When Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie entered the NFL as a first-round draft choice by the Arizona Cardinals from Tennessee State, he set a modest goal for himself.
“If I could just get to five years (in the league) that would be awesome,” Rodgers-Cromartie said. The league average is two-point something. If I could just get to five years, I’d feel like I’d accomplish something coming from a small school and the background that I come from.”
DRC sprinted past that objective and is still going. Not including the playoffs, he’s played in 138 career games.
“This is four years of, ‘Wow, I’m still here and still able to compete with the young guys and hang with them and run with them,’” he said. “It’s all fun. It’s more fun to me this year.”
Rodgers-Cromartie, 30, is not just running around, he’s playing well. In 2015, he was selected to play in his second Pro Bowl – and first since 2009 – after posting a team-high 13 passes defensed and tie for the lead with three interceptions. He scored two touchdowns, one each on an interception and fumble return. He was an AP All-Pro second team selection after the 2016 season.
This past season, he become a more versatile player. With the arrival of first-round draft choice Eli Apple, Rodgers-Cromartie lined up in the slot more frequently than he ever did. And he didn't just cover slot receivers. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo sometimes used DRC on blitzes.
“(I had) some first-game jitters,” Rodgers-Cromartie said during the season. “Now that I got it under my belt it definitely helps. I feel good about myself and I’m ready to rock and roll. The main thing is that I want to be on that field. Whether I’m inside or outside, I just want to play.”
DRC has played for four teams – Arizona, Philadelphia, Denver, and the Giants, with whom he signed as a free agent in 2014. Through the 2016 season, his career totals included 391 tackles, 30 interceptions (plus three in the postseason), 144 passes defensed, and seven touchdowns, numbers he is very proud of.
To come from a small school and go first round, having all (those) stats, have Pro Bowls, I’ve been to two Super Bowls man that’s amazing. If it was all said and done for me I’d look back and be proud and be happy. - Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
But Rodgers-Cromartie is far from finished. He is excited to be part of the Giants’ vastly-improved Giants defense. DRC is a primary component on a rebuilt cornerback corps that includes veterans Janoris Jenkins and Leon Hall, as well as Apple. Although he now takes numerous snaps in the slot, Rodgers-Cromartie remains the starter in his familiar spot at left cornerback, where he started 30 games in 2014-15. Jenkins was on the right side.
“We all go to each other, because each person can learn,” DRC said. “They do come to me and ask questions, but I also go to them and ask them things. When you bring in guys like that you bring in guys that have that competitive edge and they’re always competing and going full speed. But we have a jolly room, a happy room and we have some guys that like to joke around and have fun. But when they step between the lines, those guys get serious.”
Rodgers-Cromartie is very serious about capturing the NFL’s ultimate prize, a Super Bowl victory. He has twice been on the losing team in the title game. As a rookie with the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII following the 2008 season, DRC was in the vicinity – as was his mentor, former Giants safety Antrel Rolle – when Pittsburgh’s Santonio Holmes caught the game-winning touchdown pass with 35 seconds remaining. In 2013, his only season with the Broncos, Denver was crushed in Super Bowl XLVIII in MetLife Stadium by Seattle, 43-8.
So what’s worse, losing a Super Bowl in the final minute or getting blown out?
“You lost both, so it hurts bad, but the one that you actually have a chance to win and you lose it I think that hurts a little more,” he said. “When it’s a blowout it just wasn’t your day. But when it’s close like that it’s tough.”
He hopes to return to the season’s final game, and celebrate a victory, in a Giants uniform.
“(Trying to win a Super Bowl) drives me a lot,” Rodgers-Cromartie said. “I came into the league, played nine years, did some things in the league and to win a Super Bowl, man that would be just a dream come true. You play this game to have a Super Bowl and to leave with one, that would be great.”
DRC’s competitive fire has long burned white hot, and has fueled him throughout a career that included stops at four high schools, low-profile Tennessee State University, those four NFL teams, and two Super Bowl losses. It was ignited in his hometown, Bradenton, Florida. His dad, Stanley Cromartie, was a basketball coach who traveled so frequently, Rodgers-Cromartie said, “I grew up with just my mom.” She held two jobs as a nurse’s assistant, so DRC was a major influence in the lives of his two younger sisters.
“Being the oldest, being a protector they always look to me first,” he said. “I was the example setter, one of the first boys to go to college out of the family. I set an example for my sisters. They graduated from college, so I feel like I did a good job.”
Rodgers-Cromartie’s athletic career was almost derailed before it began, because he was born with a non-functioning kidney. When it was removed when he was five years old, it was thought he would never play contact sports. But the ban ended almost as soon as soon as it began. He wore a pad for a while to protect the kidney, but eventually discarded it.
“There’s still that chance of being hurt pretty bad, but I don’t tend to think about that,” DRC said. “I just go and play.”
The missing kidney did influence the position he played.
“That’s why I play defense,” he said. “I get to do the hitting. I can’t let anybody hit me. I used to watch football and watch some of the devastating hits and say, ‘Uh.’ But it grew on me, just staying around it. It kept me out of trouble, so it stayed with me.”
But it took a while for him to get a foothold in the game. Rodgers-Cromartie was a nomad for most of his high school years and didn’t get to play until he was a senior at Lakewood Ranch High School in Bradenton.
“I was a late bloomer,” DRC said. “I was always on the team, but I never got in the game. I went to four different schools. My ninth grade year, I moved with my father to Orlando. I was small; I was like 5-3 and all through high school and I kept getting shipped around in Orlando, because he kept getting different jobs (the most prominent of which was as an assistant coach at Bethune-Cookman). I had a six-inch growth spurt my junior year. Finally, my senior year I went back home and then that’s when I was able to get on the field.”
Once there, he was immediately one of the region’s best players.
Rodgers-Cromartie was an All-Area, All-Class 5A and All-District defensive back and wide receiver and was named the most underrated prospect in Florida by the High School Recruiting Report. He also excelled on the track team as a sprinter, long jumper, high jumper and triple jumper.
“I was finally getting to play, making plays and having a lot of people come into your school and want to talk to you,” DRC said. “I was on a 5-5 team, but I got a chance to play in the All-Star game down there. That really helped me out and got me a couple looks. But I didn’t have (SAT or ACT) scores coming out, so a lot of people fell off me. That’s why I went the route that I went.”
That path took him not to a major football power but to Tennessee State University in Nashville, where his uncle, Rod Reed, was the defensive coordinator (and is now the head coach).
“I had a good GPA, but my scores weren’t good enough to get a full ride,” Rodgers-Cromartie said. “So my uncle said, ‘You can come play corner for me, but you’re going to have to work your way in. If you work your way from there, I’ll give you a full ride.’ I didn’t think twice. I signed the first chance I could.”
DRC made his mark immediately – both bad and good.
“I got up there early,” he said. “That first day of one-on-ones I think I picked off every pass. It got to a point during my freshman season that the coaches would count in practice how many picks I would get against our number one team. I was the only true freshman on the team coming in, but I didn’t play. I was like the fourth corner. In the first game two of the starting corners went down, so I got thrown out there and that’s how I broke my redshirt. That second game was against Jackson State. The first play I was against Cleatis Gordon, who used to play for the Chargers, He took me 60 yards. I remember coming to the sideline and they were like, ‘I told you coach, he’s a freshman, he’s not ready. We can’t throw him out there.’ And it was 7-7 going into the fourth quarter and they were on a game-winning drive when they ran a hitch my way and I picked it off for a pick six.
“That first play that ball went over my head. But I battled, stayed in the whole game, and got the game-winning pick six. I never looked back.”
Because he was victimized on a long touchdown pass and scored the game-winner on a pick, Rodgers-Cromartie learned a valuable lesson in his collegiate debut about playing cornerback.
“You’ve got to have a short memory,” he said. “Also, you’ve got to be focused at all times, because you never know when it’s going to come your way.”
The game also solidified his desire to play cornerback.
I liked the competition. It’s me and you, man, mano e mano. When something happens you know it’s because he beat you. It gives you a certain rush. That’s why I love corner, because you get to be competitive. - DRC
Fueled by his recharged desire, DRC became not only one of the best players in the history of Tennessee State, but in the Ohio Valley Conference. He was a two-time All-America and a three-time All-OVC first-team selection. Rodgers-Cromartie finished his collegiate career with 11 interceptions, including four he returned for touchdowns. He also brought back a fumble and a kickoff for touchdowns, and blocked eight kicks during his collegiate career. DRC totaled 859 yards on 36 kickoff returns (23.9-yard avg.).
Rodgers-Cromartie believed he had NFL talent, but was concerned his small-school background would deny him a chance to make a team. Then he got a big break.
“A lot of corners dropped out of the Senior Bowl,” he said. “They were trying to fill in spots and they gave me an opportunity. Once I went to the Senior Bowl and matched up with the big guys there, that’s when I thought, ‘I can play in this game.’ I was going hard, but they had me playing safety at the Senior Bowl. Then in the game they moved me to corner and I ended up getting defensive MVP.”
After proving he could excel playing against some of the nation’s best wide receivers, DRC was the 16th overall selection of the 2008 NFL Draft by the Cardinals. In his first pro training camp, Rodgers-Cromartie knew little about technique and the nuances of his position. He simply played with his instinct and athletic ability.
But one of his fellow defensive backs began teaching him the finer points of the game. Rolle, who played five seasons for the Giants (2010-14) and was a two-time team captain, had been the Cardinals’ top draft choice in 2005. After three seasons at corner, he moved to safety that year. And Rolle was eager to impart his wisdom to the team’s skilled new cornerback. And Rodgers-Cromartie said the mentoring he received from Rolle and others helped him mold him into an outstanding professional player.
“When I came in, I was a high-wire guy,” he said. “They slowed me down, they worked on my mechanics, because I wasn’t a technique guy. I was just fast and wanted to go play. He broke that down to me and taught me the game, what a three-step was and things of that nature.”
The improvement wasn’t immediate, and Rodgers-Cromartie had some rough experiences on his trip around the learning curve.
“Those first few games were tough, man,” he said. “I think I gave up about five scores in the first few games (the list of receivers who beat him included Steve Smith, Torry Holt and Miles Austin). I was on Sportscenter’s Top 10, but not the good one. They were going over the top of my head. I was making plays, but I was so fast out of my breaks, they were moving me and I didn’t know how to read them, I didn’t know anything. I was just playing full speed.”
“It made me question myself one time where I said, ‘Am I good enough to play?’ But then in practice I’d go against guys like Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin and be right on them. I’m like, ‘Something isn’t right.’ So I had to re-study myself – ‘If I can guard these guys I know I can guard other people.’ And then it just clicked for me. I’m a confident guy. It’s hard to play corner, because one false move and it’s a touchdown. I just kept lining up and at one point I thought, ‘I can’t be this bad. Something isn’t right.’ I talked to Trel and asked him, ‘I know I can play, what am I doing wrong?’ One thing about Trel, is he’s a big film watcher. He broke down that film and said, ‘I think you can do this, this and that.’ I just listened and the game went to another level.”
So did the Cardinals, who that season advanced to their first – and still only – Super Bowl, which was played in Tampa, near DRC’s hometown. They took a lead with just 2:27 remaining, when Fitzgerald caught a 64-yard touchdown pass. But Arizona suffered a heartbreaking defeat when Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger threw the game-winning, 6-yard touchdown pass to Holmes. Aaron Francisco, Rolle and DRC were all close to the receiver, but couldn’t prevent him from catching the ball.
“That hurt for a long time,” Rodgers-Cromartie said. “To this day, I can’t watch replays of the game, because I knew we were that close. What hurts the most is the play before that they ran the same play to the other side, but they missed it. Trel was saying, ‘You have to stay back.’ They did the same thing and I jumped it again trying to make a play and they threw it right over my head.”
The following year, DRC started all 16 games, had a career-high six interceptions and he and Rolle each played in their first Pro Bowl. Rodgers-Cromartie played well again the following year. But as training camp opened in 2011, he was traded, along with a second-round draft choice, to Philadelphia for quarterback Kevin Kolb.
“It was very shocking,” he said.
After two seasons in Philadelphia he moved again, to Denver, where he helped the Broncos advance to his second Super Bowl. But Denver was dominated by Seattle in a 35-point loss.
Rodgers-Cromartie was a free agent after that season and signed with the Giants on March 17, 2014. He missed just two games in his first three seasons. And he’s not planning to leave anytime soon. After the 2016 season, Rodgers-Cromartie is now one year shy of doubling his original five-year goal. And he might run right past that.
“I take it year by year,” he said. “You get up in age, you’re just fortunate to be here. You realize how tough this game is and to be able to do nine years it’s a blessing. You see guys come in and out so when you’re still on the team it’s fun. You have a lot of younger guys to keep you energetic and keep you happy.
“But I like the competition, I like going out there and competing against guys. The locker room is always fun. When you leave this game the first thing you’re going to miss is the locker room. So you just continue to do what you’re doing, playing competing and just having fun.”