By Bill Coats
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Sure, Mike Furrey acknowledged, there were times when he feared he would be using the real estate license that he earned last year sooner than he had planned.

He figured that when your head coach "suggests" you change positions, particularly at the NFL level, it can mean one of two things. "It either breaks your career, or it helps your career," Furrey said.

Furrey's career as a Rams wide receiver wasn't going quite the way he wanted, anyway. He dressed for only eight games last year and saw virtually all his action on special teams. He caught one pass for 8 yards, after making 20 grabs for 189 yards in 2003.

Still, at age 29, Furrey wasn't eager to start selling houses just yet. So he decided to accept Mike Martz's offer to move to safety from wide receiver with optimism rather than dread. Furrey said that when he met with Martz shortly after the 2004 season, "He said he thought it was something I'd pick up naturally and that I'd be able to fit in."

That boosted his confidence and made it easier to convince himself that it was a good idea.

"I said, 'You know what? I'm going to give it everything I have, do everything that I can do to the fullest, and then leave it out on the field and let coach make the decision,'" he said.

Martz, who earlier had called Furrey "the biggest surprise of camp," made the decision a week ago: Furrey was on the team, one of five safeties on the 53-man roster.

"It's unusual for a guy to make that change and have that kind of success," Martz said. "That has really been kind of fun to watch."

It has been quite a year for Furrey. He and his wife, Koren, welcomed daughter Makayla on Jan. 25, just 10 days after the Rams were swept out of the playoffs by the Atlanta Falcons, 47-17. Soon thereafter, he and Martz hatched their offense-to-defense plan.

"It's been crazy," Furrey said. "My wife gets pregnant, we have our first child, and now I'm changing positions. It's been hectic. But that's been my journey throughout my whole life."

A former Northern Iowa standout who earned his shot at the NFL after starring in the Arena Football League (sound familiar?), Furrey surprised by making the team in 2003. But when emerging wideouts Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald shoved him down the depth chart last year, Furrey's value dropped.

Thus was spawned the notion of making him a defender. "We put him over there because of his speed and his quickness and his mentality on special teams," Martz said in explaining his brainstorm. "He's going to make himself play, one way or the other. And he's very talented . . . pretty special."

The first priority for the 6-foot Furrey was to add some muscle to his 185-pound frame, so he camped out in the weight room. When he reported for camp, he was at 210.

"He doesn't even look like a receiver anymore," wideout Dane Looker said.

Furrey switched to uniform No. 25 from No. 82 and moved his gear to the area of the locker room at Rams Park occupied by the defensive backs, but none of that would mean anything unless he proved he could handle a safety's duties. He brought at least a modicum of experience to the task.

"In high school, I was a free safety," he said. "I was the fastest on the field, so I was just back there to chase people down if somebody got loose."

He played cornerback in the indoor league, "but it was more backyard stuff," he said. "You just went out there, and if you got beat, it was no big deal. They were scoring 60 points anyway, and you were trying to score 70."

At first, Furrey struggled. "It was tough just getting back there and getting used to not running forward anymore, getting out of breaks backward, things like that. But I just tried to work my tail off," he said.

Furrey learned quickly that he was well-suited for the physical nature of the job.

"I think it mostly has to do with his mentality," Looker said. "Even when he was playing receiver, he was the kind of guy that was real tough, real physical. . . . Finesse was never part of his makeup."

Gradually, Furrey began to feel at home in the secondary.

"My instincts back there are something I've been real happy with, where it just feels natural," he said. "On offense, you have to think about doing a lot of different things; on defense, you're pretty much free and you just go after it."

Fellow safety Adam Archuleta, who has had an up-close view of Furrey's transition, said: "It doesn't happen very often, but he's picked it up real well. He's a good athlete, he's tough, he's smart, he understands offenses."

Make no mistake: Furrey is a safety now. Period.

"I haven't even thought of going on the other side of the ball," he said. "There's no way I'm looking back."