Welcome to the pros: Army ROTC grad gets contract with Cedar Rapids Titans
September 25, 2013
FORT KNOX, Ky. -- Rockne Belmonte, the second lieutenant who gave up an active duty slot for a shot at playing professional football, is back on the field this fall.
It's not exactly the field he hoped to be on, volunteering as a kicking coach with his high school alma mater. But it's football, nonetheless.
And if Belmonte can't be in the game, he can be close to it.
In the meantime, Belmonte waits for the call from the National Football League, from the Canadian Football League, from any major pro league needing his strong left leg to give their team a lift.
"There are no guarantees in football," he said. "I'm just training and waiting for a call. It could happen tomorrow."
Belmonte was considered a professional kicking prospect earlier this year -- still is, in fact -- when he wrapped up his collegiate career as Northern Michigan University's career leader in field goals made. He was invited to and competed in a host of combines and tryouts from coast to coast.
As the NFL draft loomed last April, Belmonte knew his chances of being picked were slim. NFL teams rarely take kickers, seeing better opportunities to add them to their roster through free agency.
So the reality of going undrafted didn't deter Belmonte. He continued to try out and showcase his skills at combines, while his agent promoted him around the country.
At the time, the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Titans of the Indoor Football League began losing confidence in its placekicker, who had grappled with injuries that affected his leg strength and diminished his accuracy.
Head Coach Mark Stoute, a former kicker in the United States Football League and the Arena League, learned of Belmonte's availability and called Rob Boss, one of his former Arena League players and an offensive coach at Northern Michigan, for a scouting report. Sold on Belmonte's potential, the team offered him a tryout.
Belmonte drove from his Grand Rapids, Mich., home Memorial Day weekend. He tried out one day and suited up for practice the next, winning the starting job.
Belmonte played the team's last two games of the 14-game regular season, hitting 11 of 14 extra point attempts and missing three field goals. He shined in the Titans' lone playoff game against eventual IFL champion Sioux Falls Storm, connecting on two of five field goals, including a 53-yarder, and two extra points.
The transition to an indoor league posed several challenges, with uprights that are half the width of the standard 18 feet used in college and in the NFL and smaller arenas with low ceilings. Belmonte's first several field goal attempts rattled in the rafters.
The league dynamics created a difficult learning curve. Belmonte was forced to look differently at how he booted balls, thinking more about trajectory than ever before and having to alter his kicking style slightly to increase his accuracy.
The misses were somewhat frustrating.
"Our league is not very forgiving," Belmonte said. "I had my low moments in college. It's something I've learned to overcome training to be an officer. You can hide behind excuses, or work on it and get better. The kick that matters is the next kick."
Belmonte's performance, though in just a few games, made such a positive impression on Stoute that the Titans already have signed Belmonte for the 2014 season. He could make up to $350 a game, with his room, meals and expenses paid for by the team.
Stoute has such confidence in Belmonte's ability to flourish in the IFL and in his potential that he has no plans to bring in an additional kicker to challenge him.
The job is Belmonte's.
"We need leadership in the locker room," Stoute said. "We're looking for Rock to be one of those guys to step up and be one those leaders."
Besides Belmonte's talent on the field, Stoute likes what Belmonte brings off it as well. Belmonte is focused on making a difference, participating in school visits, speaking at public engagements and consistently representing the team as a professional -- traits he attributes to Belmonte's upbringing and ROTC training.
"When your background is one of structure, you have a task and hit that point time and time again," Stoute said. "He's very dedicated and focused."
Signing Belmonte early and having him as the lone kicker in camp in January will give Stoute, the 2013 IFL coach of the year, more time to work with him individually.
"One good thing about Rock is that he has a good work ethic," Stoute said. "We hope we can provide a platform for him to continue to work on his skill set and that call (from a larger professional league) will come."
Belmonte sees coaching high-schoolers as something of a welcome break and a chance to give back to Grand Rapids Catholic Central. He went through much of the last year at a feverish pace.
His college team began training for the 2012 season in August. His season ran from September to November. He was chosen to compete in South Carolina all-star game for seniors in December, right around the same time he was graduating from Northern Michigan.
In January, Belmonte spent a week attending the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, an all-star game for the nation's top high school seniors. He was showcased throughout the week's festivities in San Antonio as an example of someone who possesses the academic, athletic and leadership abilities that comprise Army officers, speaking to various groups, parents and players about his ROTC experience and his collegiate success.
The week culminated with Belmonte being commissioned on the Alamodome field before the game, having his parents pin on his rank in front of 35,000 fans.
"It's been a fun year," he said. "That's for sure."
Belmonte, who branched transportation, has been designated into the Army Reserves and assigned to the 401st Transportation Co. as a platoon leader. He also works as a salesmen and broker for a private transportation firm in Grand Rapids.
Belmonte has the leg strength to compete in the NFL. The key to winning a job, besides the fact that an opening has to exist, is being at one's best when the opportunity surfaces.
"A lot of times for a kicker, it's about being at the right place at the right time. It was with us," Stoute said. When trying out, "it's got to be your day. You have a bad workout, you're not going to get to tomorrow."
As the NFL season gets under way, Belmonte hasn't lost sight of his dream.
But if the bigs never call, he'll still have his service.
"One of my big loves is still the Army," he said.