Flowery Branch, Ga. --There's a place in Kansas that at first glance brings to mind a Rust Belt steel town defined by its NFL franchise's storied history and reputation for stingy defense.
Residents of Pittsburg, Kansas are quick to remind you that the most prominent difference between the two locales is their lack of a trailing letter 'h' in the town's spelling. Turns out the most-heavily populated city in Crawford County lives and breathes football much like the metropolis at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers.
And one of the city's own has made it to the highest level of professional football, ascending to prominence after a position change at the state's public university to the cover of Sports Illustrated and beyond. Kerry Meier, the Atlanta Falcons' fifth-round draft choice in the 2010 NFL Draft, has even been added to the notable natives section on the town's Wikipedia page.
Meier, a high school all-state quarterback and starter at the position as a red shirt freshman at the University of Kansas, transitioned to wide receiver after losing his job to his roommate Todd Reesing. While his numbers as a sophomore would pale in comparison to what he would go on to produce at Kansas, he was a vital member of the team, serving on special teams and as the backup quarterback in addition to his receiving duties, on their way to a 12-1 season and an Orange Bowl win.
The do-everything wide receiver achieved the dream of many athletes in that magical season, landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated--except it wasn't quite how he once imagined it.
"It was pretty special," said Meier recently of his touchdown-catch cover shot against Iowa State. "I didn't really see it coming from me catching a pass. I more envisioned it being me throwing a pass. But that's how it fell. I ended up playing wide receiver. It's definitely something I'll hold onto for the rest of my life."
While Meier may not yet be the most notable native from Pittsburg as a rookie in the NFL, he's the most recent and one the town is currently buzzing about.
Pittsburg without the h is the kind of town where the Postmaster writes to members of the beloved football player's new city to share how intelligent, respectful, and considerate Meier and his family is.
He tells a story of the town's local newspaper article on Meier being drafted by the Falcons and how the Kansas single-season reception record holder made a point to mention how pleased he was that fellow Jayhawks Dezmon Briscoe and Darrell Stuckey were also drafted.
So it's no wonder that Meier took a switch from the most high-profile position on the football field to one often associated with speed and flamboyancy, not his strong suits. He believes that change to wide receiver made him more well-rounded and ultimately has prepared him to make his mark in the NFL.
"It's helped me out tremendously," he said. "It's made this transition a lot more smooth. Not just knowing one job or one task, but knowing what's going on around me. What hole or window I've got to get into. Where the quarterback's going to want me to be at this certain instance. It's helped out a lot."
Pittsburg is the kind of town where the wide receiver's next door neighbor writes to explain that Meier is "the type of kid that every coach wants to coach and every dad would like their son to be like." He shares a story of Meier, a week after his Orange Bowl victory, plopping down at his seven-year-old son's YMCA basketball game at 7 AM on a Saturday morning.
"You would have thought my son was the superstar," the neighbor explained.
Meier comes to the Falcons with a reputation as a tough-nosed, team player, willing to what he can for his team. If the position change doesn't sell that fact, look no further than Meier's sold-out routes across the middle of the football, dangerous territory, but an area that when navigated successfully quickly earns the respect of teammates.
Now in the NFL, he doesn't expect anything to change. The process has just started all over again, minus the position change.
"Right now they've got a solid group with Roddy [White], Michael [Jenkins], Finn [Brian Finneran], and Eric Weems," said Meier of his fellow wide receivers. "They've got a talented, talented bunch. They've got Harry [Douglas] and he's been out and hasn't practiced. They're a talented bunch, but what's great for me is I can learn from those guys. I know right away I'm not going to be on the field stealing time from them and stealing catches from them. I think right now what's big for me is learning the playbook and excelling on special teams. Coach's talked very highly of guys that play special teams because there are only 53 men on the roster. Coming in as a rookie, fighting and earning my respect on special teams is one thing I'm kind of fighting for right now."
Meier's calling card as the draft approached were not the attributes mentioned previously of wide receivers. Instead, running a flawless route as if he drew it up himself was one of the traits that drew Atlanta General Manager Thomas Dimitroff to the receiver.
It's an ability Meier believes is the difference between a touchdown and a busted play that could determine whether the home team gets a notch in the 'W' or 'L' column.
"When you get to the professional level, these are elite athletes and when it comes to route running you have to be very precise and very detailed with what you're doing," he said. "Any tip could mean a pick-six. So it's being very fundamentally sound and paying attention to those little details when you're running routes. Making sticks and controlling people with your eyes, all the fundamentals that I'm being taught here I'm trying to take from the classroom out onto the field and execute it."
Sacrifice, unselfishness, and a lack of ego that is striking are all reasons Meier has made it to the pinnacle of the football world. However, just like his hometown, there is one thing he's quick to share some pride in.
Interestingly enough, it's a food dish. Pittsburg is the self-proclaimed "Fried Chicken Capital of the World" for its legendary eateries like Chicken Annie's and Chicken Mary's, two simply-named, yet iconic and historic establishments in southeast Kansas.
"There are various ways I cook it, but grilled chicken is my famous dish," he said.
Meier knows, given the opportunity, his teammates will appreciate what he can bring to the table.