Black and Cruz Need to Perform on Sunday

Kansas City Chiefs fullback Ronnie Cruz has concluded the most important week of preparation of his football career. With starting fullback Tony Richardson dinged-up with knee and ankle injuries and still listed as ‘questionable' on the injury report, Cruz and offensive tackle Jordan Black could be very important pieces of the Chiefs offensive puzzle on Sunday night in Oakland.

For Jordan Black his task will be tough enough. He'll fill in at left tackle again this week for 10-time pro bowl tackle Willie Roaf. That snaps a 48 game streak for the renowned left tackle. Sunday night will be the first time Black will have ever started a game on the left side of the line.

Like Cruz, Black has a week of practice under his belt. Still for a man who had played right tackle exclusively in practice and training camp, until the first quarter of the Jets game last week; it still has to be a challenge to convert to the other side. Still he did a decent job against New York. Black has only had a week to get used to the many differences of playing on the opposite side of the line. He has missed some valuable practice time due to having the flu; but he's the Chiefs best option to replace Roaf.

In addition to Black, Chris Bober is another back-up who will be called upon to start at right tackle. Another tackle, Kevin Sampson, the starter at right tackle for most of the preseason, should be able to take some snaps in the rotation. It will be his first action since suffering a bad case of turf toe and Coach Vermeil has not indicated how much playing time he'll see against the Raiders. Back-up guard Jonathan Ingram might be activated for this game since John Welbourn still has three more games to serve his league suspension. Brian Waters even though he missed Thursday's practice should be ready to play Sunday.

Few Chiefs fans expected right guard Will Shields, another 10-time pro bowler, to be one of the healthiest offensive linemen heading into week two. There are far too many linemen on the injury list for the coach's comfort-level, especially heading into the Chiefs annual trip to Oakland.

Fortunately, the back-ups who are expected to play are very talented. The Chiefs not only have one of, if not the best, offensive lines in the NFL, this year they also have one of their deepest in recent memory. Even with all the injuries, there doesn't appear to be a glaring position of concern on the offensive line. Of course there is always a drop-off in talent when you lose a player like Willie Roaf, but the Chiefs know the reserves can play.

That's why the fullback spot is the biggest question-mark on the offensive side of the ball this week. Richardson has made a remarkable recovery and has every intention of starting the game. But it is certain that the team will have to rely at some point on Ronnie Cruz.

This will be a great test for the second year fullback. There is no way the Chiefs will know if he is up to the task unless they get him on the football field. The injury to Richardson forced the coaches to ponder their options this week. The option of signing a veteran fullback made available by the recent cut-downs was considered and voted down by the team's brain trust. There were a couple of very good fullbacks available.

The Chiefs could have signed ex-Eagle Jon Ritchie or ex-Ram Joey Goodspeed. Both are looking for new teams to play for and both are very well respected. But Kansas City chose to stick with Cruz. The fact that the team stood pat is a huge vote of confidence in a guy whose NFL experience consists of spending the final nine weeks of last season on the Chiefs practice squad.

In fact in the final list of cuts, everyone had Cruz slated for a second stint on the practice squad. But after Robert Holcombe was lost for the season, Cruz was given his shot and he's made the most of it.

Cruz is the longest of long-shots. No other NFL team showed any interest in signing he was cut a year ago. Still Head Coach Dick Vermeil was very high on Cruz and brought him back again this year.

"Did you see him covering those kick-offs?" Vermeil said proudly after the Rams game.

Cruz played high school football in Lakeport, CA. From there he landed at Mendocino Community College in Ukiah, CA. That's about as small-time football as there is. Cruz spent his final two years of eligibility at Northern State University, a Division II school in Aberdeen, South Dakota. In fact, he is the first player from Northern State to see action in a regular season game for the Chiefs.

Credit the Chiefs tremendous scouting and personnel departments for finding yet another small college talent to go along with outside linebacker Kris Griffin.

Not to mention the newest member of Warpaint Illustrated, Illinois State linebacker Boomer Grigsby who played college ball at a Division I-AA school, made it based on his abilities to make plays at a small college.

But unlike Grigsby's school where he had a larger venue to showcase his skills to NFL scouts, Cruz was at a disadvantage because he played at little know Northern State.

Cruz did his part to try and get noticed. He was named first-team all-region. Then Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference first teams after gaining 1,476 yards on 240 carries (6.2 average) with 18 TD's and caught 33 passes for 316 yards (9.6 average) in his career.

But none of that matter now as Cruz and his teammates are within hours of playing the Oakland Raiders. For Cruz, he's done his homework and is well prepared to play when his number is called. Though he may be young nobody can deny his confidence when going against a Raiders defense that has many holes.

"Oakland has big linebackers that aren't all that fast, so we should be able to take advantage of that," Cruz said.

That's a pretty confident statement, especially considering the drop-off in talent on the teams he faced in his last season in college. The Northern State University Wolves played the same 10 teams in 2004 that are on their schedule in 2005, so I assume they are pretty much the same as in Cruz's senior year with the Wolves in 2003.

In one stretch, the Wolves faced Wayne State, Winona State, Bemidji State, and Minnesota-Crookston. Not exactly the Oakland Raiders, which makes his accomplishment of not only making the Chiefs roster, but actually playing a pivotal role in an NFL game, one of the most remarkable achievements of the year.

You have to salute a guy like Cruz, and try to imagine what is going through his mind as he prepares to block for Priest Holmes and catch swing passes from Trent Green on Sunday Night national television.

As far as his family and friends, I'm sure that the whole campus in Aberdeen, South Dakota will be cheering him on this week.

It's quite remarkable that the Chiefs passed up adding veterans who could fill the shoes this season in the event Richardson goes down or is out for any extended period of time.

That's a true testament of his talent, desire, and dedication to his profession. Ronnie Cruz has beaten the odds to get where he is today. It's a long way from the Dakota's to the NFL and Cruz has made it to the big stage.

For Cruz and those who have followed him thus far on his path to the NFL, just maybe if the Chiefs need a late score, he could make the games pivotal play crossing the end zone for the first time in his career.

That would be a special moment for Cruz. It would also give more notice to young men at many small colleges around the country that dare to dream big. Top Stories