By Bill Oram
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009
The night before Johnetta Cartwright died, her son Rock, then known as number 40 for the Washington Redskins, went to dinner with her at her favorite chicken buffet in East Texas. Then they shopped at an outlet mall. Later, while she sipped a Coca-Cola on the porch of her home, he sat on her lap.
It was a normal thing for Cartwright, then 25, to do. After games during his all-American career at Conroe High School, where he collected 5,231 rushing yards, he would go home and crawl into bed with his parents and watch statewide high school football highlights on TV.
"I was definitely a mama's boy," said Cartwright, who is entering his eighth season with Washington. But as close as he was to his mother, Cartwright had no idea that doctors had told her that a thin film over her heart was restricting blood flow and certainly not that it would kill her on Memorial Day 2005. Nobody told him about the condition because they knew he was a worrier, just like his mom.
He went to a party later that night, a send-off in anticipation of his fourth season as a reserve running back for the Redskins, who had taken the undersized Cartwright out of Kansas State with the 257th pick -- four picks from the bottom -- of the 2002 draft. The next day, while visiting a friend in Houston, he missed six calls from a cousin before he finally got the news that his mother had passed out while playing a video game at a local store. He remembers getting to the hospital and seeing his brother and sister-in-law crying outside. He arrived in time to hug and kiss his 46-year-old mother. "It was the weirdest feeling, feeling your mom go from hot to cold," Cartwright said.
Before the start of that season, he changed his uniform number from 40 to 31, in honor of Johnetta and the date on which she died.
She never saw her son play a game in Washington. Even if she had journeyed from Conroe to FedEx Field in Landover, there is a very real chance she wouldn't have seen Cartwright touch the ball. He had just two carries in 2004 and in 2003, his most productive year as a rusher, he was used in choice situations as a short-yardage back.
But then special teams coach Danny Smith started using the 5-foot-8 Cartwright to return kickoffs in 2006. It was a role he embraced, and last year, as special teams co-captain, he was fourth in the NFC in return yards with 1,307. He shouldered much of the responsibility for the Redskins' field position.
"If you don't get the field position then I feel like we put the team in a position where we're fighting the rest of the half to get the field position back," Smith said. "To have a reliable guy that gets field position I think is a big factor."
As a result of being that player for Washington, Cartwright is listed as a running back but rarely appears at the position. He recorded five carries in 2008 and just two the season before. He is a backup to Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts, two other products of the 2002 draft.
"You got Clinton and Ladell, two great backs, in front of me," said Cartwright who in the offseason trained with Betts and former Redskins linebacker Eddie Mason. "I know me playing running back won't happen unless somebody gets hurt, and God forbid that. I'm always prepared as if I'm the starter."
In this training camp, backs like Anthony Alridge and Dominique Dorsey are jostling for roster spots and have tried to show themselves capable of returning punts. But Cartwright, who still says his first priority is just making the team, has established himself as a key member of the Redskins.
"Rock knows where his bread's buttered," said Smith, his voice hoarse after conducting an afternoon special teams practice Saturday. "And, yeah, Rock wants to be the starting tailback. Well, yeah, I want to be the head coach, but that ain't happening. Rock better take care of his business in returning and I'm going take care of my business on special teams."
Smith said Cartwright, who re-signed with Washington in the 2008 offseason, is a leader of special teams. He has not been designated a captain again this year, and Smith said he didn't know when that would be determined, but that Cartwright mentors everybody on the team.
"You'll see him talking to young guys over the course of practice because he knows how we do it," Smith said. "It's one thing for me to teach it and coach it, but when you have guys like Rock that help you help the young guys understand, then you become a better team"
When Cartwright fields a kick -- before starting upfield, dodging coverage and twisting by would-be tacklers -- he clutches the ball in the crook of his right elbow, nestling it against what he calls his "angel arm." His tattooed limb is a memorial to his mother, and a shrine to his two daughters. "Johnetta" is etched beneath angel wings on the inside of his right biceps, and the names "Jaida" and "Brianna" are inked in the image.
Brianna is 9 and lives in Texas. She was born when Cartwright was at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Tex. Being 20 years old and away, he missed out on the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting. She's in his life -- her most recent visit will end Monday when she flies home to Texas to start school.
He married his wife, Mersedeh, last July and their daughter Jaida was born six months ago.
Cartwright said with new fatherhood comes maturity. He will be 30 in December and said he has cut back on partying, going out only once or twice a month before the season started, instead focusing on raising his daughter as his mother would want him to.
"I actually got the chance to really go through the whole getting up in the middle of the night, changing diapers," Cartwright said, "because when my first daughter was born I was in junior college, so I wasn't able to do that."
Later, he added: "Those girls are my heart."