New Rams Take the Long Road
Wednesday, December 9, 2009


By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

The road to the NFL is long and arduous for every player that eventually lands on a roster. For some, it’s easier than others but nobody gets to the game’s highest level without plenty of sacrifice along the way.

For safety Clinton Hart and quarterback Mike Reilly, their paths were separated by years and miles and even sports. But that didn’t stop those paths from eventually converging in St. Louis on Wednesday.

The Rams placed safety Oshiomogho Atogwe on injured reserve with a torn labrum in his shoulder and some cartilage damage Wednesday morning. Hart replaces him on the roster.

“He’s played a lot of football,” Spagnuolo said of Hart. “He just worked his way up…he’s had a lot of football and I have been around him enough to know he’s a solid character guy. That was the first thing. Hopefully he’s still got some football left in him.”

The team also added some depth at quarterback, waiving linebacker Dominic Douglas and signing Reilly to take his roster spot.

Out of all those moves, none came with more of a heavy heart than the decision to place Atogwe on injured reserve.

After a lot of discussion and thought, Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said he ultimately couldn’t let Atogwe try to play with an injured shoulder knowing the possibility of more damage.

“That was a tough one,” Spagnuolo said. “OJ and I talked a lot. I have a great deal of respect for him. I love OJ. It was more for OJ. I couldn’t probably sleep or live with myself if OJ forced himself in there then all of a sudden that thing popped out again. There was a chance that was going to happen and for his health and career and all of that I just think it’s best for him.”

Atogwe will have surgery on the shoulder in the near future though it won’t be this week, according to Spagnuolo.

Atogwe finishes his year with 84 tackles, two interceptions, three passes defended, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Before the injury, Atogwe had started 60 consecutive games dating to 2006.

Craig Dahl will step into the starting role vacated by Atogwe but the Rams were able to add an experienced veteran whom Spagnuolo knows well to handle his roster spot in Hart.

Hart brings a wealth of experience after spending five plus seasons in San Diego. The Chargers released him on Oct. 14 after he played in four games with three starts this season.

Hart literally began his career on Philadelphia’s practice squad in 2002 before he earned a spot on the 2003 roster. In his career, he’s played in 96 games with 48 starts and 10 interceptions.

It’s how Hart got to that point that makes his story amazing.

Coming out of South Sumter High in Bushnell, Fla., Hart was a star on the baseball and football fields. He could have played either at the next level but opted to stay close to home, choosing baseball at nearby Central Florida Community College.

Even then, Hart still had a passion for football as he would bring a ball with him to baseball games and use it to warm up his arm.

Eventually, Hart realize where his true love lies.

“Football was always my first love,” Hart said. “I didn’t make it in baseball so I had to get back to football some how.”

Hart went to a tryout for the Tallahassee Thunder of Arena League 2 and made the team in 2000. The next year, he moved up to the top Arena League, playing for the Tampa Bay Storm, where he earned Rookie of the Year honors.

That performance got Hart a look from the Eagles, where Spagnuolo was coaching the defensive backs. He landed a spot on the practice squad in 2002 after the team sent him overseas to play for the Rhein Fire and Amsterdam Admirals.

Finally, in 2003, Hart had his breakthrough and got a chance on the active roster. When starter Brian Dawkins was lost to injury, Hart stepped in.

“I played arena football for three years and then going to Europe and then climbing my way to the NFL,” Hart said. “I just believed I could get it done because I never in a million years thought I couldn’t.”

Philadelphia waived Hart the next year but San Diego claimed him quickly. Hart has been with the Chargers ever since, serving as the team’s full time start the past two-plus seasons.

After the Chargers got off to a rough start this year, they opted to release Hart, a move that took him by surprise but one that he took in stride.

“I was shocked,” Hart said. “Everybody was shocked. It was a surprise to me and I guess all other players. Normally you don’t cut the starter but they cut the starter and had enough faith in the backups. It’s a great opportunity here in St. Louis.”

Of the unconventional paths to the NFL that exist, perhaps Reilly’s is more normal. Reilly grew up in Kennewick, Wash., where he played against Rams defensive tackle and – at the time – the world’s largest high school quarterback, Adam Carriker.

Reilly took his skills to Washington State but found himself behind two other quarterbacks his age. He decided to transfer to Central Washington.

There, Reilly lit up the skies, including a game in his senior season in which he and current Rams signal caller Keith Null – then the quarterback at West Texas A&M – posted monster numbers in a 49-42 Central Washington loss.

“Last time I saw him, he got the best of me,” Reilly said. “We lost 49-42. It was definitely an offensive battle. I have been following him since the game got over with. It’s good to see Keith again and excited to work with him a little bit.”

Reilly threw for 3,706 yards with 37 touchdowns and six interceptions and ran for 415 yards and four touchdowns as a senior.

Still, Reilly was undrafted in the 2009 NFL Draft and signed with the Steelers. Pittsburgh released him on Sept. 5 and he has spent the past month or so with Green Bay’s practice squad.

Unlike Null, Reilly spent his first three college seasons in a pro style offense where he says he spent about 90 percent of the snaps under center. But like Null, Reilly spent most of his senior season working out of the shotgun in a spread offense.

In the near term, Reilly will serve as the third quarterback behind Null and starter Kyle Boller. He comes from a system in Green Bay similar to the one in St. Louis but Reilly says he sis trying to look big picture.

“The way I am playing it is I am expecting to be here next season and I am going to take it as such and prepare for the next four weeks but also for next season, training camp, minicamps, all of that and just be prepared for anything,” Reilly said. “It doesn’t matter if you are third, fourth string, it doesn’t matter, you have to prepare like you’re the starter and that’s the role I am going to try to take.”

Reilly readily acknowledges there is a certain stigma that goes with coming from a small school where he received little attention from scouts.

But Reilly also believes that the hard part is over with now that he’s been given a chance and the rest is up to him.

“The hardest part is to get here, to get into the locker room and get on a team,” Reilly said. “After that, I don’t think it really matters where you came from as long as you play well.”

Should Reilly ever need a reminder of that, all he has to do is take a look at Hart, just a few lockers away.