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Levens Records a Breakthrough Season


In his first season as a starting running back, Dorsey Levens was named to the NFC Pro Bowl squad as a starter.

It's not like this was a debut for Dorsey Levens.

He had been a professional football player for three years heading into the 1997 NFL season. And his function in the Green Bay Packers' offense was established - understudy to starting running back Edgar Bennett.

It was a role he had played extremely well in 1996. Levens ran for 566 yards, averaging a team-best 4.7 yards per carry. He caught 31 passes. And Levens appeared to blossom in the Packers' postseason run, especially in the NFC Championship Game against Carolina, when he toiled for 205 all-purpose yards.

It was apparent to all that in Levens the Packers had unearthed something vital to their title defense: a darn good backup running back. So as 1997 approached, Levens dutifully prepared for another season behind Bennett, mostly in late-down, one-back sets. His role lasted all of, oh, eight minutes.

With 6:54 left in the first quarter of Green Bay's first preseason game, Bennett broke into the open field and scampered for 18 yards. But on the play, he torn his Achilles' tendon. Bennett, the team's featured back for the past four seasons, was now out for the season. The stage was set - Levens was now playing lead, for the first time since his college days.

"I'm looking forward to it," Levens said on the eve of the Packers' opener against Chicago, though he did have a confession to make.

"I still haven't proven to anybody that I can be the full-time back."

On December 11, Dorsey Levens was selected to the Pro Bowl. He finished the year with 1,435 rushing yards and 1,805 total yards from scrimmage. The latter was a team record, the former just 39 yards shy of Jim Taylor's 35-year-old record. Both marks were good enough for second in the NFC behind Detroit's Barry Sanders. Levens, who was just looking to prove himself to his teammates, proved that he was one of top running backs in the entire league.

"This was not one of my goals," Levens said when the Pro Bowl selections were announced. "I thought this was unrealistic, at the time, considering that we had guys like Barry, Ricky Watters and Emmitt (Smith). My only goal was to get 1,000 yards rushing. That was it."

But Levens raced out to a solid start, overcame a chest injury and demonstrated a durability that quickly silenced anyone who thought he might not flourish in the starter's role.

Levens hit the 100-yard mark for the first time in Week 3 against the Dolphins, rushing for 121 yards on just 21 carries. He gained 107 yards two weeks later at Detroit, then appeared headed for his best day as a pro at Chicago. But after running over the Bears for 74 yards in the first half, Levens was forced to watch the second half in street clothes. He had sprained the S/C joint - where the sternum meets the clavicle - in the upper part of his chest. With a Super Bowl rematch against New England looming following Green Bay's bye, Levens' status was questionable.

He did play against the Patriots, however, and responded with 140 total yards and two touchdowns. The Packers won 28-10, launching a stretch of eight wins in their final nine games. But Levens was just getting warmed up.

After two average outings against Detroit and St. Louis, Levens exploded at Indianapolis, rushing for 103 yards (including a career-long, 52-yard scoring jaunt) and catching four passes for 92 yards. But the Packers suffered a shocking setback and headed back home to face a Dallas team which had beaten them seven straight times 1993. In those seven games, the Cowboys had held Green Bay to an average of 58 yards rushing.

All Levens did was set a Packers single-game record, bullying Dallas for 190 yards on 33 carries, including 91 yards in the fourth quarter.

"I told him a couple of times, that was some of the hardest running I've ever seen," quarterback Brett Favre said. "You saw what I saw. It was remarkable."

Levens also cracked the 1,000-yard barrier against the Cowboys, becoming just the sixth player in Green Bay history to reach that plateau.

"It feels great," Levens said after his historic performance. "I didn't even know what the record was going into the game and I didn't know I broke it until somebody told me.

"I was tired. But as a running back, the more carries you get, the more confident you feel."

In that case, Levens' confidence must be at an all-time high. He accounted for a Packers-record 329 of the team's 459 carries. His six 100-yard games were the second-most in club history and his three straight 100-yard efforts late in the season tied a club record.

And though Levens didn't reach Taylor's regular-season mark, he has made up for it in the postseason. Levens broke the club's playoff rushing record with a 112-yard performance in a divisional playoff contest vs. Tampa Bay at Lambeau. Then, facing the NFC's top rushing defense the following week, Levens notched 114 yards at San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. He became the only back to hit the century mark against the 49ers all season.

Can he carry the Packers one more time? As the ultimate spotlight looms, odds are that Dorsey Levens is more than ready to shoulder that load.

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