A bud­ding star’s trek

Arm­strong took the very long road to the Red­skins

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY RICK MAESE

RED­SKINS VS. GIANTS 4:15 P.M., WTTG-5

He’d grate­fully driven the route nearly ev­ery day for the past five months. Rolling to Red­skins Park for his fi­nal prac­tice of the sea­son last week, An­thony Arm­strong found his thoughts veer­ing back to his un­pre­dictable ca­reer path, not the fa­mil­iar roads. ¶ He pulled out his phone and tapped away. “This ain’t the way the GPS said, but the des­ti­na­tion is the same . . . ” Arm­strong tweeted. ¶ In the off­sea­son, he’d hoped for the 53rd spot on a 53-man ros­ter. Be­com­ing a spe­cial teams con­trib­u­tor would be a dream come true, con­sid­er­ing how un­likely it was that he was even in anNFLlocker room. ¶ But as the Washington Red­skins en­ter the fi­nal game of the sea­son Sun­day against the New York Giants, Arm­strong is a start­ing wide re­ceiver. While the team’s sea­son has fallen short of many ex­pec­ta­tions, Arm­strong has been a bright spot. His un­ex­pected rise from ob­scu­rity — a small col­lege, an in­de­pen­dent indoor league in Texas, part-time work at a jew­elry store, un­sta­ble po­si­tions on NFL prac­tice squads— has led him here, to an op­por­tu­nity that fi­nally matches his drive and am­bi­tion. En­ter­ing Sun­day’s game, Arm­strong has 787 yards on 42 catches. His 18.7 yards per catch is sixth in the NFL. ¶ “I reached goals that I didn’t have ini­tially,” he con­cedes. ¶ They are goals, in fact, that no one seemed to have for him. They just didn’t think of it. The NFL wasn’t just a pipe dream. It seemed to ex­ist on an­other planet. In an­other uni­verse.

“I reached goals that I didn’t have ini­tially.” An­thony Arm­strong, Red­skins rookie wide re­ceiver, whose jour­ney to the NFL in­cluded stops in the In­tense Foot­ball League and Arena Foot­ball League

Texas roots

Arm­strong grew up in Texas, where al­le­giance to the Dal­las Cow­boys is pledged in the hos­pi­tal de­liv­ery room. For the Arm­strong fam­ily, that pas­sion was ge­netic. Both par­ents and all of his grand­par­ents cheered for the Cow­boys. Arm­strong’s child­hood room was painted blue and fea­tured posters on the walls. Em­mitt Smith was his fa­vorite player, the one Arm­strong would em­u­late in neigh­bor­hood games.

“An­thony was al­ways the one that if you had him on your team, you were prob­a­bly go­ing to win,” says Steven Dimitt, a child­hood friend who grew up a few houses down the street. “No­body could catch him. So it was good to be the first cap­tain.”

Just two days shy of Arm­strong’s sixth birth­day, his fa­ther, Tom Arm­strong, died at age 48 from kid­ney fail­ure.

“I re­mem­ber gath­er­ing them up,” says Arm­strong’s mother, Gwen, “ telling them their daddy had gone to heaven. Ev­ery­thing’s go­ing to be okay. We’ll miss him, but ev­ery­thing was go­ing to be okay.”

Arm­strong says most of his mem­o­ries of his fa­ther are de­rived from fam­ily pho­tos. In them, a young Tom Arm­strong bears a strik­ing re­sem­blance to the Red­skins’ 27-year-old wide re­ceiver.

“How did it im­pact him? You know, he doesn’t talk about it a lot,” says Gwen. “And I’m still try­ing to un­der­stand why. He talks about ev­ery­thing else.”

Says Arm­strong: “I hon­estly didn’t re­ally know how to take it. I was taken aback from it. I just re­ally wanted to be more strong formy mother and formy sis­ter.”

Work­ing full-time for IBM, Gwen Arm­strong raised her chil­dren alone but still found time to at­tend Arm­strong’s sport­ing events. His high school team — New­man Smith High in Car­roll­ton — fea­tured a run-heavy of­fense. As a re­ceiver, Arm­strong had lit­tle op­por­tu­nity to put up big num­bers. He caught just 11 passes as a se­nior.

“He only weighed about a buck-forty. We listed him at 155, just to make it re­spectable,” said Ger­ald Roulette, one of his high school coaches. “But you can’t mea­sure a guy’s heart, and no one has a big­ger heart than An­thony.”

Arm­strong’s skills were raw — he had bad hands and was an undis­ci­plined route-run­ner — but coaches atWest Texas A&M, a Di­vi­sion II school in Canyon, Tex., couldn’t be­lieve his speed. One of the coaches says he clocked Arm­strong at 4.29 sec­onds in the 40-yard dash, the fastest he’d ever timed a kid.

“When he runs a 40, it’s like he was float­ing,” says Richard Ren­ner, who now coaches atMid­west­ern State. “I’ve never seen that inmy life and prob­a­bly never will.”

Arm­strong’s col­lege ca­reer didn’t get off to a good start, though. Shortly af­ter ar­riv­ing on cam­pus, Arm­strong took a phys­i­cal and wasn’t cleared to play be­cause of an ir­reg­u­lar heart­beat.

“An­thony was just a bub­ble of joy,” Ren­ner says. “He was al­ways smil­ing, [a] hum­ble, sweet kid. But when the doc­tor told him he couldn’t play, he was dev­as­tated. That was the only time I saw that kid low. He was cry­ing, he was so up­set. It was like his world came to an end.”

Arm­strong missed a cou­ple of games be­fore he was fi­nally al­lowed to play. The heart prob­lem hasn’t been an is­sue in the years since. He to­taled 145 re­cep­tions and 1,768 yards in four years at West Texas A&M. As a se­nior, he was named to the all-Lone Star Con­fer­ence sec­ond team, not ex­actly NFL cre­den­tials.

His fam­ily went to his grad­u­a­tion and had no idea what Arm­strong might do with his mar­ket­ing de­gree. Some­thing in sports, ev­ery­one fig­ured, maybe coach­ing.

Arm­strong wasn’t fin­ished play­ing foot­ball, though. He moved to Odessa, Tex., to play in the fledg­ing In­tense Foot­ball League, a six-team, indoor mix­ture of NFL hope­fuls and guys just look­ing for a bit of ex­tra money.

“We have ev­ery­one from the 22-year old kid who al­most got drafted to the 30-year old guy on his way out,” says Chris Wil­liams, head coach for the West Texas Rough­necks. “An­thony was def­i­nitely a guy who was try­ing to get bet­ter, who wanted to play at a higher level.”

Arm­strong lived with three other play­ers in a dor­mi­tory at a lo­cal ju­nior col­lege, earn­ing $200 per game. When the arena wasn’t avail­able, the team was forced to prac­tice wher­ever it could — a lo­cal high school field and even a park­ing lot for a stretch — and play­ers had to bus all over the re­gion for games.

Arm­strong had promised him­self that as long as he kept im­prov­ing, mov­ing up to big­ger leagues and bet­ter foot­ball jobs, he’d stick with his dream. He was only the third-best re­ceiver on the Rough­necks in 2006, but af­ter just one sea­son in Odessa, he made his bid to play in the Arena League.

Will McClay, head coach of the Dal­las Des­per­a­dos, ac­knowl­edged it was easy to dis­miss Arm­strong at the try­out. He was skinny and lacked the foot­ball re­sume of other play­ers.

“But he came up to me at one point and said, ‘We’re cousins. You gonna give me a shot, cousin?’ ” McClay says with a laugh. “I said, ‘I have no idea what you’re talk­ing about.’ But from that point on, I couldn’t stop watch­ing him.”

McClay sawjust enough to give Arm­strong that shot, plac­ing the speedy re­ceiver on the Des­per­a­dos’ prac­tice squad to start the 2007 sea­son.

“I still wasn’t re­ally think­ing about the NFL,” Gwen Arm­strong says. “When he got to the Des­per­a­dos, it was like, ‘You made it!’ ”

Be­cause Arm­strong wasn’t a full-fledged mem­ber of the ac­tive ros­ter un­til mid­way through the sea­son, he had to get a sec­ond job to make ends meet. Sarah Dot­ter was the man­ager at the lo­cal White­hall Jewel­ers store and re­mem­bers when Arm­strong came for his in­ter­view.

“He just kind of lit up the room,” she says.

Arm­strong would leave Des­per­a­dos prac­tice each day, chang­ing from a foot­ball uni­form to slacks and a tie, and go to a nearby mall to sell sparkling en­gage­ment rings and shiny an­niver­sary presents, show­ing the same charm and sales­man­ship he used to get McClay’s at­ten­tion at the Des­per­a­dos’ try­out.

“He was a great sales­man,” Dot­ter says. “He was re­ally good with peo­ple, took care of peo­ple, tried to un­der­stand their needs.”

But Arm­strong never lost fo­cus on his foot­ball dreams. Dot­ter says he would pass out small cards with a photo of him play­ing foot­ball. “Hold on to these,” he’d say with a smile. “One day, they’ll be worth some­thing.”

“He al­ways had that drive,” she says. “He was al­ways talk­ing about, ‘One day, I’m gonna make it. You’ll see.’ ”

No­ticed by the NFL

The Des­per­a­dos were owned by Jerry Jones, who also owned the Dal­las Cow­boys. The two teams shared­many re­sources and staff, and Arm­strong hoped his play in the Arena league would earn him a shot with his fa­vorite NFL team.

In­stead, Jeff Ire­land, the Cow­boys’ top scout, be­came the Mi­ami Dol­phins’ gen­eral man­ager in 2008, around the same time Arm­strong was in­ter­view­ing to coach high school foot­ball in the Dal­las sub­urbs and con­sid­er­ing a ca­reer sell­ing in­surance. Arm­strong’s phone rang and he had a try­out in­Mi­ami.

A cou­ple of years ear­lier, Arm­strong thought he had a big break: the At­lanta Fal­cons had in­vited him to town. His hopes were high. He landed in At­lanta, re­ceived a thick play­book and was about to re­port to a meet­ing. Be­fore he even cracked open the book, though, he was in­formed that he’d failed the phys­i­cal. He was on the next flight back to Dal­las.

Arm­strong re­mem­bered well the de­pres­sion that fol­lowed his quick visit to At­lanta, and when the Dol­phins called and of­fered a two-day try­out, he was de­ter­mined to stick around longer in the NFL.

The Dol­phins kept Arm­strong on their prac­tice squad for the en­tire 2008 sea­son but re­leased him be­fore the start of the 2009 sea­son. Washington added him to its prac­tice squad last Oc­to­ber and his as­cent was fast-tracked on­ceMike Shana­han and his staff be­gan eval­u­at­ing play­ers in off­sea­son work­outs.

Arm­strong earned his spot on the 53-man ros­ter in train­ing camp and bat­tled his way into the start­ing ro­ta­tion in­Week 5. When he re­turned home to Dal­las last month to play the Cow­boys, he posted his first ca­reer 100-yard game in front of fam­ily and friends, their loy­al­ties di­vided be­tween the Cow­boys and the Red­skins’ un­likely re­ceiver.

As the Red­skins be­gin de­ter­min­ing what their 2011 ros­ter might look like, coaches have at least one promis­ing op­tion in Arm­strong. The GPS could never have kept straight all of the twists and turns, but he was some­how able to carve hisow­nunique path.

“I’m still in awe,” says Gwen Arm­strong. “I just don’t know what to think. I mean, he did it. He did it.”

TRACY A. WOOD­WARD/THE WASHINGTON POST

“I’m still in awe,” says An­thony Arm­strong’s mother Gwen of his NFL as­pi­ra­tions. “I just don't know what to think. I mean, he did it. He did it.” Arm­strong is now a start­ing wide re­ceiver for the Red­skins head­ing into Sun­day’s sea­son fi­nale.

TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASHINGTON POST

An­thony Arm­strong, shown catch­ing a touch­down pass in Oc­to­ber against Green Bay, has 42 re­cep­tions for 787 yards this sea­son.

JOHN MCDONNELL/THE WASHINGTON POST

Arm­strong shook off Cow­boys de­fen­sive back­Mike Jenk­ins in the teams’ De­cem­ber matchup. He’s av­er­ag­ing 18.7 yards a re­cep­tion.

COUR­TESY OF THE ARM­STRONG FAM­ILY

Five-year-old An­thony, right, with his fa­ther, Tom. TomArm­strong died of kid­ney fail­ure in 1989, two days be­fore An­thony turned 6.

MIKE STOBE/GETTY IM­AGES

Arm­strong (17) showed his pass-catch­ing prow­ess in the Arena Foot­ball League in 2008.

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