By Mark Janssen
MANHATTAN, Kan. - Rock Cartwright says he always thought there was a spot for him in the National Football League, but even he admits, "I'm not sure if I thought it would be this long. Right now, I'm taking it one year at a time, and not taking anything for granted."
After eight seasons with the Washington Redskins, Cartwright just completed his first season wearing the black and silver of the Oakland Raiders in his ninth NFL season.
"Basically, it's a blessing from God to give me this opportunity," said Cartwright, who last Sunday played a role in the Raiders' victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Cartwright's story falls in line with so many K-Staters of the past.
He was the player no one else would take a chance on. After all, he was 5-foot-8 and 242 pounds coming out of high school.
A product of Conroe, Texas, Cartwright rushed for 5,231 yards over a three-year career, which included a single-game high of 396 yards against Tumball High. He initially gave a verbal commitment to Baylor, but due to academic reasons, ended up at Trinity Valley Junior College.
Even though earning all-conference honors in both junior college seasons, he received no offers from Texas, or Texas A&M, or Tech Tech, or even Baylor.
"Coach (Bill) Snyder gave me the opportunity when nobody else would," said Cartwright. "I was a walk-on, but received a scholarship only two or three weeks after reporting to practice. Not getting a scholarship was something out of my control, so I chose not to worry about it. I was just so appreciative to get a chance at K-State. When no one else thought I could play, I sent a highlight tape to K-State and that got my foot in the door.""
He then made the most of that opportunity. Or in his words, "It's not how you start, but how you finish."
As a backup to Josh Scobey, plus a seldom used starting fullback, Cartwright rushed for 278 yards and five touchdowns, plus caught another five passes for 78 yards in 2000 as a junior when the Wildcats went 11-3 and defeated Tennessee, 35-21, in the Cotton Bowl.
In his senior season, he rushed for 292 yards and two more scores as the Wildcats' third-leading rusher behind Scobey and Ell Roberson in what would be a 6-6 season that ended with a 26-3 loss to Syracuse in the Insight.com Bowl.
"I have nothing but good memories about K-State," said Cartwright. "The game with Tennessee, and then beating Nebraska (29-28 in 2000) in the snowstorm, I think back to those games often."
Cartwright also thinks back to the emphasis that Snyder put on special teams, and how that philosophy just may have made it possible to have a nine-year career in the NFL.
"After an early practice I will always remember coach calling me to the side and saying what he liked about me was that I was trying to make the team better on special teams," Cartwright reflected. "My career always has gone back to how you practice is how you're going to play on Sunday. Whatever you put into practice is that you'll show on game day."
Cartwright, soon to be 31 years of age, ended up being a seventh-round draft choice by the Redskins in the 2002 NFL Draft.
After early seasons of 411 and 199 rushing yards in 2003 and 2004, respectively, injuries opened the door for Cartwright to be given a chance to return kickoffs. Today, that duty, plus playing on every other special team, is why Cartwright is still active in the NFL.
Playing at 215 pounds, or 30 pounds lighter than his K-State days, Cartwright broke the Redskins' single-season kickoff return record in 2006 by returning 64 kicks for 1,541 yards.
He followed that up with years of 1,339 return yards in 2007 and 1,307 in 2008. He now has NFL career marks of 224 returns for 5,370 yards, or an average of 24 yards per return with nine touchdowns.
"A couple injuries got me on the field, and it became my role," said Cartwright, who also has 903 rushing yards and 565 receiving yards to his NFL credit with a total of 11 touchdowns.
Released by the Redskins at the end of last year, Cartwright said, "It was in the Lord's hands, but I always felt like someone would pick me up just because of my attitude of being a productive player, and an accountable player, and my willingness to do whatever I could to help a team win."
The Oakland Raiders became that team signing Cartwright as a special team's leader, plus emergency running back behind Darren McFadden and Michael Bush.
He ended the year with seven carries for 16 yards, plus one catch for 10 yards, and five kickoff returns for 89 yards. But more importantly is the fact that he had blocked two punts and was the punter's personal protector.
"My personal goal is to be the best special teams' player in the league, but I also know it's not all about me," said Cartwright. "It's about the other guys and what it takes for the Raiders to be successful. My hope is that I added value to the team."
Cartwright says he's only been back to the K-State campus once since his career ended with the 2001 season, but adds, "I really need to get back. I've seen the upgrades they have made to the stadium on television, but I'd like to see them in person, plus say 'Hi' to Smitty (Michael Smith, assistant coach) and coach Snyder. Those are the guys that gave me my start."
And while that start was as a walk-on at K-State, and as a seventh-round draft choice in the NFL, he says, "It's not about where you start, but how you finish."