Thursday, January 31, 2008

Looking for a chance - Lakewood Ranch grad hopes to get noticed by the NFL

By ROGER MOONEY
rmooney@bradenton.com

LAKEWOOD RANCH --The NFL scouts would arrive at the University of Houston and ask to meet with some of the seniors and the names of those players would be posted on a bulletin board in the locker room. Every day Rocky Schwartz would check to see if his name was on the list, and every day he would walk away disappointed.

"It got me down a little bit, but it's fuel to the fire," Schwartz said.
His spirits dipped only slightly, because Schwartz is used to being overlooked.

It was that way during his senior year at Lakewood Ranch High, when as a quarterback, he drew only a handful of offers, and those came from Division I-AA schools. Still, when healthy, Schwartz was a starter at safety for Houston since his freshman season.

Now, after fighting back from a torn left ACL that robbed him of his junior year to lead the Cougars in tackles last fall, Schwartz finds himself again on the outside.

More than 300 invitations to the NFL Scouting Combine were recently mailed to draft-eligible players, but not one contained the name "Rocky Schwartz."

"You can look at it two ways," Schwartz said. "You can say, 'Shoot, nobody's looking at me.' Or you can look at it in a positive way and say, 'People aren't looking at me. I'm going to make them look at me.' "
Which is why if you peeked into the Athletic Edge Sports Performance Conditioning in Lakewood Ranch on Monday afternoon, you would have found Schwartz flat on his back with his legs in the air, pumping as if he were riding a bicycle.
"I need 100 of those," trainer Mike Gough said.
It was the final exercise of an intense 75-minute workout - his second of the day - aimed at preparing Schwartz for the Houston Cougars' pro day in March, where Schwartz will be timed, measured and graded by NFL scouts.
"I just want an opportunity to play," Schwartz said. "I just want somebody to look at me."
Right now, the 23-year-old Schwartz is considered a potential free agent, someone who could sign a contract after the draft's conclusion with no guarantee of lasting through minicamp.
At 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, Schwartz is considered too small for the NFL. With a time of 4.63 in the 40-yard dash, he is thought to be too slow.
"They always say he doesn't have the size or the speed, but when push comes to shove, he is always one of the better players on the team," said Schwartz's wife, Arielle.
The two have a son, Roderick Evan Schwartz III, better known as Trey, who turns 1 on Wednesday. The Schwartzes are expecting a second child in August.
Playing football at the highest level has always been a driving force in Schwartz's life. Now, he has more incentive.
"That has been my dream since, I don't know, as long as I can remember," Schwartz said. "Before I wanted to do this for myself. Now I'm doing it for my wife, my family. It's more than just me."
Trey is big for his age.
"He runs around like a lineman," Schwartz said.
"They are like two peas in a pod," Arielle said. "He's a total daddy's boy. When they're together Rocky becomes a little kid again. He sees Trey, and he just melts."
So Trey's dad presses weights with his legs and arms and runs up hill on a treadmill and does hundreds of crunches on the FieldTurf that covers the floor at Athletic Edge, all with the intent on lowering that 40 time.
"It is something he has a passion for," Arielle said.
But a job in the NFL is not the end all for the Schwartzes. Rocky graduated in December with a degree in sports administration and is taking online course toward a graduate degree. Arielle has degrees from USF in communication and business.
Schwartz said he would be content teaching phys ed and coaching high school football.
Still, for someone considered a tad shy of the prototype for an NFL safety, Schwartz managed to lead the Cougars with 103 tackles - 34 more than cornerback Kenneth Fontenette, who was second. Schwartz proved he can return from a major injury and play at a high level.
Just getting to Houston proved Schwartz can eventually find an open door. The Cougars weren't interested in Schwartz until Steve Cucci, a Southeast High grad who played tight end for Houston at the time, dropped some tape of Schwartz off with the assistant coaches.
And even then it took a couple players to flunk off the team before a scholarship opened up for Schwartz.
"When I first got there, I didn't even know if I could play with those guys, but then I went out there and realized I could," Schwartz said.
Schwartz sees guys he's played with and against in college now playing on Sundays, so why can't he?
"He's working so hard for the chance," Arielle said. "But if he doesn't make it, if it doesn't work out, I wouldn't be upset about it, because he tried his best."

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