Tuesday, November 15, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

It wasn't Jose Fuentes' fault that he didn't know who Kevin Curtis was when Curtis' sister mentioned to the Utah State quarterback that her brother was his teammate.

Sure, it might be out of the ordinary for a quarterback to be unfamiliar with a teammate, particularly a teammate playing a position (wide receiver) that requires a good rapport with the quarterback.

But Fuentes' familiarity or lack thereof with Curtis wasn't much different than what Curtis has grown accustomed to for most of his life. The list of those who couldn't pick Curtis out of a lineup is probably long enough to stretch from South Jordan, Utah to, say, London.

By now, Curtis is used to the lack of recognition and he is fine with that. After all, he never gave much thought to one day playing in the NFL so his status as the Rams' third receiver is fine by him.

"I think when you play that walk-on kind of underdog role you probably do catch people off guard," Curtis said. "They might not be expecting much from you. It's not like I am trying to go out there to prove anything to anyone, but it's a matter of playing football and being a competitor. I just want to be a competitor and win. That's what I love most about playing the game."

Of course, Curtis' ability to fly under the radar is rapidly disappearing. Now in his third season in St. Louis, Curtis has embraced a larger role because of a toe injury to Isaac Bruce.

At nearly every stage of his life, Curtis has found a way to eventually earn his due recognition and this year is no different for the Rams' breakout star.

Splitting Wide

Curtis' football playing days started like any normal kid's would. His mother wouldn't let him play until he was mature enough to take the physical punishment that goes with playing the game.

It didn't take long for Curtis' Pop Warner coach to see what the undersized Curtis' biggest gift was. Curtis played quarterback in his youth football days, but not in the traditional sense of the position.

Essentially Curtis was a running back playing quarterback. He would take the snap, look for a hole and run as fast as he could until he got into the end zone. Curtis enjoyed that position well enough, but his speed would clearly be better utilized at Bingham High in a different capacity.

Curtis moved to receiver when he entered high school, but he made what little reputation he had as a defensive back, playing cornerback and free safety. Curtis estimated that he probably caught about 10 passes in his entire high school career, so the thought of moving on to college was not going to be easy.

Although Curtis had displayed some talent defensively and had speed to burn, he didn't draw much attention. It seemed to Curtis that his dream of playing Division I college football was going to fall short.

"I felt as though I didn't get a lot of opportunities in high school, but I felt like I could continue to play," Curtis said. "I didn't have any scholarship offers and nobody was interested in me. A lot of people I don't think felt I could go on and play at the next level. But that was something I really thought I could do. I felt wideout was a better position and I had more football in me, so I decided to keep playing and walk on at a junior college."

Before Curtis made his decision to go to a junior college, he exhausted all possibilities of going to a four-year school first. Those efforts were in vain, though, and Curtis finally settled on Snow Junior College in Ephraim, Utah.

While there was no scholarship offers for Curtis, he knew that if he could walk on and play at Snow, he would get a chance to be on the field and prove himself to a four-year school somewhere else.

Curtis spent two seasons at Snow and finally had the breakout season that he knew he was capable of. In 1997, he had 55 catches for 1,100 yards and 19 touchdowns, earning second-team All American honors for his efforts.

It was the type of breakthrough performance that Curtis had been waiting for and he was a sure thing to land at a major university to continue his career and reach his goal of playing Division I football.

But a funny thing happened on the way to college football's brightest stage.

Difficult Decisions

Growing up in Utah, Curtis developed his Mormon faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While football was a major influence in Curtis' life, his devout faith was at the forefront of everything he did.

As Curtis had finally reached the cusp of everything he ever wanted in football, he decided to give it all up.

With scholarship offers to BYU, Hawaii and Eastern Washington as well as interest from Kentucky and Arizona State, all Curtis had to do was sign on the dotted line of a letter of intent and he would be living his dream.

Instead, Curtis put that vision on hold in favor of going on a two-year mission trip to London.

"It was a tough decision for me," Curtis said. "My dream was always to play Division I college football and after a couple years at junior college I had some scholarship offers and I was an All American so I had some attention. When a team is interested in a Junior College (JC) guy, they want you to come in and play right away. That's why you go after a JC guy so it was bad timing in that regard. When I decided to go on the mission, those schools weren't willing to offer a scholarship for two years down the road. That's what made it tough because those scholarships disappeared and coming off the mission, it meant I was walking on again. It took a lot of thought. It was just something I wanted to do and felt like I should do."

So, Curtis went. He packed up one suitcase of clothes and other necessities and headed to London for two years. For those two years, Curtis became unplugged from what was going on in the world.

Curtis woke up every morning around 9 and returned to his living quarters around 9:30 at night. The work was all service work. Some of it involved spreading the word of his faith to those willing to listen, but more often than not Curtis would go around simply looking for something good to do in the community whether it was building a playground or something else to improve the city.

At first, Curtis had football withdrawals, wondering what was going on in the United States. Thoughts of football consumed him for the better part of the first four or five months of his stay, but eventually they disappeared.

In the back of his mind, Curtis knew he wanted to play football again, but he was unable to practice or work out while in London because of the long days. Sure he would squeeze in some push ups or sit ups in the mornings, but there was no weight lifting to be done and Curtis promptly lost about 15 pounds, most of it muscle.

"At first I brought a football with me and had it on my bed," Curtis said. "I had some withdrawals. That first four or five months, football was on my mind and I was pretty homesick. After time goes on and you get into what you are doing, I know the rest of the mission it (football) was at the back of my mind."

It would be easy to criticize Curtis' decision to leave the game he loved to go away for two seasons, leaving his long coveted scholarship offers on the table. And while he probably wouldn't gain much physically from going on the mission, what he gained mentally trumped any of that.

"You learn a ton," Curtis said. "It was the toughest decision to make. You go across the world, not knowing a single person. I learned a lot about myself. You take everything you know and realize you don't know that much. It's a huge, humbling experience and it humbled me in a way that I can't put into words.

"Physically, I got out of shape, I lost weight and got fatter, if that's possible to lose weight and get fatter. In other ways, mentally it made me a stronger person and matured me. Every day was a mental battle and to get up and do what I was doing was tough. In that way, it really helped me. I come home and over time I can get back in shape, but some of the things I learned on the mission I couldn't have learned without going."

Speed Merchant

When Curtis made his journey home after the mission, he stopped in St. Louis for a brief layover. As Curtis strolled through the Lambert Airport, it became painfully clear to him just how disconnected he was from what was going on in the United States.

Walking past a gift shop, Curtis noticed highlights of the 1999 Super Bowl on the televisions. Curtis was stunned when he realized that the Rams were the team that won that Super Bowl, making him question exactly how long he was away.

"I was like, 'Wow, how long was I gone?" Curtis said. "When I left they weren't really a team to beat so you definitely do get removed."

After returning to Utah, Curtis immediately began to weigh his options about how to get back into football. His father had called a number of schools, gauging interest in his son.

The schools that had showed plenty of interest in Curtis before now wanted nothing to do with him. BYU told him to enroll in a community college and play in a city flag football league.

Curtis was well aware that he would have to walk on and probably redshirt, but he had no designs on proving himself all over again in some flag football league. Taking into account financial concerns, Curtis searched for a school in the state that would give him a chance.

That school was Utah State, located in Logan, Utah. Curtis redshirted immediately and was once again the invisible man. Curtis' sister was friends with Fuentes, who was the team's starting quarterback when Curtis enrolled in 2000.

But when she mentioned to Fuentes that her brother was also on the team, Fuentes refused to believe it.

"I went out there and I came back the next day and told her there was nobody on the team with that name," Fuentes said. "I said maybe he was mistaken or he might have told you something, but I don't know who he is."

It was easy to overlook Curtis, who was playing scout team receiver and attempting to make an impression on the coaches. That impression was made in stunning fashion in the spring of 2001.

After running a blazing 40-yard dash, the entire Utah State team and coaching staff took notice of the special speed that Curtis possesses. Curtis estimates that he runs in the 4.3s on a consistent basis, mixing in something in the upper 4.2s on occasion. In other words, Curtis is scary fast.

Of course, even as Fuentes and the rest of the Aggies got to see up close the type of world-class speed Curtis has, that belief just didnft spread to Utah State's opponents.

As teams watched Curtis on tape, nobody believed he was as good as his numbers.

"They knew what he was capable of doing when they saw him on film, but they just thought the defensive back was bad and they will lock him down," Fuentes said. "But every corner he went up against, every week, he just showed them up."

The fact of the matter is that most of the Aggies' opponents simply couldn't believe that a 5-11, 180 pound white kid could outrun them. When they saw Curtis make big plays on film, it surely meant that his opponent was just slow and Curtis was simply less slow.

But that stereotype was thrown out the window when Curtis went out and posted one eye-popping performance after another. About halfway through his first year starting in 2001, teams really began to take notice.

"That's when he got out of the 'Oh, he's fast for a white guy' and went to the 'He's fast for a football player," Fuentes said. "He was faster than any person out there. It didn't matter if they were white, black, Mexican, Asian, Samoan, Italian, green, red, whoever was out there. It doesn't matter what color you are when you're a blur. He was as fast as anybody."

Curtis understands the stereotype that says he shouldn't be as fast as some of the other receivers, but that doesn't mean he embraces it.

"Generally people don't think of white guys as speed demons, so in that regard they might not be expecting me to be very fast," Curtis said. "But that's a general statement."

A general statement that clearly doesn't apply to Curtis. By the time his career at Utah State was done in 2002, Curtis had set the school's receptions record in just two seasons. He led the nation in receiving in 2001 with 100 catches.
For those that doubted Curtis' ability because he played at a small school, it's important to remember that Utah State is an independent school, playing a number of large schools.

Take the Aggies' 2002 meeting against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers were led defensively by standout cornerback DeJuan Groce, one of the best in the nation at his position and Curtis' future teammate with the Rams. Even Groce admits that when he watched the tape of Curtis, he didn't believe he was as good or as fast as it showed on the tape.

Although Groce and Curtis didn't go one on one much in their meeting, it didn't take long for Groce to realize Curtis was legit.

"When I saw it (on tape) I didn't believe it," Groce said. "When I got on the field and saw him I did believe it. In the game it was like, 'Wow this guy is really fast.' When he runs past two people, the safety and the corner, that's when you know he is really fast. When you get to that point where there are two people doubling you and you run right past them and he does it consistently, that's fast."

To this day, Groce calls Curtis one of the two fastest receivers he has ever played. It was that speed that led to the Rams' drafting Curtis in the third round of the 2003 NFL Draft.

Breaking Out

Curtis never spent much time thinking about one day playing in the NFL, but when the opportunity came, it was about as good as it gets. Not only was Curtis going on to the NFL, but he was going to the Rams, a team that had become a wide receiver's dream in Mike Martz's "Greatest Show on Turf." With Curtis' speed and play making skills, he had the basis for big things and under the tutelage and guidance of receivers coach Henry Ellard and receivers Bruce and Torry Holt, Curtis would only get better.

"I love playing with those guys," Curtis said. "They play the game the way it's supposed to be played. They compete and at the same time they like to have fun. It's a great game and to be around guys that play the game that way and love playing it, is awesome."

Curtis' NFL career didn't start the way he wanted it to. He suffered a broken fibula in a preseason game, costing him the first five games of the season. Making matters worse, Curtis admittedly tried to come back from the injury too soon and was limited to appearing in just four games and making four catches for 13 yards.

Finally back to full health entering the 2004 season, Curtis appeared poised for a break out. His speed was the perfect complement to Holt and Bruce and he would be the ideal addition in the slot. But continuing problems with shin splints slowed him for the first part of the season.

It wasn't until Oct. 10 in the Rams' big comeback in Seattle that Curtis started to make an impact. He caught a 41-yard touchdown pass to cut Seattle's lead to three in a game that St. Louis would go on to win.

Curtis would take small steps forward and a step or two back during the rest of the season. But when Bruce suffered an injury late in the year, Curtis was asked to take his place. He had six catches for 99 yards against the Jets in the season finale.

In the playoffs, Curtis had his coming out party. In a return engagement in Seattle, Curtis caught four passes for 107 yards. The next week against Atlanta, Curtis had his best game, grabbing seven balls for 128 yards and a scintillating touchdown where he outran speedy cornerback DeAngelo Hall for a touchdown.

"I think any player out there believes they can make plays, but you have to get your opportunity to do it," Curtis said. "I have always felt like I could make those plays if given the chance."

The chances have come early and often this year for Curtis. He is second on the team with 41 catches and 608 yards with four touchdowns. Bruce has been out since week three against the Titans, leaving Curtis with numerous opportunities to make his presence felt.

In the Oct. 30 game against Jacksonville, with Bruce, Holt and quarterback Marc Bulger out with injuries, Curtis had his best day. He caught an 83-yard touchdown from backup quarterback Jamie Martin and finished with 105 yards on the day.

Coach Joe Vitt said he isn't surprised that Curtis is becoming a household name.

"Kevin is the type of kid that I am not even sure he knows that there's been a change at quarterback," Vitt said. "He is meticulous with his route running. He's going to make the tough catch. He has the same work habits every day in practice. When the game starts, he just plays the game. In practice, he practices to play the game. I could be back throwing and he is not going to change his style one bit."

While Curtis isn't quite to the level of Holt or Bruce yet, he does possess the same type of maturity and love for the game as that duo. He also has something they don't have as much of, game breaking speed.
So, who would win a race among Curtis, Bruce and Holt?

"If you ask me, I am going to say me," Curtis said. "If you ask them, they might have a different answer. I think it would be me.

"Now if it was who is going to look the prettiest or who runs the best routes, that's a whole other question. I'm not going with me on that one."

Curtis is well aware that he still has some things to work on if he wants to reach the top echelon of receivers in the league. Curtis is so fast that he can get by on speed, but he wants to run better routes and become more physical on jump balls.

"The biggest thing is I don't want to get comfortable with the player I am," Curtis said. "I want to be the best player I can be and not take a step back. That's why Isaac and Torry are so good because they have been doing it year after year after year. That's something I hope to do, too."

Curtis appears to be well on his way to becoming a known commodity and chances are he'll get there the only way he knows how...Fast.