By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2007
Mitch Browning had studied the grainy videotapes of the gargantuan high school quarterback -- "probably the biggest in the country that year," he recalls -- when he pulled up to John F. Kennedy High School in Cleveland to watch him play. Browning, then the offensive coordinator at the University of Minnesota, would finally see the 300-pound passer up close on this December night in 2001, but football season had passed and senior Anthony Montgomery was playing basketball instead.
Montgomery, a starting defensive tackle for the Washington Redskins in his second NFL season, had yet to receive a Division I football scholarship offer, but word of his athleticism was enough to merit a recruiting trip to a basketball gym. Browning and then-Minnesota coach Glen Mason wanted to see how the big kid moved and pivoted, if he could accelerate, what kind of personality he had.
"We were impressed enough that we went to his house right after the game and offered him a scholarship that night," Browning said. "He was a kid that we weren't sure where we were going to play him, but I knew he would play somewhere. He would have been the best offensive tackle we had at Minnesota, but we couldn't afford the luxury of playing him on offense."
At Minnesota it was determined that although Montgomery had played quarterback, run the basketball court as a center and commanded the baseball mound as a lefty, he was in fact a defensive tackle, a position he had never considered playing. He went from a player most of the Big Ten had passed on to a project taken by Washington in the fifth round of the NFL draft, to a rookie who spent most of 2006 inactive, to a key member of the NFC's top defense this season.
"I never dreamed of it, never dreamed any of this could happen," said Shirley Montgomery, Anthony's mother. "I knew he liked his sports, but I never thought he would be at this level."
Despite always being the biggest kid in his class -- Montgomery, 23, is 6 feet 6, 315 pounds -- he does not come from an athletic family. He did, however, always have a passion for sports. He bounced a basketball in the basement "nonstop" as a child, Shirley Montgomery said, and tossed a football in the front yard to himself when there was no one else to play with. And he was a smart, grounded kid.
When he was 5, the family did not have a babysitter for Montgomery, the youngest of four children, with everyone else at work or school. So when his half-day kindergarten ended, he would make the short walk home, unlock the door, lock it behind him and call his mother to let her know he was okay.
"He's just so laid back and well-mannered," Shirley Montgomery said. "We've always been impressed with how mature he is and how humble he is."
In high school, Montgomery was a three-sport star recruited for basketball and baseball. He started at quarterback until midway through his senior year, while also playing tight end and defensive end. During his recruiting visit, Browning quickly dispelled any notion that Montgomery, who weighed nearly 330 at the time, would throw another pass. Montgomery played nine games for Minnesota at tackle as a freshman and was a regular starter there after that.
"I was so raw when I got to Minnesota," Montgomery said. "I had never really played in the middle and I was just kind of big and I would just come off the ball and kind of try to grab guys and just use my strength. But technique-wise, I had no technique."
Montgomery's defensive line coach, Tom Sims, a former standout NFL lineman, had played for Greg Blache, Washington's defensive line coach. Montgomery became accustomed to the kind of verbal barrages that are common from the Redskins' defensive staff. But he remained unrefined by NFL standards and interest in him in the 2006 draft was lukewarm.
Several NFL teams had him work out as an offensive tackle, and Montgomery fretted about yet another position switch. "I heard people say that I didn't have the right attitude for a defensive lineman, that I was too laid back," Montgomery said. During his visit to Washington, Blache told him that if the Redskins drafted him, it would be as a defensive tackle.
"The big question mark was, 'Were we going to be better than some of the coaches before who let him get by as an underachiever?' " said Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach-defense.
Shemy Schembechler, who scouted Montgomery for the Redskins, said they were one of only two teams looking at him as a defensive lineman. "His upper-body strength and lower-body power were the biggest concerns coming out of college."
The Redskins took Montgomery 153rd overall, and essentially chalked up his rookie season to long-term development. They wanted a younger, faster line, but Montgomery needed seasoning. He often was called out for mistakes, and getting chewed out was a part of daily life. He appeared in five games in 2006, while fellow rookie Kedric Golston, a tackle with far fewer natural gifts, started regularly.
"We've always appreciated [Montgomery's] talent, but we haven't appreciated his effort at times," Williams said.
Montgomery's "Welcome To The NFL" moment came in one of the first practices last season, when he faced the starting offense as a member of the scout team. "I'm thinking, 'Okay, scout team, training camp is over, the tempo is going to come down some,' " Montgomery said. "Then the first play I came off a double team got drove back and put on my back. That's when the fire got lit within me. I take pride in not being put on my back like that, and when it happened I was like, 'I've got to improve.' "
Montgomery stayed at Redskins Park nearly full time after the season, making just a few trips home between January and the start of training camp. His mind was catching up to his body; his body was getting stronger.
This week Williams found himself rewinding practice film of Montgomery tossing aside one of the team's veteran linemen during a drill, marveling at the sight and the potential still within.
"I don't think Anthony yet understands how good he can be," Williams said. "He's come a long ways, but he still has room to improve."