By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 1, 2011; 11:27 PM
He'd gratefully driven the route nearly every day for the past five months. Rolling to Redskins Park for his final practice of the season last week, Anthony Armstrong found his thoughts veering back to his unpredictable career path, not the familiar roads.
He pulled out his phone and tapped away. "This ain't the way the GPS said, but the destination is the same . . . " Armstrong tweeted.
In the offseason, he'd hoped for the 53rd spot on a 53-man roster. Becoming a special teams contributor would be a dream come true, considering how unlikely it was that he was even in an NFL locker room.
But as the Washington Redskins enter the final game of the season Sunday against the New York Giants, Armstrong is a starting wide receiver. While the team's season has fallen short of many expectations, Armstrong has been a bright spot. His unexpected rise from obscurity -- a small college, an independent indoor league in Texas, part-time work at a jewelry store, unstable positions on NFL practice squads -- has led him here, to an opportunity that finally matches his drive and ambition. Entering Sunday's game, Armstrong has 787 yards on 42 catches. His 18.7 yards per catch is sixth in the NFL.
"I reached goals that I didn't have initially," he concedes.
They are goals, in fact, that no one seemed to have for him. They just didn't think of it. The NFL wasn't just a pipe dream. It seemed to exist on another planet. In another universe.Texas roots
Armstrong grew up in Texas, where allegiance to the Dallas Cowboys is pledged in the hospital delivery room. For the Armstrong family, that passion was genetic. Both parents and all of his grandparents cheered for the Cowboys. Armstrong's childhood room was painted blue and featured posters on the walls. Emmitt Smith was his favorite player, the one Armstrong would emulate in neighborhood games.
"Anthony was always the one that if you had him on your team, you were probably going to win," says Steven Dimitt, a childhood friend who grew up a few houses down the street. "Nobody could catch him. So it was good to be the first captain."
Just two days shy of Armstrong's sixth birthday, his father, Tom Armstrong, died at age 48 from kidney failure.
"I remember gathering them up," says Armstrong's mother, Gwen, "telling them their daddy had gone to heaven. Everything's going to be okay. We'll miss him, but everything was going to be okay."
Armstrong says most of his memories of his father are derived from family photos. In them, a young Tom Armstrong bears a striking resemblance to the Redskins' 27-year-old wide receiver.
"How did it impact him? You know, he doesn't talk about it a lot," says Gwen. "And I'm still trying to understand why. He talks about everything else."
Says Armstrong: "I honestly didn't really know how to take it. I was taken aback from it. I just really wanted to be more strong for my mother and for my sister."
Working full-time for IBM, Gwen Armstrong raised her children alone but still found time to attend Armstrong's sporting events. His high school team - Newman Smith High in Carrollton - featured a run-heavy offense. As a receiver, Armstrong had little opportunity to put up big numbers. He caught just 11 passes as a senior.
"He only weighed about a buck-forty. We listed him at 155, just to make it respectable," said Gerald Roulette, one of his high school coaches. "But you can't measure a guy's heart, and no one has a bigger heart than Anthony."
Armstrong's skills were raw - he had bad hands and was an undisciplined route-runner - but coaches at West Texas A&M, a Division II school in Canyon, Tex., couldn't believe his speed. One of the coaches says he clocked Armstrong at 4.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash, the fastest he'd ever timed a kid.
"When he runs a 40, it's like he was floating," says Richard Renner, who now coaches at Midwestern State. "I've never seen that in my life and probably never will."
Armstrong's college career didn't get off to a good start, though. Shortly after arriving on campus, Armstrong took a physical and wasn't cleared to play because of an irregular heartbeat.
"Anthony was just a bubble of joy," Renner says. "He was always smiling, [a] humble, sweet kid. But when the doctor told him he couldn't play, he was devastated. That was the only time I saw that kid low. He was crying, he was so upset. It was like his world came to an end."
Armstrong missed a couple of games before he was finally allowed to play. The heart problem hasn't been an issue in the years since. He totaled 145 receptions and 1,768 yards in four years at West Texas A&M. As a senior, he was named to the all-Lone Star Conference second team, not exactly NFL credentials.
His family went to his graduation and had no idea what Armstrong might do with his marketing degree. Something in sports, everyone figured, maybe coaching.
Armstrong wasn't finished playing football, though. He moved to Odessa, Tex., to play in the fledging Intense Football League, a six-team, indoor mixture of NFL hopefuls and guys just looking for a bit of extra money.
"We have everyone from the 22-year old kid who almost got drafted to the 30-year old guy on his way out," says Chris Williams, head coach for the West Texas Roughnecks. "Anthony was definitely a guy who was trying to get better, who wanted to play at a higher level."
Armstrong lived with three other players in a dormitory at a local junior college, earning $200 per game. When the arena wasn't available, the team was forced to practice wherever it could - a local high school field and even a parking lot for a stretch - and players had to bus all over the region for games.
Armstrong had promised himself that as long as he kept improving, moving up to bigger leagues and better football jobs, he'd stick with his dream. He was only the third-best receiver on the Roughnecks in 2006, but after just one season in Odessa, he made his bid to play in the Arena League.
Will McClay, head coach of the Dallas Desperados, acknowledged it was easy to dismiss Armstrong at the tryout. He was skinny and lacked the football resume of other players.
"But he came up to me at one point and said, 'We're cousins. You gonna give me a shot, cousin?' " McClay says with a laugh. "I said, 'I have no idea what you're talking about.' But from that point on, I couldn't stop watching him."
McClay saw just enough to give Armstrong that shot, placing the speedy receiver on the Desperados' practice squad to start the 2007 season.
"I still wasn't really thinking about the NFL," Gwen Armstrong says. "When he got to the Desperados, it was like, 'You made it!' "
Because Armstrong wasn't a full-fledged member of the active roster until midway through the season, he had to get a second job to make ends meet. Sarah Dotter was the manager at the local Whitehall Jewelers store and remembers when Armstrong came for his interview.
"He just kind of lit up the room," she says.
Armstrong would leave Desperados practice each day, changing from a football uniform to slacks and a tie, and go to a nearby mall to sell sparkling engagement rings and shiny anniversary presents, showing the same charm and salesmanship he used to get McClay's attention at the Desperados' tryout.
"He was a great salesman," Dotter says. "He was really good with people, took care of people, tried to understand their needs."
But Armstrong never lost focus on his football dreams. Dotter says he would pass out small cards with a photo of him playing football. "Hold on to these," he'd say with a smile. "One day, they'll be worth something."
"He always had that drive," she says. "He was always talking about, 'One day, I'm gonna make it. You'll see.' "Noticed by the NFL
The Desperados were owned by Jerry Jones, who also owned the Dallas Cowboys. The two teams shared many resources and staff, and Armstrong hoped his play in the Arena league would earn him a shot with his favorite NFL team.
Instead, Jeff Ireland, the Cowboys' top scout, became the Miami Dolphins' general manager in 2008, around the same time Armstrong was interviewing to coach high school football in the Dallas suburbs and considering a career selling insurance. Armstrong's phone rang and he had a tryout in Miami.
A couple of years earlier, Armstrong thought he had a big break: the Atlanta Falcons had invited him to town. His hopes were high. He landed in Atlanta, received a thick playbook and was about to report to a meeting. Before he even cracked open the book, though, he was informed that he'd failed the physical. He was on the next flight back to Dallas.
Armstrong remembered well the depression that followed his quick visit to Atlanta, and when the Dolphins called and offered a two-day tryout, he was determined to stick around longer in the NFL.
The Dolphins kept Armstrong on their practice squad for the entire 2008 season but released him before the start of the 2009 season. Washington added him to its practice squad last October and his ascent was fast-tracked once Mike Shanahan and his staff began evaluating players in offseason workouts.
Armstrong earned his spot on the 53-man roster in training camp and battled his way into the starting rotation in Week 5. When he returned home to Dallas last month to play the Cowboys, he posted his first career 100-yard game in front of family and friends, their loyalties divided between the Cowboys and the Redskins' unlikely receiver.
As the Redskins begin determining what their 2011 roster might look like, coaches have at least one promising option in Armstrong. The GPS could never have kept straight all of the twists and turns, but he was somehow able to carve his own unique path.
"I'm still in awe," says Gwen Armstrong. "I just don't know what to think. I mean, he did it. He did it."