By By Steve Arel, U.S. Army Cadet CommandFebruary 22, 2013
The NFL Combine, testing the talents of the nation's top pro prospects, takes place this weekend in Indianapolis. While some of the collegiate level's stars showcase their skills before an army of coaches and scouts, Rockne Belmonte, a professional prospect himself, will be at his Michigan home watching the activities on TV.
And waiting for his chance in the spotlight.
The Army second lieutenant continues to close in on his dream of playing at football's highest level. Though he's not taking part in the invitation-only event largely considered the most-traveled path to financial prosperity, the former Northern Michigan University kicker is spending his days practicing for a showcase next month where the stands will be filled with many of the same scouts now in Indianapolis.
Fresh off strong showings in two recent combines, Belmonte this week signed with an agent who plans to market his client and land him a spot on a professional roster.
"His military background is a huge asset for him," said Jonathan Watson, co-founder of Arizona-based Sentinel Sports Management. "Besides his on-field ability, he has a different skill set off the field. He's an inherent leader. Having a presence in the locker room like him … it's invaluable to a team.
"In my view, he's a slam dunk. I don't know why a team wouldn't want him."
At the Beyond Sports Network Combine in Las Vegas in late January, Belmonte tied as the competition's top kicker, booting 14 field goals in 17 attempts. Belmonte tied with Chase McCoy of Pittsburg State University, who recently signed with the Missouri Monsters of the Ultimate Indoor Football League.
Among Belmonte's field goals made were two of more than 50 yards. His kickoffs consistently topped 75 yards, even with all of them being driven into a 25-30 mph crosswind.
Belmonte moved onto the NFL Regional Combine in Los Angeles two weeks ago, where he said did well but "didn't have my best finish." Combine officials have yet to release player performance results.
"Anytime you're around good competition, you can measure yourself against the best of the best," Belmonte said. "It's a good measuring stick."
Next up: A pro day for Michigan players and the Beyond Sports Network Showcase, set for March 8-10 in Akron, Ohio. The latter is regarded as something of an NFL-type combine for players from small colleges in Divisions II and III and NAIA.
Brian Skinnell, director of media for Beyond Sports Network, spent time watching Belmonte work out in late January at his organization's combine in Las Vegas. He was so intrigued with Belmonte, he wrote about him on the organization's website, saying, "Every now and then we are all reminded of something that makes sports just plain awesome. For me, it was my conversation with Rockne Belmonte."
Skinnell predicts Belmonte, someone in which he sees professional ability, will be one of the top kickers at the BSN Showcase.
"He's shown a lot of potential," Skinnell said.
Next month's event, however, will be considerably different from the Las Vegas combine. Not in that he'll be required to tackle different tests of his ability. The BSN Showcase, featuring 115 players, is much livelier, with scouts from the National Football League, Canadian Football League and Arena Football League, family members and friends packing the stands.
And the competition is stronger. The roster at the Las Vegas combine, Skinnell said, featured a number of players who had been out of the game for a while who were trying to kickstart their careers.
"The pressure will be much greater at the showcase," Skinnell said.
The showcase helped 30 participants last year sign professional contracts or land training camp invites. Showcase veterans include kicker Eddy Carmona of the Oakland Raiders and wide receiver Rico Wallace of the Carolina Panthers.
Belmonte could eventually join that list.
"This will give a much better gauge of how good Rockne is," Skinnell said. "There will be more pressure on Rockne, but with his background he sounds like a guy up for the challenge. There certainly is a lot of talent that has come out of these events. If guys are good enough, they'll be noticed at the combine."
Belmonte began 2013 at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio. Over several days preceding the high school all-star game, he served as something of a spokesman for Cadet Command, telling his story -- and the benefits and challenges of being an ROTC Cadet and college football player at the same time -- to a host of community leaders and educators, players, parents and high-schoolers taking part in a combine for underclassmen.
He returned home briefly after the game, then flew to Arizona to work out with Jay Feely, kicker for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals. The two met while Belmonte was playing at Northern Michigan.
Feely recommended some minor tweaks to Belmonte's technique. As much as anything, Belmonte learned about the importance of mental preparation and persistence.
"At this stage of the game, there shouldn't be much you're changing," he said. What he learned "made the ball fly better and anytime you can do that, it's always good."
It was there that he met Jonathan Watson. In signing with Watson as his agent, Belmonte can focus on honing his ability and performing on the field and allowing a skilled representative to market his talent to teams.
"When an agent calls a team, that means they've invested in you," Belmonte said. "If they send a guy out there who isn't that good, that hurts their reputation."
Watson, a former Soldier himself, believes Belmonte's talent is on par with the top Division 1 kickers. When the NFL Draft takes place in late April, Watson doesn't anticipate Belmonte will be selected.
But that's not to discount his potential to play professionally. Historically, few kickers are taken in the draft. Most are signed as undrafted free agents, the most likely option for Belmonte, Watson said.
"It's always a challenge for kickers," Watson said. "Although they're highly valued by teams, they're not as important during the draft process."
Watson is in Indianapolis this weekend to look in on some of his clients and talk up all of those players in his stable, whether they are present to compete or not.
"Rockne's a little under the radar, as far as NFL teams, but we're trying to get him as much exposure as possible," Watson said. "We're looking for the right team and the right situation."
Belmonte's military training doesn't hurt, either.
"With everything he brings to the table, he's a feel-good story for any team," Watson said. "They talk about players who can bring attention to a team. His story can bring attention to a team."
Meanwhile, Belmonte approaches each day as if it's football season. He's working out, eating right and practicing his kicking at the MVP Sportsplex, former home of the Arena Football League's defunct Grand Rapids Rampage, near his home.
He also spent time producing a nine-minute highlight video and posting it to YouTube. Belmonte fiddled with video programs on his brother's Apple computer, teaching himself how to splice videos and incorporate graphics and music into a visually appealing package.
Belmonte's reel, set to a trio of uptempo tunes, features game footage of him connecting on 50-plus-yard field goals, executing kickoffs and squibbing onside kicks. After obtaining film from Northern Michigan and shooting some footage of his own, he figures it took about 24 hours worth of work to put it all together.
"You've got to have highlight films for recruiters and scouts to pique their interest," Belmonte said. "It's something I can send out and give them an opportunity to see what I can do on the field."
As the nation's top prospects eye professional careers and the likelihood of a financial windfall, Belmonte has heard the horrors of some professional athletes, several of whom have gone bankrupt, committed crimes -- or worse. He considers himself different, bringing more than just athletic talent.
"With me you're getting a well-rounded person the Army has made," Belmonte said.