Even for members of his own family it is difficult to explain how Kevin Curtis made the leap from the kid who had to beg for a tryout at Snow College to star-in-the-making wide receiver for the St. Louis Rams. His father Stuart confesses, "I've been watching him and trying to figure out how he got to where he is."
Curtis wasn't even the best player on his Bingham High School football team. He wasn't even the best receiver on his team. Not only was he not an all-state selection, he didn't even warrant honorable mention. His top honor: All-region second team, on defense. He had to walk on to play junior college ball. He left the game for two years to serve a mission for his church and had to walk on again.
And here he is, an NFL player whose abilities have been praised by coach Mike Martz since the day he made him with the 74th pick of the 2003 NFL draft. Martz was smitten after watching Curtis collect a school-record 174 catches for 2,789 yards and 19 touchdowns at Utah State.
"You put the tape on and the first thing you would say was 'wow,' " Martz told St. Louis reporters last January. "It didn't make any difference who he played, he was running by everybody. I'm not sure I've ever seen anybody in college that fast. I really mean that."
Curtis is a physical freak of nature. At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, he bench pressed 225 pounds 20 times in a workout for NFL scouts (his best is 385). He also posted a vertical leap of 38 inches and a hand-timed 40-yard dash of 4.21.
If that weren't enough, Curtis has brains. Each year the NFL gives a 12-minute, 50-question intelligence test called the Wonderlic to college NFL prospects. Curtis has the highest score of any active player in the NFL a 48. Reportedly, only one player in NFL history has scored higher Harvard grad Pat McInnally, a receiver/punter for the Cincinnati Bengals who scored a perfect 50 in 1976.
After missing most of his rookie season with a broken leg, Curtis returned last season to catch 32 passes for 421 yards and two touchdowns (not counting the playoffs). He finished the season on a tear. In the regular-season finale against the Jets, he had six catches for 99 yards. A week later he had 6 catches for 108 yards in a playoff win over Seattle and was named the team's Offensive Player of the Week. In the playoff loss to Atlanta he had 7 catches for 128 yards and 1 touchdown.
"He deserves to be a starter," Martz said afterward. "He's a good player, and I'm excited to see what he'll do in the future."
So were other observers. Sports Illustrated included him on a list of key players to watch this season. So far, Curtis has 32 catches for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns in seven games plus one rushing touchdown while sharing the ball with the likes of Issac Bruce and Tory Holt.
Curtis has the hands and moves to be a possession receiver and the speed to be a deep threat. In last week's nationally televised Monday-night game, he hauled in a 57-yard touchdown pass against the Indianapolis Colts' top-ranked defense. In last year's playoffs, he blew by the Atlanta Falcons' Deangelo Hall, who produced the fastest time at the 2004 NFL combine, to catch a 57-yard touchdown. Hall reportedly called him the fastest white guy in the NFL.
Which raises another oddity about Curtis: His skin color. If you think there aren't many black quarterbacks in the NFL, try counting white wide receivers and running backs. During Curtis's senior season at Utah State, his agent Gary Wichard had several conversations with a representative of the Senior Bowl about Curtis's participation in the game. Finally, one day the Senior Bowl rep called Wichard and exclaimed, "That Kevin Curtis - he's a white kid!!!?? Did you know that?!"
"People make reference about me being a fast white guy," says Curtis. "They don't think of a white guy when they think of speed. I've heard a few comments on the field. A couple of games ago, someone said, 'You sure can run for a white guy.'"
Even aside from skin color, Curtis doesn't look the part of an NFL player. "He's the last person you'd pick as an NFL player," says Ken Beazer, who coached at Snow College when Curtis played there. Beazer helped organized a Utah high school event last winter in which Curtis was honored. "He milled around and nobody even knew who he was," says Beazer. "You couldn't tell him apart from the high school kids."
Curtis certainly didn't look like a future pro athlete while playing for Bingham High. He was cut twice by the basketball team. He played offense and defense for the football team, but had only about 10 catches as a senior (he was limited to defense for four games because of a broken hand).
While preparing a highlight video for Curtis's career to be used at the high school awards banquet last winter, Beazer reviewed video of Curtis's prep games. "I was curious to see how he looked back then, and he wasn't their best player," he says. "He wasn't among their top five players."
Snow College coaches didn't want Curtis; they wanted his teammate, receiver David Steel. They got Curtis anyway. During the spring of their senior years, Curtis and Steel drove to Ephraim two or three times a week to work out with the Snow team.
"At first it was a novelty that he drove down," says Beazer. "Then it was, hey, this kid is pretty good."
Curtis joined more than 100 high school players in tryouts that fall and made the squad. Because of injuries, he got playing time immediately. The first time he was thrown a long pass, Curtis dropped it.
Before the season was half finished, Beazer says, "We knew he was special. His speed jumped out of you and he had great hands. He was going over the top of defensive backs to catch it. His sophomore year he was unbelievable. There were games where we would just shake our heads at what he was doing."
Beazer remembers one game in which Curtis continually outmaneuvered defensive backs. On one play he caught a 10-yard out and put a move on the cornerback "that just corkscrewed the guy into the ground," says Beazer. "He just threw up his hands and walked off the field. I'd never seen that before."
By then, Curtis's transformation from non-descript player with decent speed to a star with blazing speed was complete. How all this happened is anyone's guess. "I've tried to figure it out for benefit of Chris (Kevin's younger brother, who plays at Utah State) and others, and I don't know the answer," says Stuart. His best guess: "He was a late developer. He was small all his life."
Curtis weighed 110 pounds as a high school sophomore. He played at 150 pounds as a senior. "Part of it was maturity," says Curtis. "I lifted weights hard in ninth grade, but I could never put on weight. I tried everything protein, Creatine."
After two years at Snow, Curtis was recruited by several Division 1 schools, including Kentucky, BYU, Eastern Washington and Hawaii, but he turned them down to serve a church mission (in London). All except Hawaii made it clear that if he chose to go on a mission, their scholarship offers were off the table.
"It was a tough decision for Kevin," says Stuart. "He wanted to keep playing football, but he couldn't find peace with that."
Hawaii coaches said they would still give him a scholarship when he returned, but Curtis refused their offer anyway. He regretted that decision when he returned from London, because, by then, not only was he left without a scholarship, he could barely get a school to allow him to walk on or even return his phone calls.
Toward the end the mission, Stuart personally delivered film of his son's performances to Utah and BYU. A Utah coach called the next day and politely declined. A BYU coach granted Curtis a walk-on invitation, but noted that NCAA rules prohibited him from using school facilities to train. When he suggested that Curtis play flag football in the meantime, Curtis took it to mean BYU wasn't taking him seriously. Stuart sent tapes to Kentucky and Hawaii, but they never responded. When Weber State offered a scholarship, Stuart urged his son to consider it because a scholarship would save him money, but Kevin had another idea.
"I know I can play Division 1-A football," he told his father. "If you'll pay my way for one year, I promise I can get a scholarship."
Curtis elected to walk on at Utah State because the Aggies' receiver coach at the time, Mike Travathan, had shown the most interest and contacted Curtis on his mission. Curtis redshirted his first season and played on the scout team. One day his sister, Carolee, who also was attending USU, realized she shared a class with USU quarterback Jose Fuentes.
"You probably know my brother," she said. "He's Kevin Curtis." Fuentes' response: "Who's Kevin Curtis?"
He would know soon enough. Curtis worked his way into the lineup to start his junior season. In his first game, against Utah, he had 11 catches for 171 yards. After only a couple of games, agents were calling him. He wound up leading the nation in receiving that season with 100 catches while still playing without a scholarship (he was awarded one after the season ended).
"I never thought about playing in the NFL; it was just such a long shot," says Curtis. "I was just hoping to play Division 1 football. But during my junior year people were asking me if I was going to leave (school) early (for the NFL draft). That was the first time it hit me I had a chance to play."5 comments on this story
During his nearly three seasons in the NFL, Curtis, now 27, has steadily built a reputation as a future NFL star, and it could pay off financially at the end of the season when he becomes a restricted free agent. The Rams, who are already paying big money to Holt and the aging Bruce, will likely have to reward Curtis a big contract to keep him, which might mean cutting Bruce or redoing his contract. Curtis has been playing for the league minimum.
Meanwhile, Curtis's family he is the middle of seven children is enjoying his NFL run. On Monday night, they gathered around the TV and cheered and high-fived after he gathered in a long touchdown pass."It's been a novelty," says Stuart. "We've enjoyed it."