diego State Saturday, has been told he is too small--or too slow--to play football. But that is to be expected when you are 5-feet 9-inches, weigh 195 pounds and run the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds.

Though Bartalo may not have the prototype size or speed, he does have the credentials.

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Consider:

--He is the first player in Western Athletic Conference history to surpass 4,000 yards rushing in a career.

--He is on the verge of becoming the first NCAA Division-I player to lead his conference in rushing four straight years.

--He is the leading active NCAA career rusher with 4,171 yards.

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--He holds the WAC record for scoring with 258 points in his career.

--He has rushed for 100 yards in 24 games, fifth most in NCAA history.

--He has 1,065 rushing attempts, 10 shy of eclipsing the NCAA record set by Tony Dorsett at Pittsburgh.

Bartalo has been disproving the too-small, too-slow theory since his sophomore at Doherty High School in Colorado Springs, Colo. When he was the junior varsity quarterback, he was told he would never make the varsity.

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“I’ve been told that all my life,” Bartalo said. “I use it to motivate me. A lot of people will put you down. There are a lot of guys who will listen and say, ‘OK.’ I’m just the opposite. If people tell me I can’t do something, I prove them wrong.”

And so he did. For two years, Bartalo quarterbacked Doherty’s wishbone offense.

Though Bartalo was a good high school quarterback, he was recruited only by the Air Force Academy and several smaller local schools. After a lengthy talk with his father, Tony, who spent 27 years in the Air Force, Bartalo decided not to make the commitment to the academy.

Because Bartalo’s high school wrestling coach had an acquaintance who was an assistant football coach at Colorado State, Bartalo took a trip on his own and decided to walk-on with the Rams.

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It was difficult at first. In 1982, he was the scout team quarterback, imitating the opposition in practice.

Then, in the spring of 1983, Coach Leon Fuller asked Bartalo to switch to running back because the Rams already had two established quarterbacks. Bartalo balked and considered transferring to Air Force or Wyoming because they ran the wishbone. On second thought, he decided it would be difficult to re-establish himself at another university.

When Bartalo made the team in 1983, he was looking forward to the first trip to Hawaii because he had never flown on an airplane. However, he was crushed when he was not on the travel squad. Bartalo and his roommate, wide receiver Terry Hinn, spent the weekend with Bartalo’s sister in Boulder, Colo. Again, Bartalo considered transferring.

However, when the team returned from Hawaii, Fuller was disappointed with a couple of the running backs in his one-back offense. Bartalo was promoted from fourth-string to second-string that week.

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In the ensuing game against Colorado, Bartalo was inserted when the first-string running back needed a breather. Bartalo gained 61 yards that day, earned a starting berth and finished the season with 1,113 rushing yards. He was the first freshman in NCAA Division I history to surpass 1,000 yards rushing.

Bartalo rushed for 913 yards as a sophomore and 1,368 as a junior. He has rushed for 777 yards this season.

“He doesn’t have natural talent,” Fuller said. “It’s more desire, mental toughness and desire to succeed. He can carry 30 or 40 times a game and run as hard at the end as in the beginning.”

Of course, not everyone in the Rocky Mountains loves Steve Bartalo.

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A Wyoming player once spat in his face. Air Force players disliked him because he said the Falcons were the most vile team he had ever played against. Colorado players placed a photo of him in their locker room before this year’s game and performed a form of voodoo on him, wishing him a game full of pain.

“Steve eats it up,” Hinn said. “In whatever he does, he has to win. If he plays video games, he has to beat the video tapes. Whatever people say, he has to prove them wrong.”

Denny Stolz, San Diego State’s coach, has been impressed by Bartalo in game films.

“He’s a very confident runner,” Stolz said. “When he gets the ball, he thinks he’ll get yards. He deserves all the credit he’s getting. When you talk of league records, those are pretty tough to come by. There have been some pretty good backs in this conference over the years.”

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Aztec Notes

There is a distinct San Diego flavor to Colorado State’s football team this year. Eight San Diego-area athletes play for the Rams, including four starters and three second-team players.

The starters are offensive tackle Phil Coles (Bonita Vista High School), cornerback Jim King (Patrick Henry) and safeties Ron Cortell (Sweetwater) and Gary Wehlage (Santana, Grossmont College). Second-team players are fullback Gregg Battle (Poway), guard Robert Dakovich (Fallbrook) and split end Dewey Dorough (Mount Miguel, Grossmont College). Quarterback Andy Byrne of Poway is not on the depth chart.


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