TRASH OR PIGSKIN, SCHLESINGER HAULS IT

Every week, when he takes out the trash, Cory Schlesinger does something most regular folk — let alone most NFL running backs — never bother to do. He straightens up. Makes things neat around the cans. Lids on tight. No loose paper. This way, the trash guys have an easier time.

“Some people throw everything on the curb and expect it to be picked up,” he says. “I hate that.”

That’s the kind of guy Schlesinger is, the kind who thinks about the guys on the trucks. Then again, he used to be one of the guys on the trucks. His folks own a sanitation company in the small town of Duncan, Neb. For years, until he went off to college, garbage was Cory’s part-time job, rolling from house to house, picking up the cans, dumping them in the crusher, hopping back on the truck.

A dirty job, but somebody’s got to . . .

Well, you know.

Anyhow, here’s the good news. Today, finally, in what can only be called a throwaway Detroit football season, it is Schlesinger’s turn to get a little polish.

The Lions may be 0-8, and the number of positive things you can say about them can fit on the rim of Harry Potter’s glasses, but Schlesinger, 29, is one of the bright spots. As a fullback, he has more production in this half-season than he has ever had in a complete one. Last Sunday, he led the team in catches. And — a milestone — he scored his first rushing touchdown in the NFL.

It took only seven years.

Rockheads of the world, unite!

Once overshadowed by Sanders

I better explain the “Rockhead” part. That was Schlesinger’s nickname in college, thanks to his straight-ahead, battering-ram rushing style. What’s that? What college? Uh, Nebraska? Remember? What’s that? You remember other Cornhusker running backs but not him?

Story of his life. For years here in Detroit, Cory had the locker next to Barry Sanders, which is kind of like having the parking spot next to the circus trucks. Week after week, game after game, I watched Cory push through Barry’s media throng, holding his jeans and shoes and clean shirt over his head, like a man evicted from his apartment. He had to dress someplace else, because the reporters usurped his area.

There’s a pattern there, a serpentine thing. Consider the long and winding road to Cory’s first rushing touchdown. He comes out of Nebraska. He gets drafted by the Lions. The bad news is, they have the best running back in the game.

“Did you think you wouldn’t get to run the ball?” I ask.

“No, I was told I wasn’t gonna run the ball,” he says.

He was there to block for Barry. But then the coach chose a run ‘n’ shoot offense, which doesn’t really need a fullback. So his position was basically eliminated. A fullback in a one-back set? He was a drummer in a string quartet.

Eventually, Bobby Ross came along and restored the fullback position, which gave Schlesinger a role besides special teams, where he had been hanging on.

“I admit, it was frustrating during that time,” he says. “I felt my prime years were slipping away. I didn’t even have any film of me to show other teams. I kept asking the coaches, ‘Is there something I can do?’ “

Lions need more like him

He doesn’t have to ask anymore. Last week, in the Lions’ latest loss, Schlesinger took a pass and smacked into half the Tampa Bay Bucs. He would not go down. He spun, he stumbled, he spun, he rumbled. He clanged, banged, and finally lunged for extra yards. It was a terrific effort in a lethargic year, and the Silverdome crowd roared its approval.

“I could hear that,” Cory admits.

He should hear it more. The Lions’ running game is battered and bruised. Their passing game is missing two of its stars. Schlesinger can help both. And that’s in addition to special teams, which he still plays with the abandon of a truck that has lost its brakes.

Besides, any man named Rockhead is a man for this town, a bruiser, a lunch-pail guy who says he gets recognized only “when I get my oil changed.”

And usually they say, “I thought you were bigger.”

That’s because Schlesinger plays that way. Bigger than you figure. It wouldn’t hurt a few other Lions to follow that lead.

He says he saved the football from Sunday’s score. He says he may give it to his dad, who is still down there in Duncan, driving the truck.

Nice. Here in Detroit, it’s a lousy football year with few bright football moments, and maybe all we’ll get to cheer is a guy who breaks one tackle and another, refusing to give in, refusing to go down.

All right then. Celebrate that. Let’s appreciate Schlesinger.

The men who pick up his trash already do.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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