Ross prepares for the second half of the Omaha Beef's exhibition game against the St. Charles Cyclones. A former Loper football star, Ross is looking to salvage a once great football career by making a comeback with the Beef.
Some say the path to greatness comes from traveling a road less taken. For Richie Ross, that path has sent him from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the ocean, and everywhere in-between.
Ross, a 2006 UNK graduate, recently made his debut with the Omaha Beef of the Indoor Football League, catching a touchdown pass and solidifying his position on the team. But it wasn’t that long ago Ross was donning the NFL logo on his jersey instead of the Beef logo.
During his career at UNK, Ross set multiple school records and impressed not only the coaches, but NFL scouts as well. Upon graduating, Ross entered the NFL draft, and the whirlwind that was to be his NFL future was set to begin.
“When the draft came around, I got a couple looks. In the seventh round, the Houston Texans were looking to draft a wide receiver and they were looking at myself and David Anderson from Colorado State,” Ross said. “Unfortunately, they chose him over me, but decided to sign me on as an 'un' drafted free agent a couple of weeks later.”
So Ross traded in his Loper gear for a Houston Texans helmet, where he eventually was signed to the team’s practice squad. The marriage between the Texans and Ross was short lived, however, as he was waived from the team halfway into the season. Despite the heartbreaking news, Ross’s NFL dream continued when the Tennessee Titans picked up his rights only a couple of weeks later.
Ross packed his bags and headed for Tennessee. Team management informed him that while he was on their top priority list, that he was to be sent to the NFL Europe for developmental and evaluation reasons.
Then all four walls came crashing down on top of Ross’s NFL aspirations.
“During training camp for Europe, I was running a vertical route against one of the cornerbacks. The pass was under-thrown, so I cut off my route and jumped up to get the ball; it’s something I’ve done thousands of times in my football career. When I was up in the air, the back came forward, and his knee hit my knee and it broke my patella in two,” Ross said. “The doctors say it was truly a freak accident in the way it went down.”
So instead of heading to Europe with his Tennessee teammates, Ross was on his way to Birmingham, Ala., to take care of his broken patella. Doctors told Ross that the contraction in his quadriceps from jumping up to catch the ball, combined with the force of the contact between knees, forced the break of the bone, something that is not too common in football injuries. For the next three months Ross was on crutches watching and wondering if his team would still want him.
Once Ross was able to ditch the crutches, he began working out and rehabbing with a new metal plate that was essentially screwing his leg together. As time progressed, however, the pain didn’t subside, even though team officials thought the rehabilitation process should be going quicker than it had been.
“They kept telling me during my treatment and workouts to fight through the pain, but the pain never went away. About seven to eight months after my procedure, I started developing a knot in my knee that shot pain throughout my leg.” Doctors and all of the x-rays couldn’t explain the knot or pain, Ross said. “So I continued to push through the pain, but I knew something wasn’t right.”
Eventually the pain became too much and Ross demanded an explanation. He was told that the knot in his knee could be a bone growth, but that it shouldn’t be affecting him nor should it be painful. Doctors suggested they go back into his knee, shave the bone growth— and hopefully that would relieve him of any pressure.
This was his third procedure on his knee in just over a year. What doctors found in his knee wasn’t a bone growth, nor was it anything that Ross was doing wrong in his rehab.
“After the third surgery, the doctor came in and said to me ‘I think we finally have this thing beat.’” A stitch that the surgeons had left formed scar tissue. “It was a very simple mistake, but it cost me a year of pure playing time,” Ross said. “I was going on almost two years in this Birmingham facility and I wanted to be back playing football.”
This surgical mistake cost Ross practice and playing time and his spot on the Tennessee roster.
“Tennessee looked at my progress and felt that I should be further along than where I was. They basically thought that I had given up and that I had nothing left,” Ross said. “They thought I was milking the injury so I could keep getting a paycheck from the team— which is completely untrue. Why would I go through all of these surgeries and rehab so I could make $600 a week? I wouldn’t do that.”
So the team released Ross in 2008, and he was left to wonder what would become of not only his NFL, but also his entire football future. Ross eventually left the confines of Birmingham to attempt a comeback into the sport that he had made his living for years.
Within the next year, Ross would compete in tryouts for teams in the Canadian Football League (CFL) and other leagues, but came away with nothing positive to show for his efforts.
“Some of these tryouts had 600 wide receivers and my tryout consisted of me running two routes and one 40-yard dash, and that was it. These tryouts were also ones that players paid to be at and the whole situation was just bad,” Ross said. “I was living out of my suitcase and I was running out of options. It was then that I had to think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my career and where it would go from here. I knew I had something left, but I felt empty, like something was missing.”
Ross said that he even had thoughts of coming back to the college where he re-wrote the record books, to help out with the coaching staff. But with that thought behind him, Ross made the decision to move back to Lincoln, Neb., to be with his family that had been waiting for him during his NFL career.
That empty feeling, however, wouldn’t go away and left Ross wanting more as life continued to tread through murky waters.
“When I came back to Lincoln, I just wanted to find a job, to work and support my family, but everywhere I looked, the door was closed,” Ross said. “I was of no worth to anyone, including myself.”
That is when the opportunity to play for a team from up Interstate 80 came knocking on Ross’ door. The Omaha Beef were holding open tryouts and Ross, with nothing on his plate and a chip on his shoulder, wanted to prove that he could still play.
Ross made his way to Omaha and played his way onto the team’s roster for their exhibition game against the St. Charles Cyclones. Only the players who stood out in this game would be offered a spot on the team’s official 2010 roster.
On the field, Ross was easily noticeable as one of the team’s tallest wide receivers. Early in the second quarter, Ross went in motion and ran a fly pattern up the middle of the field, finding open space for an easy touchdown catch and a celebratory back flip in the end zone to cap off his first career IFL touchdown and first career touchdown celebration.
His play earned him a spot on the Beef’s 2010 roster and gave Ross a glimmer of hope that he could once again become the receiver he once was.
“Right now I am nowhere where I used to be, my route running is very rusty and my feet are pretty clumsy when working against corners. I mean, it has been close to three years since I have had any type of football action,” Ross said. “But one thing hasn’t been lost is my ability to go up and catch the ball. I can still do that with the best of them.”
While looking back on his short-lived career with the NFL, Ross said he has no regrets with how his life has gone, but he did accredit some of his downfalls to a bad attitude and offered some advice to fellow Division II players with pro football dreams.
Looking back, Ross takes some of the responsibility. “If I could say anything to the kids coming from a small school, I would say that you need to continue to get better every day and work constantly on becoming the best player you can be,” Ross said.
“That was one of my problems when I was signed by an NFL team. I assumed that once I was in the NFL, that only the best players play in the league. So instead of working on my route running and physical conditioning, I was too worried about the players ahead of me who were getting more opportunities than I was. In the end, my bad attitude about my playing situation set the course for where I am now. Regardless of your position, you can’t let your spot in somebody else’s shadow affect who you are”
“You can ask anybody, any quarterback I played with at UNK… I was always the first to blow up their phone in the summer trying to get them to go to the park, go to the field, to work out routes and just throw. Somewhere along the line, I lost that in myself and I’m trying to get it back.”
The road to redemption for Ross has been filled with potholes and obstacles, but it’s nothing that he hasn’t dealt with already and he isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I’ve seen up close that you can be here today and gone tomorrow. It’s something that has been on my shoulders, and I want to take my time with the Beef day by day, using the practice time to become the receiver that I once was and the one that I know I can be,” Ross said.
For now, the former Lincoln High and UNK star will don the orange and black and suit up in front of 5,000 fans shaking cowbells. While it’s far from the bright lights of the NFL, something is better than nothing, no matter what league you play for.a