By now, Marcus Cromartie is used to funneling disappointment into motivation on the football field. So one more slight — going undrafted over 254 picks during the NFL Draft — isn’t about to stop him from realizing his dream of attaining a lengthy pro career.
Cromartie, the former University of Wisconsin defensive back, was picked up by the San Diego Chargers as a free agent on Saturday night. And he’s looking to make the most of his opportunity, as he has done so often before when overlooked by others.
“This is kind of like the icing on the cake, where I get another chance to prove people wrong,” Cromartie told FOXSportsWisconsin.com Monday when reached by phone. “Even though I was undrafted, I can still be productive and make the team and make a major contribution for the Chargers.”
Cromartie, a native of Mansfield, Texas, has silenced his share of doubters since coming to Wisconsin in 2008. After taking a redshirt season, he rarely saw the field over the next two years, appearing in 11 games while recording four total tackles primarily as a special teams player. It wasn’t until 2011, after Badgers cornerback Devin Smith suffered a broken foot in Week 2 of the season, that Cromartie became a full-time starter in the Wisconsin secondary.
Even after the season, former Badgers coach Bret Bielema suggested that if Smith had been healthy — and playing instead of Cromartie — Wisconsin would have had an opportunity to play in the national championship. The Badgers finished the season 11-3 with a Rose Bowl loss to Oregon.
Cromartie went on to start every game at cornerback for Wisconsin in 2012 and record a career-high 62 tackles with 13 pass deflections. He also tallied a key interception for a touchdown early in Wisconsin’s 70-31 Big Ten championship victory against Nebraska.
“In my career at Wisconsin, you can see major marks of improvement from each year I was there,” Cromartie said. “There was a huge improvement from my third year to my fourth year when I started. A lot of teams, they’ve seen I’m still getting better.”
Despite a solid senior season, the 6-foot-1, 192-pound Cromartie wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in late February, while 35 other college cornerbacks received an invite. He worked out with Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Ike Taylor and former Oakland Raiders first-round wide out Fabian Washington at Tom Shaw’s Training Program in Orlando, Fla., in an effort to improve his stock at Wisconsin’s pro day.
The plan worked, and Cromartie ran a blazing 4.35 40-yard dash in early March — the fastest time among any of the eight players participating in pro day. At the very least, it raised eyebrows among NFL scouts.
“When you get a chance to work out with NFL guys, you see the kind of intensity and effort they put in when you see it’s a job now,” Cromartie said. “You take that as motivation. ‘Wow, these guys put in this kind of effort. I’ve got to match that. I’ve got to work hard and do everything I possibly can to put myself in the best position to be successful.’
“I don’t think success happens by luck. I think it’s deliberate and intentional. You’ve got to go out and put yourself in the best possible situation by going out and killing your body.”
Cromartie’s agent, Marco Marciano of Florida-based XL Sports Management, said Cromartie separated himself during those offseason workouts to give him a chance in the NFL.
“When he went to his training camp for his pro day down at Tom Shaw’s, he was so focused,” Marciano said. “A lot of guys go out for a weekend or have their girlfriends come and visit him. With Marcus, I asked him, and he said ‘No, I’m here to work.’ …
“The kid is really focused. I’m not just saying that because he’s our client. Those are the kids you root for and you really want to make it because he’s a good kid, too.”
Cromartie said he watched all eight hours of coverage during the final day of the NFL Draft with his father, eagerly awaiting to hear his name. He said he received calls from interested teams, but nothing materialized.
All the while, Cromartie saw fellow Big Ten cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne of Illinois and Micah Hyde of Iowa drafted in the fifth round. Hawthorne went to Pittsburgh at No. 150, while Hyde went to Green Bay at No. 159.
“You kind of get upset,” Cromartie said. “You play at a major conference and then see that only two corners out of this conference got drafted. You kind of scratch your head a little. You think, ‘Are these people not seeing how talented the Big Ten is?’ But you use it as motivation and see that at the end of the day, the game is still called football. At the end of the day, you have to put the pads on.”
When the draft ended, Marciano said Cromartie garnered interest from “10 to 12” teams — an unusually high number for an undrafted player.
“I’ve had a guy before that was a projected second- or third-round pick and fell down a little bit. He didn’t even get the reception that Marcus did,” Marciano said.
Marciano indicated Cromartie could be a part of the Chargers’ nickel package and play opponents in the slot, but he would likely earn his way as a special teams player initially.
San Diego’s rookie mini camp is scheduled to begin May 10. Cromartie is one of 20 undrafted free agents picked up by the Chargers and one of five defensive backs. The others are Central Michigan’s Jahleel Addae, Kansas’ Greg Brown, Purdue’s Josh Johnson and Wake Forest’s Kenny Okoro.
Cromartie certainly sounded like a man ready to beat the odds again.
“You’re going to start at the bottom,” he said. “You’re just like college with less time. The difference is you don’t get five years. You only get a few months. I’m going to have to go in with the mindset of I’m really not worried about the players around me. I can only control what I do. So I’m going to go there and control what I do and work my butt off to show the Chargers a reason why they can’t cut me.
“I know my first contributions might not be as a defensive back. It might be playing special teams. Being at Wisconsin, you know how to play special teams because that’s the first thing you basically play before you can even be on the field as a starter. I know it’s going to take a lot of hard work. Playing at Wisconsin, we never shied away from hard work.”