Rodgers-Cromartie dishes up defense

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was the first Tennessee State player to go in the first round of the NFL draft since Ed "Too Tall" Jones and Waymond Bryant in 1974. Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire

TAMPA, Fla. -- The last time Arizona Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was in Raymond James Stadium, he had a very different job.

"I put the food on the plate,'' Rodgers-Cromartie said.

When he was a high school student down the road in Bradenton or home on break from Tennessee State, Rodgers-Cromartie would work for his uncle's catering business. When the Buccaneers played a home game, Rodgers-Cromartie would help make sure his uncle's company fed the fans in the luxury suites.

"Really, I put the food on the plate,'' he said. "They'd come down the line and I'd put the food on their plate.''

But he never saw the field.

"Well, I'd take a peek up at the televisions in the booth or the scoreboard in the end zone when the line was slow, but that was about it,'' Rodgers-Cromartie said.

Someone else will have to fill the plates Sunday during Super Bowl XLIII because Rodgers-Cromartie will be in the starting lineup for the Cardinals and his uncle will be among 15 relatives in the stands watching.

"This is pretty much a dream come true for a kid from Bradenton,'' Rodgers-Cromartie said.

A dream with some interesting twists and turns, and a dream in which Rodgers-Cromartie established himself as one of the league's top rookies in the regular season and perhaps one of the league's top cornerbacks in the postseason.

"This kid has gotten better and better every week, especially the last few weeks,'' Arizona defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. "At this point, I don't even think of him as a rookie anymore.''

Working first as a nickel back early in the season, Rodgers-Cromartie had some ups and downs. But a dramatic change came near midseason when the Cardinals put him in the starting lineup. While starting the final 11 games, Rodgers-Cromartie came up with four interceptions.

That was only a preview of things to come. When the Cardinals reached the postseason, Rodgers-Cromartie started making big plays on a regular basis. He picked off Atlanta's Matt Ryan in an opening-round win, and was even more impressive against Carolina when he was matched against one of the league's best receivers, Carolina's Steve Smith. Without asking their safeties to give him a lot of help, the Cardinals had Rodgers-Cromartie on Smith for much of the game. He held Smith to two receptions for 43 yards, and one of those catches was a meaningless touchdown at the end of a 33-13 Cardinals victory.

Even Smith, who like many receivers prefers to talk about himself and not praise opponents, said several times after the game, "The kid had a nice game."

Translation: Rodgers-Cromartie had a monstrous game, also tipping a pass that safety Antrel Rolle was able to intercept. But there's still a humble nature to Rodgers-Cromartie, who was Arizona's first-round pick (No. 16 overall) in April.

Part of that is because of Rolle, safety Adrian Wilson and cornerback Ralph Brown.

"I think those veteran guys have done a nice job of keeping him humble,'' Pendergast said. "Those three are gym rats, always watching film and always looking for an advantage. I don't know that Dominique was that way when he got here, but he didn't have much choice but to become a gym rat once those guys got hold of him.''

But the humble nature also might come from a humble start. Although the Bradenton-Sarasota area is a hot spot for college recruiters in a football-crazy state, the Florida schools didn't come calling. It was somewhat understandable at the time.

Rodgers-Cromartie played only one season of high school football and stood 6 feet and 150 pounds at graduation. He sent film to Florida, Florida State and South Florida but he didn't hear any encouraging responses.

"They all said I was too small,'' Rodgers-Cromartie said. "I think they were just saying that because they didn't know who I was and they didn't think somebody could just sneak up like that.''

That theory got blown apart when Rodgers-Cromartie got to Tennessee State and had 11 career interceptions, including four that were returned for touchdowns. He held opposing receivers to 3.54 yards per pass attempt, the best by a defensive back at any NCAA level during his last three seasons. He also got his weight up to 178 pounds, and that helped him become the first Tennessee State player to be taken in the first round since Ed "Too Tall'' Jones (first overall) and Waymond Bryant (fourth overall) were selected in 1974.

It has all come full circle. Rodgers-Cromartie is back in Florida (he got to spend part of Tuesday in Bradenton with his family). The college coaches who didn't recruit him can watch him play in the Super Bowl.

The people who used to rely on Rodgers-Cromartie to fill their plates will have to turn elsewhere. This time, he will be doing his work on the field.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.