Glancing at the shot of himself running with the football loosely cradled in his right arm, he said, “That’s bad ball security.” Starks stiff-armed the newspaper, pushing it out of his peripheral vision lest it drag him down.
Starks has cut a tornadolike swath through the N.F.L. playoffs, rushing for 263 yards in three games, despite not making his N.F.L. debut until December. His performance Sunday against a Pittsburgh Steelers run defense that allowed 62.8 yards rushing a game in the regular season will be a key to Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium.
If Starks, 24, was feeling any stage fright, he hid it behind a smile made for close-ups.
“I’m just going to go out there and do what I’ve been doing,” he said, adding, “For me to have this opportunity, I’m just having fun.”
Starks has the wide-eyed innocence of someone fresh off the bus at the stop where fame and opportunity intersect. Chad Morton, a Green Bay special-teams assistant, described Starks as guileless and said, “He’s the most genuine person you’ll ever meet.”
He is also perhaps the most improbable would-be star on this stage since the Washington Redskins’ Timmy Smith, who rushed for 204 yards in Super Bowl XXII. A quarterback at Niagara Falls High, Starks attended the University at Buffalo, where he was converted to running back.
He rushed for 3,140 yards and 34 touchdowns in his first three seasons before being sidelined his senior season after shoulder surgery. Drafted in the sixth round by the Packers, Starks injured a hamstring during off-season workouts and started the season on the physically unable to perform list.
“People say he’s come along fast, but he’s been putting in the work since March just like the rest of us,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.
Showing the same patience he does running behind his blockers, Starks waited for his opening. It came at home Dec. 5 against San Francisco and Starks burst through, with 73 yards on 18 carries in a 34-16 victory.
Against the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the playoffs, Starks rushed for 123 yards on 23 carries, and the race to find out more about him was on.
“My mom said, ‘I’m getting so many media requests, you need to slow down,’ ” Starks said. Then he laughed.
In three days of media sessions, the only time Starks appeared rattled was when a television reporter asked him to look into the camera and deliver a Super Bowl promo in Spanish.
“Hola, what?” Starks asked. After several aborted attempts, he said, “That is hard,” and delivered the lines in English.
Starks is not basking in his sudden celebrity. “If I’m watching TV and there’s some highlights of me, I usually turn it fast,” he said. He added: “I really try not to watch ESPN a lot. I think it boosts people’s egos.”
Because Starks has had few carries, the Steelers do not have a lot of tape they can watch to figure out how to stop him. “But the good thing about a running back is when they get the ball, it gets pretty simple,” said the Steelers’ Ryan Clark, who is paired with Troy Polamalu in the secondary. “Hit him as hard as you can, hope he falls. If not, hope Troy tackles him.”
Clark added: “He is running like a guy that hasn’t been playing football for a long time. He is truly playing football at a high level and changed their team.”
Has Starks considered how his fortunes might have been different if he had not missed his senior season at Buffalo? At the time, he was projected as a late second-round or early third-round draft pick. “I don’t think it cost me anything,” Starks said. “I play this game for the fun of it.”
Starks was the 13th running back selected in the draft. When prodded, he acknowledged he used that as motivation.
“I was thinking I could have been drafted higher and that I’m going to show everybody who I am,” he said. Starks has the football world’s attention now, but his mind-set has not changed. “The first hole I see, I’m gone,” he said.
What if the Steelers plug all the holes? Starks shrugged. “No matter what I go through,” he said, “I try to come out of it with flying colors and a smile on my face.”