BIRMINGHAM – When it comes to game day in the USFL, Birmingham Stallions quarterback Alex McGough has a 6-foot-4, 251-pound "security blanket" named Jace Sternberger.
"He's reliable," McGough said. "I said yesterday, he's a football player. I mean he has instincts you can't teach. He knows where to go, he knows how to get open, he knows where the green grass is. He just makes plays when the time comes. He's just a really good security blanket, third down, first down, whenever I need him."
The credentials that Sternberger carried to Birmingham were well documented. The Kingfisher, Oklahoma native began his college career at Kansas before transferring to Northeast Oklahoma A&M. After a year in junior college, he transferred to Texas A&M, where he became one of the country's top tight ends. In his lone season in College Station, he earned All-American honors by catching 48 passes for 832 yards with 10 touchdowns.
He was a third-round choice by the Green Bay Packers in the 2019 NFL Draft but started the regular season on injured reserve. His lone touchdown that season came in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game.
"Cold at first, I got used to it," Sternberger said when asked about his time in Green Bay. "It gets dark every day like 4:30, you get accustomed to that pretty quick. I loved it because it's a small-town vibe. I'm from a small town. It's very blue collar, it's all about work. Weekends, you get to enjoy Green Bay Packer football. That's what it was all about. It reminded me of home a lot."
He had 12 catches for 114 yards with a touchdown in 2020 but was released in 2021. He had stints with Seattle, Washington and Pittsburgh but was not on an active roster. His most recent NFL opportunity came in a tryout with the Cleveland Browns last November, but that didn't pan out.
For a while, he was without football.
"Luckily, for me, I just had a son," Sternberger said. "I really got to capitalize on it by being with him, being a dad. In this profession, you're on the road a lot, you're traveling a lot. I tried to find the positives in it and tried to make sure I was going to enjoy this time with my son, as much as possible. I really did take advantage of that. He kept me sane because, other than that it was pretty tough (without football). Having a 1-year-old, it's pretty intense all the time. He kept me busy."
While he was being a dad, Birmingham Stallions head coach Skip Holtz and general manager Zach Potter were trying to figure out what their team would do at the tight end position.
"In the offseason, we were looking for a tight end," Holtz said. "Cary Angeline had signed, he was coming back, Sage (Surratt) was waiting on a (NFL) futures deal. We didn't know if he was going to get it or not. Jace became available. We had a decision to make. Do you take Jace as your tight end or do you wait on Sage? If you wait on Sage, you may end up with none. We felt like Jace was a good player. I think Sage is a good player. We'd love to have them both. Unfortunately, the way the timing worked out, it didn't work out (to have both)."
In hindsight, the move worked out for both. In fact, it worked out in a way that Sternberger and Surratt, who stayed in Birmingham but signed with the New Orleans Breakers, are clearly the most productive tight ends in the USFL through two games. Surratt leads the USFL in receptions (16) and receiving yards (206). Sternberger is tied for fourth with 10 receptions and second in receiving yards with 189. Sternberger is tied for the USFL lead with two touchdown catches, and Surratt has one touchdown reception.
They both will be on the same field on Saturday when the Stallions and Breakers meet with the USFL South Division lead on the line. Kickoff will be 11:30 a.m. at Protective Stadium.
For Sternberger, he's treating this week's game like he has the first two weeks, even though the pressure builds weekly.
"The more you win, the more the stakes build, the more people are starting to pay attention," Sternberger said. "They want to know was that just a fluke? Can you do it consistently? I feel like, as the season goes on, you definitely have more to prove. I think it's more exciting."
The ultimate goal for Sternberger is to get back to the NFL, although that takes a backseat to the process of making that happen.
"That's the mission but one step at a time," Sternberger said. "Be in the moment, win a championship and whatever happens, happens."
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