As kids, they camped inside their East Bradenton house, making tents out of chairs and sheets. They went to Busch Gardens whenever they could and the movies nearly every Friday night. And on Sundays, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and his sisters, Shominique and Kiara, sang in the youth choir at Shining Light Church of God and Christ in Rubonia.
“He always thought he was a good singer, but, no,” Shominique said. “But he gave it his heart.”
“I tell him,” his mom Melissa Rodgers said, “don’t quit your day job.”
Rodgers-Cromartie’s day job, of course, is football.
And, yes, he gives that his heart, too.
He is a 22-year-old rookie cornerback for the Arizona Cardinals, the NFC champions who will face the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
A starter since just November, Rodgers-Cromartie will play a prominent role in the biggest game of the NFL season, in the biggest game in Cardinals history.
“The Super Bowl,” father Stan Cromartie said, “it’s overwhelming. It hasn’t really sunk in with me. It really hasn’t sunk in with Dominique.”
After Arizona’s win against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game Jan. 18, the Rodgers-Cromartie traveling party that includes his parents, sisters and grandmother, Cora Rodgers, headed to their usual postgame haunt, Famous Dave’s barbeque in Chandler, Ariz.
Rodgers-Cromartie ordered his usual: a hamburger and fries.
Melissa asked her son what it felt like to be heading to the Super Bowl. Her son shrugged his shoulders. He hadn’t really thought about it, he said, even though he had just left the NFC championship celebration at the team’s home stadium in nearby Glendale.
Twenty minutes later, Rodgers-Cromartie turned to his mom and said, “So, we’re actually going to the Super Bowl.”
The game will be played an hour from the streets and ball fields where Rodgers-Cromartie fell in love with the sport.
“He always told me he was going to play in the NFL,” Melissa said.
Rodgers-Cromartie was 8 or 9 then.
Sure, his mother thought.
Then she watched him play in the Police Athletic League’s football games, watched him break tackles and run past all the other players.
“I was like, ‘OK, we might have something here,’ ” Melissa said.
She cringed, though, every time her son was tackled.
When he was 5, one of Rodgers-Cromartie’s kidneys no longer functioned and was removed. Their son would be all right, the doctors assured Melissa and Stan, as long as he didn’t take a direct hit to the area.
Doctors cleared Rodgers-Cromartie to play a contact sport, providing he wore a protective vest.
But, when he was 13, Rodgers-Cromartie was dropped by a hard tackle and didn’t move, Melissa thought the worst.
“It was scary,” she said.
It was a broken arm.
“I’m still concerned,” Melissa said. “Each and every time he’s out on the field, I’m concerned. I worry every time that boy gets hit. I tell him, ‘This is a big man’s sport.’ ”
Keep them busy
Rodgers-Cromartie visits McDonald’s every day, ordering the Big Mac meal with no lettuce, no pickles.
He was all-region in track and field during his senior year at Lakewood Ranch High.
He developed a fondness for bowling when he attended Tennessee State University in Nashville. He’s good enough to roll a 190.
He bought his sisters, Shominique and Kiara, presents every Christmas.
“Even when he didn’t have a job and didn’t have any money, he always found a way to buy us something,” Shominique said. “He puts others first. He’ll give you his last. He’s sweet. He’s a nice dude.”
The nice dude and his sisters had a strict curfew: Be home before the street lights went on.
“His mother did an outstanding job of raising him and his sisters,” Stan said.
Stan and Melissa divorced when the kids were young.
Melissa gives the credit to her mom, Cora.
The women had a plan.
Keep them busy.
They were active in the church. They were regulars at the Bradenton Boys and Girls Club.
“I wasn’t going to lose them to the streets,” Melissa said.
Rodgers-Cromartie played whatever sport was in season, baseball, basketball, track.
Wendell Faison, now director of the DeSoto Boys and Girls Club, remembers Rodgers-Cromartie as a quiet kid who had the enviable quality of excelling at everything without drawing attention to himself.
“Very, very quiet. Very humble,” Faison said. “A type of kid you didn’t have a problem with.”
Rodgers-Cromartie moved to Orlando as a high school freshman to live with his father. He bounced between two high schools — Orlando Edgewater, Lake Highland Prep and back to Edgewater — before transferring to Lakewood Ranch in the middle of his junior year.
The unsettle high school career brought him little playing time and only one scholarship offer, from Division I-AA Tennessee State.
Rodgers-Cromartie was far from the spotlight of big-time college football, but not from the eyes of NFL scouts. The Cardinals drafted him in the first round last April and gave him a contract that guarantees at least $9 million.
He lives in a condo in Chandler, surrounded by cactus and desert.
An elderly neighbor walks her dog and greets Rodgers-Cromartie when he comes home from work on Sunday nights.
“She congratulates him on the game,” Shominique said. “I think that’s really nice.”
The family has been to every one of his home games this season and the playoff game at Carolina earlier this month. They wear their Rodgers-Cromartie jerseys with his No. 29. Melissa wears a white jersey. Everyone else wears the Cardinal-red home jersey.
At first, Shominique said, family members were the only ones wearing the jersey of the Cardinals’ top rookie. Then Rodgers-Cromartie became a starter and started changing games with interceptions.
Shominique settled into her seat before one Cardinals home game this season and jumped when Melissa yelled, ‘Oh my god!”
Her mom pointed to another fan walking through the aisles wearing a Rodgers-Cromartie jersey.
“That dude has on Dominique’s jersey,” Melissa yelled.
And he wasn’t alone.
“One lady came up to us last game and said her husband told her not to come home from the store unless she bought a Rodgers-Cromartie jersey,” Shominique said. “We go into the store (at University of Phoenix Stadium), point to the jerseys on the wall and say, ‘That’s my brother.’ ”
And the brother, the son, the grandson is coming home to Tampa this week for the Super Bowl.
Some time before the big game, while he and his teammates participate in their pregame warm-up, Rodgers-Cromartie will walk to a corner of the end zone, kneel and say a prayer.
He does that before every game.
His mom will be watching.
She will pray, too.
“It’s a blessing,” Melissa said. “Coming from the road he took. All the high schools. Losing a kidney when he was young. Never being the elite player on the team. Never growing up with one (high school) team. Going to a small college. It’s just a blessing. I never thought this would happen this fast. It’s been a long journey. I’m just overwhelmed. Words can’t describe it. They can’t.”