Let’s say you played quarterback in college. But you weren’t just any average quarterback. You were – no, wait, you still are – your school’s all-time leader in yards gained (10,839), rushing touchdowns (38), pass completions (616), pass attempts (1,123), passing yardage (7,169), touchdowns scored (41), and points scored (246). Even better, you’re the only true freshman in NCAA history to both rush and pass for 1,000 yards in one season. Surely, the NFL would have a place for you, right? Someone’s gonna want you right?
Well, Josh Cribbs accomplished all of those things. Yet on Draft Day 2005, no one called his name. Two days passed, and 256 names crawled across the ESPN bottom line – and none of them were his.
Cribbs attended Kent State, a school more known in popular culture for the shootings on its campus 40 years ago than its football program. And playing in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) didn’t exactly gain you much notoriety.
So after a stellar career for the Golden Flashes, Cribbs found himself on the outside looking in, hoping, praying that an NFL team would at least give him an invite to training camp where he could show off his skills.
Four years later, Cribbs is a Pro Bowl and All-Pro kick returner for the Cleveland Browns, the only team that gave him a shot. He runs, he catches, and he even throws a bit, albeit for select plays. The Washington, D.C. native is one of the more established players in the NFL, yet he almost didn’t have a job coming out of college.
And that may have been the best thing that ever happened to him.
You played quarterback at Kent State and set numerous NCAA records. How did feel to go from record-setting quarterback to undrafted NFL free agent fighting for a job?
It hurt, knowing that I was one of the best guys at the collegiate level, and not getting (much) recognition. Especially because of the school I went to, it was in the back of my head that it was going to play out like that. I had an extra chip on my shoulder going into training camp. I had to work harder just to get noticed, just to get the opportunity to play in the NFL.
The Browns pick you up as an undrafted free agent, but because you’re not the prototypical 6’5”, 240 lb. quarterback, they want to convert you to wide receiver and kick returner. What’s the challenge like, going from quarterback (where if you get hit, it’s by surprise) to becoming an NFL wide receiver, where you’re expected to go over the middle and take hits?
It’s a big challenge, because, for one, the stamina is different. Two, with route running, you’re going against guys that have been playing defensive back their whole lives. Getting off jams (at the line of scrimmage) and playing against NFL defenses is quite difficult, (especially) coming from the collegiate level and switching positions. I had never played receiver in my life…to come from that level to the highest level in football and to go against guys who had been doing it for their whole lives, and to compete for a job…that was the most difficult transition for me.
This year, Pat White, another “mobile QB” out of West Virginia, he goes in Round 2 to the Miami Dolphins. When you see Pat White get drafted in Round 2, is there a sense of “Why not me?” Or is there a sense of pride that guys like you, Antwaan Randle-El (former Indiana U. QB, now a Redskins WR) and Brad Smith (QB at U. of Missouri, now a Jets WR) paved the way for a mobile, undersized quarterbacks like White to get drafted that high?
I definitely feel that we paved the way, especially (this year) for a quarterback that came from Kent State (seventh-round pick Julian Edelman) and was drafted by the Patriots. Coming out of school, I felt that was the best chance for me…the fifth or sixth round would be the round that I probably would go, coming from the MAC, (and) not playing in a conference like the Big Ten. (But) the skills that I’ve shown in the NFL now have paved the way for the younger guys.
Switching gears, one of the hot–button topics in the NFL this year has been the Donte’ Stallworth case (Stallworth pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter and served 24 days in jail after he struck and killed a man in an early morning crash on March 14). Have you spoken to Donte’ since his release?
I spoke to Donte’ last night, matter of fact, and he asked me how I was doing. He sent me a text how I was doing, and I sent him the same text back, like, “No, how are you doing?” I know he’s taking it hard. Last season he had an incident with Braylon (Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards) where he stepped on Braylon’s foot by accident while running laps after practice, and Braylon had to sit out a couple of weeks. Judging by how he felt when he did that, his mentality, his mindset…I knew he would be crushed about the other incident, and he was. It’s out of character (for him) and a lot of people who didn’t know him…a lot of people were to quick judge and put him in the category of the primadonna athlete, drunken driving, this and that, when he’s actually a good person. He’s a God-fearing person, a human being who’s deeply sorry, and it shows in the way he talks and the way he communicates, his regards for human life is dramatic.
I just try to encourage him, tell him to stay up, I tell him I’m gonna come visit him and work out together. I know some guys from the team have gone to see him, to work out with him, to keep him in shape and to keep his spirits up. It’s a trying time for him and his family.
They say that when one door closes, another opens. With the loss of Stallworth (indefinitely suspended by the NFL) and Kellen Winslow being traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, do you see this as your opportunity to break out as a big-time wide receiver in the NFL?
Donte’ being gone really doesn’t have an effect on me. We have a different coaching staff and organization altogether that plans to use me in different ways. I only had a few receptions last year; I had about 30 carries at running back and about 10 throws. The new staff plans to use me substantially more than the last regime did. But I’m not really in that wide receiver batch because I play at so many spots last and I’ll be playing at many different spots this year, including defense. I’ve practiced at safety a lot this offseason to get prepared for training camp, so I can go in with all these positions in mind, so they can throw me anywhere.
Hopefully I’ll play a lot more core positions like wide receiver and get more opportunities to catch the football, but with the amount of carries I’ll get, the amount of throws at quarterback, kick returns, punt returns, punt coverage and kickoff coverage, I’ll have a pretty extensive job. I’ll keep honing on receiving just to let people know “Hey, I can catch the ball, I can be a threat this way too, I’m not just a gadget guy.”
This is Eric Mangini’s first year coaching the Browns. What’s the transition been like so far from former coach Romeo Crennel to Mangini?
It’s been a lot more disciplined. Minor changes in practice schedules, minor changes in practice details and the way we go about practice. We went back to a lot of fundamentals with Mangini; tackling fundamentals, footwork fundamentals (and other) drills that we didn’t do under Romeo Crennel. He (Mangini) comes in a little more militant than Romeo was, but he’s a good coach and he wants to win, and whenever you have someone come, you can only get behind him. I’m not gonna put up a fight at all, to resist at all, when you have a coach like this who wants to win, and you wanna win, you give yourself to the coach fully; you put your faith in him that he can put up W’s at the end of the year.
Any big predictions for the Browns this year? Playoffs?
I really don’t make predictions, but we’ll be a better football team this year, and I’ll leave it at that. That’s one thing that Mangini has honed in on, he does a lot of teaching in the meetings about media and how we never make predictions and We never give the other team ammo against us. But I feel like it’s gonna be a good year for us, and we’re gonna get after it.
You opened Bounce City (an indoor inflatable children’s playground) outside of Cleveland a while back. What prompted you to get involved with that?
Me and a buddy of mine, Darnell Dinkins (former Browns tight end, now with the New Orleans Saints), (we both) went to an inflatable party that was similar to it (with their children). The area that we live in is a big residential area, and being in Cleveland nine months out of the year, it’s raining, thunderstorms, it’s snowing…only about three months out of the year you have good weather. There’s lot s of time for kids to be sitting around doing nothing, and that was the best idea we could have came up with. Where do we take our kids? Let’s do this ourselves. He was thinking about putting one in Pittsburgh (where he’s from) and I was thinking about putting one here. To limit the amount of risk, we decided to open one here. It’s doing really well…it’s a blast. The kids love it.
Do you play fantasy football?
No…I don’t think we’re allowed to. (But) a lot of my friends and family that play, they tell me how they pick me up on their teams.
You’re originally from Washington, D.C. Do you live there in the off-season or do you stay in Cleveland?
I go back to D.C. all the time, (but) I stay here in Cleveland in the offseason to work out. I have a daughter in school so I don’t want to have to move her around. I don’t want to have to go there to work out a couple of weeks only to come back here and work out with a different trainer. I basically stay here and work out with the team all year round.
What should someone know about Josh Cribbs that you’re not going to see on TV or read about on Wikipedia?
That I’m a God-fearing person, and that’s how I got to where I am. I feel like everything in my life has happened for a reason, even me not being drafted. If I was drafted, I would not have gotten as far as I have now, because I would not have had the chip on my shoulder. I would not have had the edge to feel like I could play any position. I would have stumbled by now. (Not being drafted,) getting minimal pay, I never would have gotten a (long-term) contract after my first year after (the Browns) found out that this kid was gonna be something. Leaning and depending on God has brought me this far. I’ve already surpassed the mark for turnover in the NFL (the average NFL career is about 2.3 years)…and I was a guy from Kent State who wasn’t drafted, not even looked at.