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Anthony Armstrong has shown the Redskins he has good speed and good hands.
Wide receiver Anthony Armstrong scores Washington's first touchdown against the Buffalo Bills on Aug. 13.
BY RICH CAMPBELL
ASHBURN--Like most players' paths to the NFL, Anthony Armstrong's began in the parking lot of The Jack Shack.
Wait, that's not right. Guys who play on second-tier minor league teams that practice outside a minor league hockey arena don't make it this far.
So how the heck was it that Armstrong walked off the Redskins Park practice field yesterday afternoon with a spot on the Washington Redskins' final roster almost in his grasp?
"That Robert Frost quote about the road less traveled? My road was off on the side that you can't even see," he said. "I literally was cutting through these woods and hacking down trees trying to get to this spot here."
Armstrong, 27, is the Redskins' feel-good story of the summer. With impressive speed, sharp route-running and good hands, he has separated himself from an otherwise pedestrian group of wide receivers in the team's most important position battle.
"I came in here and took the job and said, 'Who is that guy?'" new head coach Mike Shanahan said. "He has showed a lot of speed."
Armstrong would be your typical training camp longshot cliche if his story were a bit more believable. But really, it isn't.
PLAYING ON PARKING LOT
After graduating from West Texas A&M, a Division II school in the small town of Canyon, Texas, in 2004, Armstrong had to put his football career on hold to rehabilitate what he called a "yucky" right wrist injury he suffered as a senior. A fracture and torn ligaments required a cast.
Shortly after he got the cast removed, he tried out for the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent. He failed their physical because of his wrist, though, and spent 2005 away from the game.
"When I wasn't playing, I was grumpy and angry, probably damn near depressed," he said.
Armstrong called the Falcons for another shot after he got healthy, but they said they needed new game film of him to consider it. Great, Armstrong figured. He just needed game tape as quickly as he could get it.
One of Armstrong's college teammates was playing at the time for the Odessa Roughnecks in the Intense Football League--which no longer exists under that name--and helped him latch on to that team.
Armstrong recalled his stint with them yesterday with a hint of disbelief in his voice four years after the fact.
The Roughnecks play in the Ector County Coliseum, which is also home to the Odessa Jackalopes--hence "The Jack Shack"--of the Central Hockey League. Because the Roughnecks began practice while hockey was still in season, club organizers laid the 50-yard Astroturf football field in the parking lot of the arena.
"Cars would drive by honking," Armstrong said. "If you missed a pass, the ball would be in the streets. It was pretty crazy."
Armstrong showed off a scar on one hand where a piece of gravel had been removed.
"We had an overly excited linebacker knocking people down," he said.
He played in 13 games that season and scored 22 touchdowns. He earned $200 per game.
a BREAK, AND THEN A CUT
The following year, Armstrong made the big jump to Dallas. The Desperados, that is.
He got their attention by running a 4.25-second 40-yard dash at an Arena Football League tryout. The Falcons weren't interested in him anymore, so he figured this was the next step.
He began 2007 on the Desperados' practice squad. He eventually made the active roster, but he injured his hamstring and was placed on injured reserve. Meanwhile, he got a job selling jewelry to pay the bills. He would report to work after practice.
He earned his break with a successful 2008 season. The Miami Dolphins tried him out just before training camp and gave him a roster spot for the summer.
In a cruel twist about a month later, though, Armstrong thought on cut day that he made the team.
"Nobody called me and said I was cut," he said. "I thought, 'I guess I made it.' I picked up my playbook for the week playing against the Jets, and then they were like, 'We're gonna cut you, but we're gonna put you on practice squad.'"
That was as close as Armstrong got until now. After the Dolphins cut him last summer, Redskins director of pro personnel Morocco Brown signed Armstrong to Washington's practice squad in later October.
During all the turmoil here at the end of last season, Armstrong would go about his business anonymously in the locker room while reporters flocked to prominent players in search of insight about the franchise's undoing.
'we've got a good player'
Less than a year later, Armstrong is now positioned to make the team. It has helped that the group of receivers currently on the roster lacks a bona fide threat other than Santana Moss.
Still, Armstrong is earning a spot by making plays.
"You could see on tape right when you see him: You had a talented guy, a guy who can run and is fast and also has the quick twitch to get in and out of breaks," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "He has the hands. He's got everything it takes to be a receiver.
"You wonder when a guy has never had a career catch in the regular season--what's the deal? We wanted to get him under the lights, and he hasn't flinched at all. He's been the same at practice, so you can tell we've got a good player."
Armstrong's brightest moment of the preseason was his 4-yard touchdown catch two weeks ago against Buffalo.
On third-and-goal from the 4, quarterback Donovan McNabb hurried a throw over the middle to beat the blitz. Armstrong used his 5-11, 185-pound frame to shield the defender and make the catch at the goal line. He lunged for his first touchdown in an outdoor league since college.
Armstrong was so psyched that the ball slipped out of his hand when he wound up to spike it.
"It was super cool," he said. "I was overly excited. I was having the time of my life just being able to get in that end zone."
He followed it up with four catches for 84 yards last week against Baltimore.
He showed in that game an impressive ability to adjust to throws. He slowed down and slid to haul in an underthrown deep ball from McNabb for a 45-yard completion, and he also reached to snare a slant pass that McNabb threw behind him.
"He's one of those guys that's fast as hell," Moss said. "He runs great routes. You can sense that he's coming into his own right now."
Armstrong can, too, but he realizes that he still has to prove himself in two more preseason games and a week of practice.
But considering how far he's come from The Jack Shack parking lot, he's ready to take the final step.
"I know I've come a long way," he said, "but I'm still hacking right now."
Rich Campbell: 540/735-1974
REDSKINS AT JETSWHEN: Tomorrow, 7 p.m. WHERE: New Meadowlands Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. TV: Comcast SportsNet, Channel 4 RADIO: WGRQ-FM 95.9