Undrafted rookie wide receiver Stanley Arukwe hadn't played football since high school at this time last year, and now he's fighting for a roster spot.
The NFL was a fairy tale, almost a ridiculous notion for Stanley Arukwe, because he hadn't even been playing the game.
He played it in high school, sure, as a star defensive back out in California whose dual talent in track led to college recruitment around the Pac-10. But scholarship issues got in the way. Arukwe ended up running track only, first at a junior college and then at Troy University in Alabama.
At this time last year, Arukwe's thoughts were on trying to make the 2012 Olympic team as a sprinter and his football career was dead.
Now he's a wide receiver on the Arizona Cardinals.
"It's just a blessing to get the opportunity to play again," Arukwe said after a workout this week.
A blessing and perhaps a nod to the stories of spring, that time when teams can afford to take fliers – especially with the new 90-man roster – on guys who have barely played the game. Arukwe made an impression when he said he ran a wind-aided 4.29 40-yard dash at Troy's pro day a couple months ago. He would have had to, with only 12 catches last year in his 12-game college career. (A non-Cardinal source said Arukwe's fastest "official" time reported to the NFL was 4.33.)
He was on the Cardinals' radar before that, however. A Cards' scout – along with one from the Vikings – talked with Arukwe after a four-reception day the second game of the season against Arkansas. It would turn out to be his best game, and even though Troy coaches had already told him he might just have a shot at the pros, realizing NFL teams were actually paying attention changed his perspective.
"I was like, 'Wow, I actually have a shot,' " Arukwe said.
As Arukwe's story is fleshed out, it seems improbable he'd end up here. He originally was going to play both football and run track at the University of Washington, but the problem with his scholarship meant he'd have to pay for a semester out-of-pocket, money he didn't have and a complication he didn't need. A better course for him was to return to run track at Modesto Junior College back home.
He got his associate's degree in physical education, and then went to run track at Troy. Education came first. Football was still a love, but well in the rear-view mirror, until the Troy coaches called in need of bodies.
Arukwe decided to give it a chance. A month back into the game – at a position he had never played before -- he found himself playing wide receiver and special teams against Clemson.
"I had to learn everything so quickly," Arukwe said.
It was, amazingly, enough to get him to the next level. Cardinals receivers coach Frank Reich said there has to be a balance in judging a player like Arukwe, understanding raw ability versus the need to produce something fast. Arukwe is an eager and willing pupil in learning the position, but "the inexperience comes in when there is competition (against defenders)," Reich said.
But teams are looking for a defining physical attribute upon which to build, Reich said, especially with the undrafted rookies. Fellow receiver LaRon Byrd is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, a physical-type prospect. With Arukwe, it's about the speed.
"You are willing to take a chance on a guy like that, to see what kind of football player he is," Reich said.
Arukwe misses track, especially this time of year. He can run the 100 meters in 10.2 seconds and the 200 in under 21 seconds, and believes if he would have kept training he could have found a way into regional competition for the national team. The Cardinals have gone down this road before, bringing in track star Michael Ray Garvin as an undrafted rookie a couple of years ago in an effort to find a diamond in the rough. Garvin didn't work out.
Arukwe knows he is a long shot, but that's OK. He's been there before. He graduated with degrees in kinesiology and criminal justice from Troy, so he has no regrets on his college path. He'll work on learning his new position, trying to keep up with a new teammate like Michael Floyd even though his total time as a receiver is measured in months and not years.
"It's a whole new world," he said.