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The Age of Excellence: J.J. Arrington, the stepping stone

Running back used COC as a catapult to an NFL career

Posted: December 21, 2009 11:12 p.m.
Updated: December 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Former COC running back J.J. Arrington (30) rushes against Santa Ana in 2002. Arrington went on to a successful career at the University of California, Berkeley, before being drafted by the Arizona Cardinals.

 

While J.J. Arrington would go on to play on football’s biggest stage, he had some work to do when he showed up to play for College of the Canyons in the summer of 2000. 

On the field, there wasn’t much that could stop Arrington.

COC athletic director Chuck Lyon, who was head coach at the time, remembers how Arrington coined the phrase “a three-play guy” amongst the football staff.

Current COC football head coach Garett Tujague, who was the Cougars’ offensive line coach at the time, remembers watching the tape with Lyon.

“We got the tape, put it in the VCR, watched three plays and said, ‘We need that kid,’” Tujague says. “The first play was a power run up the middle that he went 50 yards and scored on. The second was a swing pass in the flat that he took for a touchdown, and on the third play, he must have flattened about eight guys on his way to the end zone, so you saw it all.”

“That’s how good he was. There wasn’t even a question,” says Lyon, who coached football for 29 years during his career. “The saying became, ‘If you can find a three-play guy, you sign him.’”

But Arrington remembers more than just the power runs or developing the backfield playmaking ability he has as a receiver that helped him catch two passes in Super Bowl XLIII.

Arrington says at COC, he developed his game and his study habits.

And it helped transform him from a potential small-school star to a student athlete at Cal who was the NCAA Division I rushing leader in 2004, finishing ahead of future NFL stars Adrian Peterson, DeAngelo Williams, Cedric Benson, Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney. In fact, Arrington’s 2,018 rushing yards set the single-season school record that year.

But Arrington says without his time at COC, it wouldn’t have been possible.

“I got a lot of looks from East Carolina (University) when I was in high school,” says Arrington. “But growing up, I didn’t take my academics seriously enough.”

Arrington was faced with a problem. The running back clearly had the talent to play for an NCAA Division I team, but did not have the classroom focus.

His varsity football coach at Northern Nash High School had recently stepped down to join the staff at Baylor University and knew of COC. He sent the tape to Lyon, and the rest is Cougar history.

Tujague remembers Arrington came to a crossroads early at COC and had a choice to make.

“He struggled with (a summer-school class) a little bit and it came down to it,” Tujague recalls. “We said to him, ‘You’re going to have to decide, are you going to become the guy that everybody thinks you can be or are you going to be a Division II or small-school guy?’ There’s nothing wrong with a smaller school, but he had big-time talent. His senior year (at Cal), he led the nation in rushing.”

Arrington says academic risk or no, he was welcomed with open arms at COC. And he went to work immediately. He began taking summer-school classes as soon as he could to try and get ahead. Extra hours. Study halls.

Arrington credits the school with giving him all the tools he needed to turn his academics around.

Lyon credited Arrington’s attitude.

“He didn’t have the complete package getting here,” Lyon says. “But he did have the work ethic. There was never an issue with work ethic for J.J., and when you see guys like that they’re going to make it.”

Tujague says you could see the determination in Arrington’s eyes.

“He was told from the beginning that this was going to be a business trip and that he needed to punch in and punch out and then go,” Tujague says. “Some guys, you have to get on. He would get on us sometimes.”

And soon, the work on and off the field began to pay off.

Lyon described Arrington as a power runner in high school who never had to sidestep anyone because of a powerfully built 5-foot-9-inch, 210-pound frame.

At COC, he developed his receiving skills and worked on his agility.

“He learned that you didn’t have to run over everybody, you could move around them a little bit,” Lyon says.

By the end of his first campaign at COC, Arrington says he could feel a difference. Especially after he helped Lyon to his first bowl victory as COC’s coach with a 28-carry, 101-yard effort against Saddleback College in the Western State Conference Bowl.

“That gave me a lot of confidence going into to my sophomore year,” Arrington says.

After a string of four games in the 2002 season that saw Arrington score 14 touchdowns, most of them receiving despite the fact that Arrington played out of the backfield, coaches everywhere began to take notice.

“I was real focused on academics (at that point),” says Arrington, whose biggest game in 2002 came in Week 9 of COC’s season with 21 carries for 190 yards and five touchdowns. “I knew I had a lot of people recruiting me and I knew my grades were pretty good and I knew I was going Division I.”

After two standout seasons at Cal alongside future pro Aaron Rodgers, Arrington was taken by the Arizona Cardinals in the second round of the 2005 NFL draft with the 44th overall pick.

“Getting drafted was a dream come true. I always pictured myself playing in the NFL,” Arrington says. “Once you get drafted, the work starts and all you think about is how you’re playing football with guys you looked up to your whole life.”

He describes life as a pro as being all football, all the time, but says he knows the NFL is a place where even the best players usually don’t stay around too long.

The NFLPA Web site lists the average career at three and a half seasons, and after only his fourth year, Arrington got a reminder about how fleeting life as a professional athlete can be.

During the NFC championship game last season against the Philadelphia Eagles, Arrington tore the meniscus of his right knee.

“But there was no way I was going to miss the Super Bowl,” Arrington says. “I didn’t practice for two whole weeks and I had shot my knee up (with painkillers) a few times and it felt fine.”

But it wasn’t.

Shortly after a tough 27-23 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, Arrington’s contract expired with Arizona.

The Broncos contacted Arrington shortly thereafter, and in March, the two sides came to terms on a four-year, $10-million deal. But the knee injury continued to be an issue.

After recovering from the initial damage done during the conference championship and subsequent arthroscopic surgery, Arrington’s doctors discovered cartilage damage that would require microfracture surgery during a physical.

The Broncos released him in May.

The surgery went well Arrington says, but it requires an intensive nine-month rehabilitation process. Arrington says between the arthroscopic and microfracture surgeries, he probably spent four months of the last year on crutches. But it hasn’t changed his resolve to get back into the league.

Arrington is currently going through rehabilitation for his latest surgery in Arizona, where he moved to after he was drafted. He plans to stay there and work on his knee in hopes that by February, it will be strong enough to pass a physical so he can try out for teams.

Arrington still stays in contact with Lyon, Tujague and a few COC teammates.

Lyon says now when they talk, he tries to help Arrington think about post-NFL plans.

“I don’t get real excited about (the NFL), because that’s just a chapter in life, and it’s a short chapter,” Lyon says.

Having said that, Lyon knows not to doubt what a determined Arrington can achieve.

“He’s rehabbing that knee, and I believe he’ll be back in the NFL next year,” Lyon says.

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