Steve Tasker takes the wisecracks in stride, at 5'9", 183 pounds, he is used to hearing "I didn't know a football player could be so small." And, with his baby face, he is accustomed to bartenders asking to see some I.D., even though he is 29 and the father of three.
"When I'm hanging out with players everybody recognizes, then bartenders might give me a break; they figure I must be with them," says Tasker, the mighty mite of the Buffalo Bills' special teams. "And if fans want to speak to us, they'll head straight for me. I've gotten a reputation for being such a great guy, but I think it's because I'm the least intimidating."
People can easily relate to Tasker because he looks like your kid brother, acts as casual as an old friend and makes you believe that, hey, you could play pro football, too. His off-season appointment book in 1991 was so jammed by February that he couldn't commit to making any more public appearances. He is a deacon at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in West Falls, a suburb of Buffalo, and most of his free time is devoted to speaking about his faith in upstate New York.
"My faith in Christ has to do with every day of my life and everything that I do," Tasker says. "I believe I'm playing football for a purpose. This is where God wants me right now."
On the field, however, Tasker's choirboy appearance is deceiving. Bills coach Marv Levy calls him the Wild Angel. "Steve's very courteous and polite," Levy says. "He's a wide-eyed kid. On special teams, though, he turns into a terror. He plays the game the way it should be played."
Quick, tough and relentless, Tasker is a showstopper who makes one big play after another. Last season, in Buffalo's march to Super Bowl XXV, Tasker blocked two punts, forced two fumbles inside the 20-yard line, recovered two fumbles and nailed two return men inside their 10-yard line. For that performance he was selected as the AFC's Pro Bowl special teams player for the second time in four years.
"Covering kickoffs is the funnest thing there is about football," Tasker says. "The world would be a happier place if everybody could do that once a week. I sprint down the field with an aura of total invincibility. Nobody is going to stop me. I'm going to make the play. I don't care about my wife, my kids, my dog, my house. Nothing. With 60 yards to wind up, I know it's going to be an incredible collision. It sounds absolutely barbaric to say, but laying a good lick on somebody is the best feeling ever. It doesn't hurt."
Tasker is a physical phenomenon. To begin with, he is blessed with remarkable leg strength. He has squatted 500 pounds and can dunk a basketball behind his head with two hands. Capable of performing backflips on command, Tasker has the balance of a gymnast. Speed? In 1980, Tasker was the Kansas AAA state champion in both the 100 and 200 meters as a senior at Wichita County High, and he still holds the record for the best career punt-return average (10.8 yards) at Northwestern.
Combine those talents with his size, and it's clear why Tasker is considered the most elusive coverage man in the NFL. Blocking him in the open field is frustrating as he darts and ducks and zigzags past blockers to tackle the ballcarrier. Once the New England Patriots tried to keep Tasker from slipping through the gaps in their wedge by having a couple of big linemen hold hands. "I had to run around six feet of human body to get to the ballcarrier," Tasker says. "I took it as a compliment, but it still wasn't any fun."
There are disadvantages to being a little guy in the NFL. After six seasons on special teams Tasker has had arthroscopic surgery on both knees, a ligament from a cadaver implanted in his right knee, and a broken right hand. Imagine running toward a wedge of blockers who weigh almost 100 pounds more per man. "When I try to take out the wedge," Tasker says, "it's like throwing a marsh-mallow at a steamroller."
The son of a United Methodist minister, Tasker grew up in the tiny farming community of Leoti (pop. 1,800), Kans., 35 miles east of the Colorado line. Considered too small to play football by most four-year colleges, Tasker gladly accepted a scholarship to Dodge City (Kans.) Community College. "My freshman year I weighed in at 147 pounds," he says. "That was fully clothed with my wallet and comb in my pocket."
The coach put him on a weightlifting regimen, and Tasker became a wide receiver, kick returner and placekicker. After two seasons, he transferred to Northwestern, where he played strictly on special teams. When the Houston Oilers drafted him as a kick returner and wide receiver in the ninth round in 1985, Tasker was shocked.
"I never dreamed of playing in the NFL," he says. "I knew I had the ability, but I didn't know if I had the size and the strength."
Injuries forced him to miss 16 games in his first two seasons. He was about to be activated from injured reserve late in 1986, but the Oilers first had to sneak him through waivers. Levy, who had been named the Bills' coach three days before, snatched up Tasker to bolster his special teams. Tasker's career took off from there. Last season he even saw spot duty at wide receiver. Both of his catches, covering 24 and 20 yards, went for touchdowns.
Tasker is aware of the harsh realities that face special teams players. After both the 1988 and '89 seasons, the Bills left him unprotected during the Plan B free-agency period. Back then the future seemed so uncertain that Tasker sold his 16-acre farm in Colden, N.Y., 45 minutes from downtown Buffalo, and bought a house closer to town, figuring it would be easier to unload if he had to move to another NFL city.
To his surprise, the Bills protected him during the Plan B period following Super Bowl XXV. "I always thought it was kind of silly to protect me," he says. "I didn't think I could be that valuable to a team."