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A new Arena

DeAndrew Rubin has always had it with him: a teddy bear, perhaps a little ragged, maybe a little loose at the seams, but always sitting in his locker. It goes everywhere and anywhere with him.

The bear is a keepsake to a memory Rubin wishes he had a better hold of.

“My dad gave it to me before he passed,” Rubin said. “He passed when I was 11 months old. It’s the one thing that I have that I use to remember him by.”

Rubin never had a father watching him from the sidelines on Friday nights in St. Petersburg or sitting in the front row behind the Bulls’ bench at Raymond James Stadium. Rubin never had a father to teach him about football, but he wishes he had.

“It’s hard sometimes,” Rubin said. “I wish he had been there, but then it is tough for me to say I miss him. I never really knew him, you know? But do I wish he were in the stands? Sure, who wouldn’t?”

History repeating itself

Rubin, who played for the USF football team from 1999-2002, is having the post-collegiate career typical of a USF player, including that all-too-familiar timeline: drafted late on the second day or picked up as a free agent, invited to a training camp, maybe lucky enough to make the practice squad, then either cut or taking time off to get experience in another league such as NFL Europe or the Arena Football League.

That’s Rubin history. He was drafted 253rd overall by the Green Bay Packers in 2003, then waived in the preseason, only to spend time in training camp with both the Indianapolis Colts and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now, Rubin is on leave from the Detroit Lions’ practice squad as he plays for the Orlando Predators, who just clinched first place in their division.

And with AFL playoffs just days away, Rubin, who has 494 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches, said it was hard to learn to play in a new league.

“At first it was pretty hard (to adjust to playing in the arena league),” Rubin said. “Since the field is so dang small, when I catch the ball, guys are already there on me to tackle me.”

Rubin knows the change was needed, especially on defense.

“It’s different, it really is,” he said. “It’s more about angles and not so much the speed in the game. I’ve always been fast, but here it’s different, where I have to take the right angles. I played (defense) a little in college, a bunch in high school. But I like it a lot here. Yeah, I had to get a feel for it, but I’m coming around.”

Someone old and new

Plenty of players are like Rubin – just an inch too short, just a few pounds too light, a second too slow. And while teammates claim the 5-foot-11 Rubin is the fastest player on the Predators, they know all too well what it feels like to be in his smoking shoes.

“I remember my first year (in the AFL),” Predators wide receiver Jimmy Fryzel said. “You don’t always catch on right away. But (Rubin) can fly, and he’s smart enough to pick up the type of offense you have to run.”

Fryzel, a former UCF player, first met Rubin in the inaugural Florida Gridiron Classic in 1999, and while on occasion they give each other a hard time about their “rival schools,” they have become friends once again on the Predators.

“I thought about putting a little wager on (the 2005 UCF vs. USF) game,” Fryzel said. “Whoo boy, I’m glad I didn’t.”

There’s also a familiar face helping Rubin find his way in Orlando.

“We played one year together at USF,” said Predators and former Bulls receiver Clif Dell, who was a senior during Rubin’s freshman season. “It’s nice being on the same team again. We worked out together, and it’s just cool to be teammates again.”

Fryzel contends he knows what Rubin is going through. Fryzel, who leads the Predators with 803 receiving yards and 18 touchdown receptions, has been down the same road as Rubin: He signed as a free agent with the Miami Dolphins in 2003 and spent time on practice squads in Tennessee, Chicago and Atlanta.

“I know what it’s like – we’re those smaller receivers,” the 5-foot-11 Fryzel said. “We’re not atypical receivers with size and the best athletic ability. If we have to settle with playing arena football, so be it. We’re still playing football. Sure, it’s not the highest level, but if we have to do it here, we have to do it here. This is by no means a scrub league.”

For Rubin, the AFL may be a steppingstone. At this point in the season, like most players, he has the playoffs and even Arena Bowl XX in Las Vegas on his mind. But when his time is over with the Predators, he’s headed back to the Lions’ training camp.

“I’ve been playing football since 1989,” Rubin said. “That’s been a long time, that’s all I know. In five years, whether it’s here or in the NFL, I hope I’m stilling playing.”

Like many athletes who have donned a USF jersey, Rubin is a product of Dixie Hollins High in St. Petersburg. Other notable alumni include running back Andre Hall, quarterback Marquel Blackwell and coach Jim Leavitt.

A hometown hero

The coach responsible for developing most of the Rebel-turned-Bull players still talks with Rubin and knows his dream won’t easily come true.

“That’s the life of one of those guys,” coach Mike Morey said. “Sure, he was drafted by the Packers back then, but he wants to be an NFL player and sometimes that’s no easy task.

“But he’s always been fast, because I guarantee you he’s the fastest one on the Predators. That’s one thing he has going for him, and he’s going to need it when he gets another one of his chances. As long as he can run, he’ll have a job.”

Speed is a commodity for wide receivers, and it’s what got Rubin a job with Orlando.

“He is a good receiver for us, even though he’s still learning,” Predators coach Jay Gruden said. “He brings speed and great route running to this team, and that’s what I like.”

Dedication is what Gruden values from players, and Rubin displayed that when on March 19 against Dallas, after he scored a touchdown, flashed the Bulls’ horns sign – something Rubin claimed he had been planning for some time. Gruden knows little things like that drive Rubin.

“There are a lot of guys in his situation that could (complain) about playing time or coming over to this league, and that’s not him. I know I won’t hear that from him. But he shows up on time every day for practice even though he comes from Tampa every day.”

While Rubin may be fast, his high school coach isn’t quick to forget what he did back in St. Petersburg.

“We’ve had a lot of guys go on to college,” Morey said. “And we’ve used all those, even Rubin, as role models. He always worked hard, and people remember him. It was good to have him here.”

Missed memories

But always accompanying Rubin from St. Petersburg to Tampa, from Green Bay to Detroit and from different leagues to different stadiums all over the country is the little bear by his side.

“He’s taken it everywhere,” Morey said. “He’s just always had that thing with him when he was here (at Dixie Hollins).”

Rubin usually never forgets to bring the bear, but at Saturday’s 52-13 win over the Tampa Bay Storm, in which the receiver had three receptions for 144 yards and a touchdown, the bear wasn’t with him.

He left it at home with his kids but claims he’ll never forget the dad he never met. That’s what the bear is for. As for his kids, that’s a different story.

“I would love to have some kind of memory of him,” Rubin said. “I’m just glad my kids, so far, have memories of me.”

DeAndrew Rubin’s Resume(1999-2002)

1,373- Career receiving yards, the fourth most by a USF receiver.

14- Career touchdown receptions, which is the most by a USF receiver.

91- Career receptions, which is the fourth most in USF history.

11- Receptions in a game, the most by any USF receiver in a single game.