The glitz and glamour surrounding National Signing Day is over, but it’s not the definitive end for high school football players who didn’t sign Wednesday or during December’s early period.
Players such as Saint Stephen’s Fred Billy, who scored more than 100 touchdowns in his career, don’t need to look far for inspiration.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie didn’t have a single college offer when he finished his high school football career at Lakewood Ranch.
Rodgers-Cromartie’s father, Stanley, got him to Tennessee State on the strength of Stanley’s friendship with head coach Rod Reed.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“I just wanted my son to go to college and have an opportunity at playing football,” said Stanley, who is the athletic director at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville.
Yet, DRC turned himself into a two-time All-American and a first-round NFL draft pick in 2008. He played in the Super Bowl with the Arizona Cardinals, and has enjoyed a successful NFL career that’s spanned 10 seasons with multiple teams, the latest being the New York Giants.
But before becoming an NFL defensive back, DRC was a late bloomer who nearly quit football.
“I sat the bench the first three years and never got in, so I was like, ‘Football isn’t for me,’ ” Rodgers-Cromartie said.
Football, though, was for him.
Stanley Cromartie convinced his son not to quit. Stanley said he told Dominique to finish the season – his junior year – at Orlando Edgewater. Following that season, during which he grew at least four inches, DRC relocated to Manatee County to attend Lakewood Ranch.
Also an accomplished track athlete, DRC continued in that sport as well as playing football at Lakewood Ranch, before getting his chance at Tennessee State.
They look up to us like, ‘Man, these guys came from nothing.’ So they’re basically in the same predicament that I was when I was back in their age.
New York Giants defensive back and Lakewood Ranch High alumnus Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on high school football recruits getting overlooked on signing day
“My whole career from Little League all the way to the NFL, I’ve always been overlooked,” Rodgers-Cromartie said. “So I always told myself, ‘Man, I’m always going to be around and be relevant and matter.’ So I always put in the time and the work to do just that.”
Mistral Raymond wasn’t a heralded recruit out of Palmetto High, either. He went to Ellsworth Community College for two seasons. Then he walked on at the University of South Florida before becoming a scholarship player and reaching the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings.
There’s also Sharrod Neasman, who played wide receiver at Braden River High before becoming a defensive back at Florida International University and playing in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons.
Neasman worked his way from Atlanta’s practice squad to the Falcons’ Super Bowl roster in 2017.
“They look up to us like, ‘Man, these guys came from nothing,’ ” Rodgers-Cromartie said. “So they’re basically in the same predicament that I was when I was back in their age. Not having nothing to turn to and then just getting here with an opportunity. So I think it allows them to just really understand to take advantage of any opportunity that’s given, taking it and taking it in stride.”
Even beyond Manatee County’s borders, there are several examples of unheralded players reaching the NFL.
Take Super Bowl LII for example. Rivals released the star ratings for players on the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots.
Seven players didn’t have any stars, according to Rivals.
Tom Brady, who played high school football before Rivals existed, went to Power 5 school Michigan, but wasn’t the starting quarterback and was lost in the shuffle as a late sixth-round draft pick before becoming – arguably – the best quarterback in history.
J.J. Watt, who is considered the NFL’s best defensive player and won the league’s Walter Payton Award for his Hurricane Harvey relief work, was a two-star recruit that signed with Central Michigan before transferring to Wisconsin.
“We’re an NAIA school that has football and I tell my football team all the time it doesn’t matter where you’re at,” Cromartie said. “If you’re good and you’re an NFL prospect, they’ll find you. And that was a great example of Dominique.”