Steelers defensive back DaMon Cromartie-Smith spoke to nearly 200 elementary and middle school students last week at the Steelers youth camp at West Allegheny High School and harped on the importance of getting good grades. He told them his personal story of how poor performance in school and low SAT scores did not allow him to play major-conference football, how that led to his not getting drafted and how that has led to his uphill climb to make it in the NFL. He referred to his journey as an underdog story.
In a couple of days, one of the most important chapters in Cromartie-Smith's career will begin when he reports for his fourth training camp with the Steelers. He will either make the 53-man roster or get cut and face the possibility of his NFL dream ending.
"I know the situation I'm in," he said. "My back's against the wall and I'm definitely going to come out swinging."
Young players around the league face a similar crossroads every year. Under NFL rules, players must make a 53-man roster after spending three years on practice squads.
Cromartie-Smith, 26, has reason to be encouraged in his make-or-break camp. He is healthy after battling a shoulder injury last season and, perhaps more important, there is no longer a logjam of veterans in front of him on the depth chart.
Veteran safeties Ryan Mundy and Will Allen signed elsewhere this offseason, giving Cromartie-Smith a chance to compete with second-year players Robert Golden and Ross Ventrone in the defensive backfield. Fourth-round draft choice Shamarko Thomas will fill one of the backup roles behind starters Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark.
"I know what my job is," said Cromartie-Smith, who played in college at the University of Texas-El Paso in Conference USA. "I know I'm not going to be playing over Troy or Ryan. But I'm willing and capable and I know the next man up has to be ready to play. That's what I'm preparing for.
"I'm definitely excited to have the opportunity to back up guys like Troy and Ryan. I'm excited the coaches have confidence in me and believe I can get the job done. My job is to go out there and prove it. They know I'm talented and can make plays. They wouldn't have me here if they didn't think I could do this. They know what I can do. I just have to show them that I can, honestly."
While being a capable backup is certainly important, especially given the injury history of Polamalu, Cromartie-Smith knows he will make the roster only if he impresses the coaches on special teams. When he has been promoted to the 53-man roster the past two seasons (a total of six games in 2011 and 2012) he never played a defensive snap. Every snap of his NFL career has come on special teams.
"I'm looking to make some big strides on special teams," he said. "I'm ready to get after it. I have a point to prove. I know I'm an underdog coming in. It's a mental thing. I've been in this position before. I know what the coaches want from me. I know the expectations. This is my fourth year. I know what I have to do this year."
New special teams coach Danny Smith is in search of players who can help improve the coverage teams. Cromartie-Smith believes he can punch his ticket to a roster spot via those units.
"He brings a different attitude to the team," Cromartie-Smith said of Smith, a Point Breeze native. "He wants us to have a new identity this year. We want to earn his trust and play hard for him. I'm just trying to get under his wing and be his guy. I want to be that special teams guru. That's what they're asking me to do. I'm really excited to see what he'll bring to camp. I know it will be a lot more intense, but we'll be ready for the challenge."
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published July 22, 2013 4:00 AM